Author-Lawyer Andrew Vachss Puts Science Before Fiction
by Victoria Loe
Originally published in the Dallas Morning News, October 8, 1995
Andrew Vachss likes to say that he battles two foes: child abusers and child abuse.
The first he assails in the New York City courtrooms, where he represents battered and tortured children. The second he attacks in the pages of his increasingly popular crime novels and, now, as a champion for groundbreaking research on the effects and treatment of childhood trauma.
With a rakish patch over one eye, a barely controlled ferocity of manner and a rapid-fire stream of impassioned pronouncements, the lawyer-novelist is, to say the least, persuasive.
A recent book-signing in Dallas was vintage Vachss: used not to promote his latest book, "Footsteps of the Hawk," but to proselytize for the scientific effort, based at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
"This is the Rosetta Stone," he told his fans. "This is the biggest hope we have in my lifetime. This will radically change the way we work in the next 10 years."
"This" is the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist who came to Baylor three years ago from Chicago, where he caught the eye not only of Vachss but of another crusader on behalf of children, Oprah Winfrey.
That conjunction of science and star power begat a foundation called Civitas. Winfrey and Vachss help raise the money; Perry gets to spend some of it. The rest goes to train child-advocate lawyers in the Vachss mold.
Their common quest, Perry says, is to bring scientific method to a field sullied by venomous debates between accusers and accused and well-intentioned but ill-focused treatment strategies.
"It's crazy," he says. "We're spending billions on ineffective and inefficient programs. The thing that's most important is creating new information about how to be more effective in what we do."
The Baylor research travels along two distinct but parallel tracks.
In the medical school's labs, Perry and his colleagues investigate the ways in which traumatic events permanently alter the brain's structure and function.
In the trenches where child welfare workers toil, the scientists are introducing a series of protocols that rigorously measure the progress of every child who falls under Harris County, Texas', protective wing. Eventually, they hope to understand which interventions succeed, which fail, and why.
The ultimate goal is to create a blueprint for effective treatment that can be exported nationwide—not some ivory-tower set of bromides, but a real-world working model that will mesh with the institutional culture of child protection bureaucracies.
"There's not enough money on Earth for a foundation to attack this problem," Perry says. "We have to use the viral model"—inject child welfare agencies with information that causes them to do things Baylor's way.
Which is not unlike how Vachss conceives of his novels, whose wary, street-wise protagonist, Burke, he describes as "the prototypical abused child."
"The books are a Trojan horse," he told his Dallas audience. "Their purpose is to get your attention to the point that you'll listen."
Although the Burke novels—"Footsteps of the Hawk" is eighth in the series—bristle with oddball characters, snap-of-the-head plot turns, wicked dialogue and memorable coinages, Vachss says his primary purpose is didactic. He aims to educate, and the subject matter—whether on-line kiddie porn, teen suicide or adoption rings—drives the other elements of his craft.
"Writing is an organic process," he says. "The characters and events in my books mirror pretty directly the stuff I see in my law practice."
Just about any vehicle can be rigged to convey the message: Recently, at the invitation of DC Comics, Vachss completed a Batman novel in which the Caped Crusader battles not some run-of-the-mill comic book villain, but the kingpins of the kiddie sex trade in Thailand.
Neither the novelist nor his best-known creation, the steely ex-con crime-fighter Burke, are at pains to win friends as they influence people.
"I am not a warm person," volunteers Vachss, who has chosen not to have children during the course of his "several" marriages. "There are people who are natural parents," he says. "That wasn't me."
"He's an incredibly wonderful spokesman," Perry says, "but there are some jagged edges."
The psychiatrist, by contrast—a father several times over—exudes the kind of unruffled kindliness that can induce relative strangers to reveal the tender secrets of their hearts.
"Paired, we do very well," Perry says of his abrasive comrade in arms. "He sort of attacks, and people retreat over to me, and I say, 'You know, he's got a point.'"
That's because, all differences of style aside, the scientist and the lawyer share an absolute conviction about the urgency of the work that joins them.
"We are at a very, very critical time in the history of human social and cultural evolution," says Perry. "The rate at which we are creating damaged children is much faster than we are healing some of those children."
© 1995 Dallas Morning News. All rights reserved.