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Vachss Populi

Originally posted May/June 1998 on Amazon.com


Andrew Vachss is not a man interested in the world of fantasy. He has been director of a maximum-security prison and a federal investigator, and his protagonist, Burke, is as tough, no-nonsense, and busy as the author himself. When Vachss is not compiling a CD, writing comic books, working on movie deals for his novels, or on his enormous Web site "The Zero," he divides his time between writing novels and a legal practice in which he exclusively represents abused children and youth. Through these multifarious activities, Vachss approaches his very singular mission with something best described as religious zeal. Touring with his tenth novel Safe House, the warrior stopped for a short visit with Amazon.com.

Amazon.com: Safe House is the ninth book in the series of Burke novels. Can you talk about your motivation for the series?

Andrew Vachss: I just wanted a bigger jury. I'm a working class person, I don't own a newspaper or a magazine or a radio station, or have any way to reach enough people with the material I thought was important.

Amazon.com: What are you trying to reach them about? What's the issue?

Vachss: The issue is how we make our own monsters; build our own beasts. The issue is Child Abuse in all its ugly forms.

Amazon.com: In Safe House and other novels I got the sense that you were articulating a cyclical relationship between monsters and the victims of their monstrousness. Can you talk a little about that? And I was curious if you had come up with a more clinical term for the monster.

Vachss: More clinical term? I think there's already too many goddamn clinical terms. I think there's already too many terms like "pedophilia" for child molester. Why would I want a more clinical term? So I could bamboozle some jury? So I could get people confused between "sick" and "sickening?" Because if I say something is evil, that upsets your religious convictions? No, I mean I don't understand the need to clinicalize evil. In fact I think way too much of that is done. I'm really sick of these ideas about deconstructing serial killers so we understand why they kill people. They kill people because they like to kill people, because it makes them feel good.

And as far as the cyclical nature, that's another load of crap. Most people who have been abused, abuse themselves, not others. Even then it's a choice. It's not biogenic, and it's not the only sequelae of trauma. There's plenty of people who have been harmed or traumatized who never, never imitate the oppressor. In order to become a sociopath, which is the clinical word that you want, you need to be a human being without empathy. Feel only your own feelings. Seek only your own gratification. Not even be a member of our species. Not all sociopaths are conventional predators. Not all are child molesters or rapists or serial killers. Some are politicians. Some are used car salesmen. Some are businessmen. As long as there's kinds of sociopathy, which are socially acceptable in its expression, they don't have any problem.

Amazon.com: Would you say, then, that a sociopath could come into being without having experienced the effects of another sociopath in his childhood?

Vachss: Of course! Of course. Of course. The best way to get a sociopath is just have an unbonded child. You don't have to even physically touch a child to refuse the child a bonding opportunity it needs to join our species. And some, when denied it at home, find other ways outside the home to still be completely whole. Some of the most empathetic, caring people I know, some of the real warriors against the beast, had all the qualifications to be a beast in terms of how they were treated, and didn't. So as far as saying you can get a predator without being accessed by a predator, the answer is yeah, you can. You can.

The most common characteristic among serial killers is emotional abuse. A steady diet of "you're fat," "you're dumb," "you're ugly," "you're stupid," "I should have aborted you," "get away from me," "I won't touch you," "you sicken me," scars the soul a lot more than a slap or a punch.

Amazon.com: Do you think Burke is a survivor of that?

Vachss: I never use that term. That's a nonsensical, insulting term. I was in a war. People were shot; people dropped bombs; people shot missiles. I didn't get killed; I survived. Whoopee. What does that mean? That means I was lucky. The people who live in POW camps that we call families, and escape and go on to be not just productive members of society, but people who care and help to fight the beast, they deserve a bigger medal than surviving. To me, they're people who transcended, not simply survived.

Burke, however, is a criminal. That's the term that best describes him.

Amazon.com: Why do you think mystery, which is the genre you usually loosely fit into, so often deals with the underbelly of society? And more specifically, is there something to the structure of mystery writing that lends to this type of subject matter?

Vachss: What I want to know is, what's the underbelly? What I wrote about is freaks—sorry I don't have a better clinical term—trafficking in child pornography over modems, in a book that was published in 1987, what I got from the book reviewer community was, "How can you make up such a dark view?" What do you mean "dark view?" I have a very clear view. Because we live at ground zero; we do this work all the time. My work isn't "ripped from today's headlines," which, if you think it through means it's got to be two years old by the time you're reading it. So I don't even want to be associated with that stuff. I'm not saying I'm better than it, but it has nothing to do with me.

You want the underbelly, you've got a guy living right here in Seattle who's the master of it—that's Jack Olson. Now, I admit he doesn't write mysteries. He writes, God forbid, nonfiction. But he writes the holy hell out of it, and every fact is there.

Amazon.com: Speaking of today's headlines, what do you think ought to be done about the two boys who killed four people in Arkansas?

Vachss: Assuming that they did the acts that they're accused of? They should first decide whether either of them is clinically insane. They should first decide whether you have a sheep/sheep-herder or master/slave relationship. They should follow the only clinical criteria that makes sense to me about incarceration, which is dangerousness. And they should conduct themselves accordingly. The only people left in the world who truly believe in rehabilitation are NCAA recruiters....

But if you get somebody young enough, as I know from personal experience, having run a maximum-security prison for years, sometimes with the right sort of confluence of the planets, you can still shove that empathy card back in that very tightly stacked deck.

And if you can succeed, people will call it rehabilitation. In truth, it's habilitation. Rehabilitation ... my hand was broken, as you can see. It works now. It returned to its former state of functioning. There was never a time when Ted Bundy "functioned." See? So the whole concept of rehabilitation is wasted on them. If you could intervene young enough, you have a chance; that's the best I can say.

Amazon.com: In the books, justice is often meted out in the form of a killing performed by Burke.

Vachss: I would disagree with you. Burke's not a vigilante. He's a patriot, only his country is about as big as this tiny little room we're sitting in. If you stay out of his country, you don't have to worry about gunfire. If you look at Burke closely, you'll see that prototypical abused child: hypervigilant, distrustful, so committed to that family of choice—not his DNA family, which tortured him, or the state which raised him, but the family that he chose, that homicide is a natural consequence of injuring any of that family. He's not a hit man. He doesn't strap on a piece and go out in the street and say, "Well, let me go out and kill a few child molesters today for justice." But, he shares the same religion I do, which is revenge.

Amazon.com: How close is Burke's behavior to what you think the real-world model should be?

Vachss: Burke is an ineffective person at changing the world, which is my monstrous mission. He is simply a dangerous snake, and if you lift up the rock you're going to get bit. It's no way to solve.... Look, in New York State, you have sex with a child under 11, you face 25 years in prison. Unless you're related to that child by blood or marriage, which if charged under the incest statute and you're convicted of the highest count, you're eligible for probation. Yeah, your eyes get real wide, huh? Except that that's the law of the land, that you get bonus points for growing your own victim. That's the law of the land. Until that changes, you're not doing anything about monsters, do you understand? Until you change this...

If I have a pocketful of cocaine, I'm going to spend far more time in prison than I would for an 18-wheeler full of child pornography. Until that changes, do you think you can combat monsters with gunfire? Believe me, if I thought so, you'd be hearing gunfire! But I don't believe that the particular pleasure you might get out of killing one degenerate changes anything. I don't even believe in capital punishment for them, as I said. I do believe in lifetime incapacitation; I don't want them among us; they don't belong among us. But no, I don't think homicide is the answer.

Amazon.com: You think life imprisonment is the answer, then...

Vachss: For the chronic recidivistic predator of children? Absolutely, unequivocally, and not to do that is a mortal sin for which every politician is liable. Instead, they give you crap like Megan's Law. I'll translate Megan's Law for you, okay?

Megan's Law is saying this to the public: there's a beast among you that we, the politicians, never should have let out. But we did. We're going to make it up to you by giving you his address. Of course, we promise you he's never going to dye his hair, grow a mustache, move without telling us. You're perfectly safe, now. It's another experiment being done on everybody's children....

Amazon.com: Parts of your books are very sexy. Burke is often involved with a woman in the novels. Many of those women are or have been sexually abused. The boundary between what is a healthy, loving sexual relationship and what is something much more complicated and possibly sinister is unclear sometimes. Do you think this is dangerous territory to enter into? Do you think this adds to or dilutes the purpose of your book?

Vachss: Well, if I didn't think it advanced the purpose, I wouldn't have put it in there. I think that a person's sexuality is formed in a variety of ways, and not to be honest or up-front about it, to sort of Bowdlerize that or excise it from what I'm trying to show you, would be wrong. The books are very much a psychiatric mirror. There are people who read that as sexy, and to them it makes perfect sense, it's congruent with their personalities or it's something they've experienced. Other people are horrified and shocked. That's their experience, not my writing. I've never written anything that doesn't occur.

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