INTERVIEW: Andrew Vachss
By Trey Bundy
The first paragraph of Dead and Gone, the new novel by Andrew Vachss, reads like this:
This sentiment belongs to Burke, ex-con and Vachss' protagonist of twelve novels. Burke is a career criminal who moonlights as an investigator. He operates underground, deep below the radar of the 'legitimate' world. Touring the underside of New York City with Burke is like having your blindfold torn off and realizing that you are in Hell, surrounded by pimps, junkies, pedophiles, and killers. Burke knows his turf well. So does Vachss.
Tragically, these fictional accounts don't contain a great deal of fiction. Vachss, an attorney who represents children exclusively, didn't so much create Burke, as build him from parts discovered in a very real, very endless junkyard of human suffering. Burke is the quintessential abused child. He is paranoid, hyper-vigilant and capable of explosive violence. The only human bonding he is capable of is the very conditional love he has for his family of choice, a group of seemingly mismatched outcasts who, like Burke, were raised by the state and by the streets. Vachss knows his clients well.
Vachss has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases and a warden in a maximum-security prison for violent youth. For decades he has represented children against their abusers, in courtrooms, on lecture circuits, in the media and in his fiction. The novels, though gripping and suspenseful, are not written purely to entertain you while you are waiting for the bus. They are written to enrage you, to infuriate you, to engage you in a war against the ultimate human injustice. Anger is the fuel that keeps the Vachss machine churning. If your own clinical diagnosis of a child molester is evil, rotten son-of-a-bitch, then Vachss is your man. His ability to temper this anger with logic and compassion is something to be aspired to for anyone fighting against the injustices they deplore. Andrew Vachss is an effective man.
I had met Vachss before, briefly, at some of his speaking engagements. But on my way to do this interview, I began to recall things that I had read about his life, his personality and his disposition. As it turned out, some were true and some were false. Here is a short list:
Since Vachss is a man who believes in and depends on clear, straightforward communication, it seemed best to begin our conversation with a very basic question, and shed some light on a universally frightening, but often misunderstood reality.
Trey: How do you define the term "child abuse"?
Andrew Vachss: I don't even like the term. It's too generic. So what I do is break "child abuse" into three broad categories. The first one and the largest one is some form of inadequacy. People who don't know how to be parents. Maybe they were raised with a slap in the mouth every time they did something wrong. They think they turned out fine and they want their kids to be even better and they use the same method. Maybe they think telling their kids "you're bad", "you're dumb", "you're ugly", "you're stupid" is motivation. Maybe they don't understand basic fundamentals about how their child needs to bond with them. Maybe they're impaired by drugs. Maybe they're impaired by alcohol. Maybe they're impaired, as people certainly are, by poverty.
T: And these are people who can become good parents?
AV: Exactly right. In the broad category we're on, the most important characteristic of all of them is that these are people tremendously amenable to what citizens call rehabilitation, okay? We get an enormous bang to the buck working with such folks, and overwhelmingly the answer is yes. The second category is people who are crazy and I mean clinically insane. I don't mean some 'Oprah' version of crazy, people who howl at the moon. People who's reality testing is impaired, people who are deluded, people who are compelled, can they be [rehabilitated]? The answer is some yes, some no. It depends on the disorder. We have not been successful getting paranoid schizophrenics to parent safely. We've been very successful with obsessive-compulsives.
AV: Because medication seems to have a real impact on such people without costing them what it cost others. The third category is where I part company with social workers and that's people who are evil, people who hurt children for their own pleasure and/or their own profit. And the answer to "can anything be done with them?" is no.
AV: Period. That's right. Their conduct is volitional. It's not ignorant. It's not insane. It's a choice. Can you alter their choices? No, you really can't. You can respond to their choices. But you're not going to change the way they choose to access children.
T: Right. Because they like what they do and they're going to do it.
AV: That's right, they like what they do. You can deter them. You can incapacitate them. But you can't alter them.
T: Of the ways in which people hurt children, physically, sexually and emotionally, which do you consider the most damaging?
AV: I don't like [to say] most damaging, but in terms of long-term effect on the personality of the individual, my best surmise would be emotional abuse. It seems to scar the deepest, it seems to affect one's self perception the most, and it is inarguable that among major predators we will see emotional abuse, failure to bond, pervasive neglect, more than we will see any other type of abuse.
T: Well let's talk about predators. How do predators choose their prey? Can they spot an unloved, unbonded child?
AV: The answer to your second question is absolutely yes. At least the more highly evolved predators, the more successful predators. Because camouflage is their major weapon yet they can't invest in moving on children without some high probability of success because the whole engagement process is long. They're going to invest months, minimum.
T: So quite often it's parents, teachers, neighbors ...
AV: Of course. They're already in. They're already inside the circle of trust. That's exactly right. It's relatively rare though it certainly happens, it's relatively rare for the guy in the ski mask in the van to jump out, grab the kid and take off. I'm not saying that's not a danger. I'm not saying we shouldn't be aware of it and be able to respond to it. But most kids who are in danger in this country are in danger inside the circle of trust, not outside.
T: Do you think that a human being raised, never having bonded with a family will ever be able to bond or relate comfortably with others?
AV: It depends on whether they can get it from some other place. That's probably the single greatest determinant of how their life is going to be, if they can get what they didn't get from their biological family elsewhere. If they cannot they generally spend the rest of their lives seeking it. Some seek it to their own pain. They're constantly being used and abused by others. Some seek it out of the pain of others.
T: Well then, let's talk about Burke for a moment. He has chosen a family and they have chosen him. In fact they've all chosen each other. But Burke still lives in a constant state of fear and distrust.
AV: Yes. But not fear of his family and not distrust of his family. But of the world as he perceives it, sure.
T: And do you think it will always be that way for him?
AV: For him yes, no question. For others, you know, they take sort of steps. [For example:] I learn to trust you, so okay maybe not all people are bad. I might expand that, I might not. It really depends on the experiences I have after I get past that first hurdle.
T: So it's totally individualized.
AV: I think it's very, very individualized.
T: Let's stay on Burke. He and his crew commit acts of extreme violence against their enemies but not randomly or without deliberation. So what is the critical point at which they decide to inflict damage?
AV: They are human organisms. So if given the opportunity to choose from a menu of which violence is one option, they might choose that, they might not. Under stress the menu doesn't pop up. Just your reactions pop up.
T: Is this impulsive? They don't seem like an impulsive group.
AV: It's not impulsive. It's reactive. So they're not an impulsive group. They prefer to operate off of a professional criminal mentality. There are times when those options don't exist, okay? So if you're in prison for example, there are a lot of different places but none of them are called Switzerland, you know? There is no neutral territory you can retreat to. And so there are situations where you don't have time to think it through and you are not given the opportunity to think it through. And in a self-defense mode you can be very, very violent. Sometimes self-defense is preempted. In other words, if I think you are going to hurt me, why would I wait? It's not impulsive in the sense that they are giving in to an urge, okay? If somebody is shooting at you the best option is to leave if you can, right? But it's happening. You can't just sit there, "can I leave? What are the options?" Your instinct is ...
T: To shoot first.
AV: Sure, if you can, but certainly to shoot back. It may not in retrospect have been your best play. To some extent your adrenaline takes over, your emotions take over and fear takes over. People attack more out of fear than any single thing I can think of.
(In the novels, when Burke reaches a point at which it is too difficult to solve a set of problems with his conscious mind, he will occasionally focus his eyes on a small red dot. He then breathes rhythmically and concentrates on the dot until it grows outside his field of vision and its edges disappear. In this place he is sometimes able to access new solutions.)
T: Next question. Do you have a red dot on a wall in your house?
AV: On a mirror.
T: On a mirror.
AV: Yeah, not on a wall. It won't work on a wall.
T: Do you use it?
AV: I have.
T: How often?
AV: When necessary, because it's not a ritual. If you're looking for answers, and you know a particular path that works, you go down that path when you're looking for answers. It's not a habit.
T: What kind of answers can you find there that you can't find other places?
AV: Any answers that require you to step away from your emotions. Your emotions get in the way of your thinking. Everybody's emotions get in the way of their thinking. When you want to look at something without any emotional content at all, that's when you would go there. When you're so pounded by other forces that if you try and concentrate they impinge, then you want to get away from them.
T: Is this something you've been able to do for a long time?
AV: For a very, very long time. But I'm not a kid.
T: Was it shown to you or did you teach yourself?
AV: No, I actually learned it I guess the way most people do, by accident. You concentrate on something so hard that the next thing you know hours have gone by and yet you've got answers to what you were looking for. It's just going to another place. A nice word for it is dissociation. For people who can control it there are many benefits to it. There are people who can't control it, who dissociate not of there own free will.
T: Let's talk about what happens to kids after they are removed from their abusive homes. What's wrong with the foster care system and why do kids rot in group homes?
AV: What's wrong with the foster care system is that we haven't professionalized foster care. So we see it as a warehouse, not as part of the continuing care given to children. So foster parents are paid simply to house and feed children. Not to participate in their healing. Not to help give them tools.
T: And they're not trained to do it.
AV: If they were trained, they would not accept the [small amount of] money that they're given. It should be a profession. It should be another kind of social work. And we should have professionalized it many years ago.
T: Well it's somewhat professionalized in group homes that exist where the objective is to act as an attachment model and teach these kids to function safely and comfortably as part of a family.
AV: If you could do that you've probably got your hand on the mystery of life.
T: The magic button.
AV: Absolutely. I mean, so-called attachment disorders are present in every kind of sociopath you could want to see. Clearly if they could bond, if they did have a strong sense of empathy, they couldn't do what they do.
T: In California more and more cases are ending up in reunification and more therapy is geared towards forgiveness. Are these trends related, and are there financial factors at work here?
AV: Look. Nobody wants to pay for legal services to a non-voting constituency. Nobody wants to pay for any services to a non-voting constituency. And the parents, our theoretical adversaries here, are a voting constituency. A child is never going to vote.
T: So, because foster care is a service that requires financial resources, we teach these kids to forgive and send them back to their abusive homes.
T: Is this the case everywhere?
AV: No. Actually reunification has come in disfavor under the people who were so strong on it for many, many years. I'm talking about social scientists, not independent advocates with an ax to grind. Something I said many, many years ago that's really starting to penetrate is that the word 'family' should be defined operationally, not biologically. Family reunification is based on biology, not operation; the entitlement is by blood, not by performance. So in my opinion, when you remove a child from parents there should be a discrete period. A year, eighteen months. If you can't return then you're terminated. And that's the reason kids are in foster care, because neither decision is made. Kids can't be returned and they don't terminate parental rights.
T: So then how do we attack the problem of parents who repeatedly violate the conditions of their reunification and visitation privileges, and a system that affords them too many chances?
AV: This is where you need the third party representation. If the only parties in the game are the attorneys for the parents and the attorneys for the agencies, this situation you've described is going to be chronic. If the third party representing the child is then forcing the state to move forward on termination, on the grounds that they haven't met the terms and conditions, you get much accelerated results. Both ways you get acceleration. You get termination faster, but you also get parents saying 'okay, now I get it, there really is a gun to my head'. So the third party representation is the key to that.
T: Does this happen a lot?
AV: In New York state, in every case, by law.
T: How many states are like New York?
AV: Not many. But most states have a provision by which it could happen. So my understanding is, in California the law is that a kid will be represented in an abuse/neglect case. I don't know if the representation continues, as it should, post-adjudication. Which is what we're talking about.
T: Considering how inadequate our legal, residential, and therapeutic treatment of children can be, are we really doing kids any favors by putting them in the system?
AV: The answer is, I don't have a crystal ball. And you can easily prove with actual cases, many instances where children were removed from homes that were abusive and neglectful, say, to Level 4, and ended up in situations abusive and neglectful, say, to Level 8. You can actually prove that. You could equally prove that kids have been taken out of abusive homes and as a result their lives have been vastly improved. So I don't think the answer lies in saying, 'is X worse than Y?' The answer really lies in, 'how can Y be made better to the point where that's not a question anymore?' You might as well say to me, 'if somebody gets hit by a car in an intersection, am I really doing them a favor by taking them to the hospital, because after all, doctors commit malpractice?'
T: Since you mentioned hospitals, please help me with this. When a child is hit by a car and suffers physical damage, you call 911 and a team of well equipped, trained professionals is on the scene in minutes to deal with the situation. But when a child is in pain caused by emotional damage, it can take dozens of calls and several weeks to get any response at all.
AV: We don't have parallel service delivery systems. I mean, there's no way for me to argue with what you're saying. You are a hundred percent correct. But it comes down to the same thing. Our reasons for critiquing the system ... it's pointless. To analyze the system and point out what's wrong with it, without the power to alter it, is masturbatory. The whole concept behind analysis is the concept behind consciousness-raising. Which is, if I show you that something is terrible, you will do something about it. That's not reality. Reality is, it's about power. It's not about education, and knowledge is not power. People think it is because they like comic book cliches. Truth is, if I see a homeless guy on the street and I say, 'all right, here's a road map to Detroit', he still hasn't got bus fare. So what's the knowledge?
T: He doesn't have the power to get there.
AV: Right, so to criticize the system ... no argument. You're right. But, I wouldn't waste thirty seconds of my life arguing that the 911-response model of professionalism and instantaneousness and goal orientation is exactly the model that we should have in child protective services. Unless you can show me how pressure can be placed to achieve that, I'm not interested.
T: Well, changing the system takes focus, and people are concerned about poverty, the environment, crime, drug abuse, famine ... the list goes on and on. In your opinion, will these problems be solved eventually if people are willing to focus their efforts on dealing with child abuse first?
AV: Hell yes. Hell yes. You know, you're asking damaged, impaired people ... Let me give you an example. I'm always asked to be on television shows, like, endlessly. And the shows are always the same thing, which is: bring some of the kids you represent; which I would never do. And the argument I get is; well look at all the good they could do for other kids. And I say, nobody did them any good. Why should they, now, their whole lives they've been suffering, why should they be in a position where they're going to say, 'oh, what I really care about is other kids before myself'. So all the people who are concerned about trees or cigarette smoking or any of the things that bother them, the constituency that would be their natural ally, right now is being impaired and abused. The quality of their lives is being so squeezed, that when they get old enough they're not ever going to be able to focus on these larger concerns. The truth is if we could intervene early and strongly we'd have the best crime prevention program in the country. Everybody cares about crime. Unless you think criminals are some biogenetic accident, then they have to have a genesis. If you accept that their genesis is their upbringing, logically a front-end investment would make perfect sense. But in a generation that, you know, if something takes too long to download, they don't want to play. Never mind investing in something that's going to take a couple of generations to produce a result.
T: Of course politicians don't want that either.
AV: Well, no politician wants it because they can't run for reelection ...
T: They can't take credit for it.
AV: Yeah. It's not going to happen. But that doesn't mean that it can't be done. It's just that people have to be willing to do it. Hey, look, I'm not one to say if you're an activist for civil rights, that child abuse is more important than fighting racism.
T: No. But it does seem like the first step to solving any of these problems.
AV: Of course it does, because where do you think you get a Klansman or a skinhead? From a warm, loving and protective home? Logically your point is completely correct; selling it is another thing. I've been in the business of trying to sell it for many, many years. And while I think there has been some progress, it's not going to happen in my lifetime. There's been changes, there's been more dialogue, there's been more discussion, there's been more cases won, there's been more representation of children. Systems have altered incrementally. But at the rate we're going, even if you assume we keep the upper hand, that we produce more protected children than beasts ... hundreds of years before we ever get level.
T: So you believe that every person, that each of us specifically reap the negative impact of people who prey on children?
AV: Absolutely. Absolutely. And all we have to do is get that to become the conventional wisdom. Because every yuppie will tell you that the bad thing about drunk driving is that it increases the insurance rates. I'll settle for that. I don't need a whole lot of morality. Just use the same mentality and say that a failure to protect children costs us all. Never mind what it costs them, just costs us. On that pure self interest basis, if people would get that, swallow that, internalize that, live that, I'll be a happy man. Because I'll have a religious faith in self-interest. Perceived self-interest, not actual self-interest. Self-interest moves people to do things. It's a question of making them see it. I can make any intelligent person see the connection between today's victim and tomorrow's predator. I can make any intelligent person see that an investment in child protective services actually protects them.
T: Because it's true.
AV: Because it's true. But you have to get past spin. You have to get past distortion. You have to get past the self-interest of your adversaries.
T: What's the difference between perceived self-interest and actual self-interest?
AV: Well the actual self-interest of every human being on this planet is to protect children. They don't act on it. Their perception of their self-interest is that it doesn't lie in protecting children. People act off their perceived self-interest every time. In fact, when a person acts against their perceived self-interest we call them clinically insane.
T: Are they?
AV: That's pretty much the definition of clinical insanity. I don't mean making a bad choice. You know that fire is bad for you, duh. You put your hand in a fire you get burned, right? It's the same 'duh' to let children be abused. Who do you think reaps the whirlwind? It's almost never the offenders. That's why we're so excited when a kid who was abused kills his parents, because it's so rare. When that abused kid goes and kills some citizen we say, 'well, he's an armed robber', 'he's a mugger' ...
T: As though he didn't come from anywhere.
AV: Right. Exactly. But we're the ones who reap that legacy, not the offenders.
T: How able are you to spot an abused kid when you meet them as an adult?
AV: Well, you can spot the unbonded person by their conduct. That's it, the unbonded person. I can't spot the abused person because there are people who commit crimes for reasons that have nothing to do with sociology. People who steal because they have inadequate job skills. I'm not saying it's right for them to steal. But there are people who if they had job skills they wouldn't steal. There are people who hurt people because they like to do it. Then I'm guaranteeing you we've got one of ours. You see? When it's predatory for pleasure crime, I guarantee you've got one of ours.
T: You've said in the past that with 150 million dollars we could revolutionize child protection in this country. How would we go about that and whose hands would we put that money into?
AV: Probably what I would do ... and that's a small amount of money ... you would have to put it in an absolutely targeted area. Change that system entirely and then rely on the fall-out. So in other words, 150 million dollars invested. Small area, total reform, twenty year measurements, 150 million dollars in a town that I would ruthlessly divide in half.
T: What do you mean?
AV: I mean I'd take a damn meat cleaver and go right down the middle. So that I could say, [over] here we did full press intensive services, and [over] there we did what we usually do. Twenty years later ... a lot more [over] there in prison, a lot more [over] there, dope fiends, a lot more [over] there, suicides ...
T: And lots more over here are people.
AV: Yeah. You see? That kind of graphic demonstration ... and 150 million dollars is a small sum, but I think that would be enough to prove it. But I could prove it only if given that opportunity. I could prove it to a rational, logical person, but they've got to give me a couple of hours of their time. If I'm going to prove it with slogans, the kind of stuff you could put in USA Today, then I've got to have the 150 million.
T: Do you ever see this happening?
AV: 150 Million dollars is not a lot of money. You can't even buy a professional baseball team for that, right? Do I see it happening? Yeah. Sooner or later I think the laboratory has got to be opened. I really do. Because to me, see, I'm ready to be challenged. Give me the measurable objectives. I've proved to people ... I said I could run a maximum-security prison for violent youth without any rape, without any stabbing, and without any suicide.
T: How long did you do that for?
AV: Approximately a year.
T: What were the numbers like before you went in?
AV: Before I went in, a staff member in the same institution had been sexually assaulted. To call it a jungle would be a compliment.
T: No rape, no stabbing and no suicide.
T: And it stayed that way for a year.
T: How old were the kids in this institution?
AV: The truth is that some of them were like, nineteen. We had a fourteen-year-old. The average kid was sixteen and a half and had committed a homicide. That was the typical kid. And this wasn't a detention facility. It was a maximum-security prison, the garbage can of the state. To get in here you had to flunk every other institution with your institutional behavior. Never mind your original crime. I mean, we were dealing with human beings that had been written off completely and getting a result from them that was shocking. We had achieved some remarkable things.
T: In addition to running that prison, you've also been an investigator. I've heard you say that child abuse cases aren't investigated the way that they should be. What constitutes a proper investigation?
AV: A proper investigation is an objective, chips fall where they may, search for the truth; conducted by skillful people with the proper tools and the proper supervision. And none of that applies to Child Protective Services. None of that. I mean, basic interviewing skills take a long time to learn. When I was an investigator for the feds, the United States Public Health Service, you had to pass a test. You went through the whole academy, but I don't care how well you scored on the damn written crap, and in the face-to-faces, what they did was—My test was in a public hospital on the south side of Chicago. [Interview the] next person in the door that had syphilis. Blind. Closed circuit TV running. I had to get that person to disclose their sexual contacts. Fail? You're out.
T: That was it? You get one shot?
AV: Oh yeah. I mean, you could go back in the class and start over. Fail a couple of times and you're history. You only get the one shot. And I will not forget mine to this day because I got a woman who was a member of the Nation of Islam who actually greeted me with, Hello Mr. Devil. And we started from there.
T: So why don't people who work with kids and their abusers receive this kind of training, or have to pass a test before they work?
AV: Because it costs too much money. [Sarcastically] This was about something serious. This was about sexually transmitted diseases. This wasn't about kids. Adults can get that. Adults were the entire focus.
T: Would it work to train caseworkers, group home staff or foster parents this way, and use the same kind of test?
AV: Well, first of all it would be a much more complicated test because we had to learn to interview men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, black people and white people, all of that. We were interviewing them all off the exact same set of questions.
T: You knew what the problem was.
AV: We knew what the problem was. They had the disease. There's no mystery here, right? The question is where did they get it? And we knew the period within which they must have gotten it because the duration of the disease is such; if someone had early, primary, secondary syphilis, we were looking at a ninety-day to six-month window. That's all, no more. So we had a lot of information. Now we're going to go interview a child. A kid maybe two and a half years old, you know, barely verbal. A kid maybe fourteen, and a sophisticated liar. It's very, very different. So it would be a lot more training, a lot more supervision, and the problem would be that when you got the people who were very good at it keeping them.
T: Because they're not getting paid enough?
AV: Sure, they're not getting paid enough. They're not getting respected enough. And it's the nature of government that you always promote somebody outside their skills. So you could have an excellent field person, a fine investigator and interviewer, and that person is going to end up being what?
AV: Sure. Now, the cops in New York have a technique called getting the money. In order to protect that from happening with their most experienced field guys, they have a provision in which they can pay them as if they took a desk job but leave them out on the street.
T: Pretty cool.
AV: Very slick. No question. But they don't have that for casework yet.
T: Right. The pyramid is still upside down.
AV: Of course. But there is no law that says it has to be. If you want to make a front-end investment, turn the pyramid upside down. Put the money where it's supposed to be, you get a result. Unless and until the resources are allocated, it's not going to happen. Resources will get allocated when people perceive it in their self-interest to pressure to get them done, not before. So we chip away. We chip away. And we try to have every campaign produce some tangible result. But there's not going to be any high-fives at the end of this run for me, because it's not going to get done while I'm still here.
T: But is it working?
AV: In my mind I'm swimming, the way you swim at a horizon. You get tired, eventually you drown. But there are other waves coming behind, and more waves coming behind that.
T: So you don't ever see yourself stopping?
AV: Nah. I could do what I do in a wheelchair. So, no, I don't see why I would. And I don't actually have any other interests. So this would be it.
T: What about the Blues?
AV: Oh. That's a misstatement on my part, because I really do have plenty of other interests. But none that I would be able to spend my whole life doing exclusively. Yeah. You know, I could get another racehorse someday. I've always wanted to breed dogs. You know, my kind of dogs someday. I'll write more music someday.
T: Do you play an instrument?
AV: Words. I write the words. Son [Seals] writes the music. And I did it before with Doc and I'll probably do it my whole life. But I have the musical talent of a rock, you know? But none of that would consume me. I don't know. Things could change. But I've been at it for so long I don't anticipate it.
T: I want to ask you one more question.
T: When you meet a child for the first time how do you make them feel safe right off the bat?
AV: You know, that's really a good question. Children don't always like me. In fact, a lot of them don't. But they always seem to feel safe. If the kid is old enough that I can explain the realities, it's easy enough to say what my job is and what's not going to happen to them anymore, and be very clear about that. If they're real little ones, I don't have any magic.
T: No. Nobody does.
AV: Yes. People do. Not magic, but people do have a sense about themselves, a chi that is very comforting to kids. I don't have that.
T: Some kids are just going to feel threatened.
AV: Some kids are so traumatized that everything scares them. But I've never had a kid not feel safe after a while because what I always do is promise things.
T: And deliver.
AV: Yep. Until they see it. As long as you're consistent, as long as you always keep your word, it's a new experience for most kids in that situation and you can build trust.
For more information about Andrew Vachss, his novels and his fight, visit his website, The Zero at http://www.vachss.com.
This interview was originally posted at FatFreeRadio.net.
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