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A Conversation with Andrew Vachss

By Julie Logan
Originally published in blur magazine, Volume IV Number XIIII - March 1997


Andrew Vachss delivered his requisite one-two punch last year by releasing two major projects; False Allegations (Alfred A. Knopf), a continuation of his enormously popular series of Burke novels and Hard Looks (Dark Horse Comics), a comic-book adaptation of twenty of his short stories. A tireless advocate (literally, Vachss is an attorney) on behalf of abused children and youth, to call him an over-achiever is something of an understatement. Here is a guy who writes books and develops movie projects in his spare time. One word or warning, never ask Andrew Vachss about the weather because it's really not a very good idea to make small talk with a warrior. His work is grim, yet, he really wouldn't have it any other way.

Andrew Vachss THE MAN

blur: You've noted that your own childhood was a nurtured and happy one. Was your dedication and vehemence on behalf of abused children something you came to gradually or was there some catalytic event that put you on the path?

Vachss: The only honest answer is both because I was raised among child abuse. I knew it existed all the time, didn't experience it myself true, but was intimate with people who did and I personally witnessed it. But I didn't conceptualize it until I became a Federal Investigator in sexually transmitted diseases — then I saw that people had sex with babies. That caused a firestorm of rage that has never stopped.

THE MISSION

blur: Here's the Solzhenitsyn question. Critics have said that without the gulag his work isn't as good. Would you say that this is true for you? Does the subject matter make you the writer you are?

Vachss: It goes beyond that. It doesn't just make me the writer that I am because without it, I am not a writer at all.

blur: Was it a surprise to you that you had the talent to write?

Vachss: There's no proof that I have any talent to write. The surprise is that people would purchase what I wrote.

blur: Do you enjoy the process of writing?

Vachss: Not especially.

THE MEANING

blur: The term "child abuse" seems to mean different things to different people. Does child abuse run along a spectrum, sort of a trauma scale?

Vachss: I've only just constructed a typology of it. Type 1 is people who are inadequate as parents. A prototypical example would be a twelve year old girl with a baby of her own, who can't distinguish that baby she's supposed to gratify from a doll that's supposed to gratify her, no matter what her character is. Or these are people who are impaired by drugs, by alcohol, by economics or whatever. But if you show them a better way to do it, they'll do it. Which means of course, that the overwhelming majority of people who commit child abuse are rehabilitatable.

Type 2 are people who are insane, and I mean floridly insane, paranoid schizophrenic. For such people the answer is the extent to which psychiatry has come up with a useful response. We're very good at treating obsessive-compulsives, so they can be very fine parents. But we're very bad at treating paranoid schizophrenics because the risk is too high.

Type 3 is people who are evil, people who hurt children for their own pleasure or their own profit. These people are beyond rehabilitation, they are predatory sociopaths, they are the enemy of our species.

And so the appropriate response should not be geared to child abuse per se, but to specific typology. Because when you call things child abuse, you're not telling a professional anything. Indeed, what I have concluded over the years, that despite the Can-You-Top-This? of the talk shows, probably the most devastating abuse is emotional. And certainly, in terms of long-term detrimental effects on the organism, pervasive neglect is probably more damaging than abuse.

blur: There was a case where a woman was prosecuted for child abuse for not buckling up her children in seat belts—

Vachss: It constitutes a hypocritical society patting itself on the back, like a talk show moron standing up and pointing at some poor woman on the stage saying, "You suffer from low self-esteem."

blur: Were you a comic fan before your own work began appearing in comic form?

Vachss: No.

blur: What changed your feelings about comics?

Vachss: Dark Horse came to me and made the offer. What changed my feelings however, was doing a book signing where there's the usual people there but there were also a bunch of gang-bangers who say they never would have read any of the books but they read the comics. Then they went and got the books. It did what it was supposed to do.

blur: How have you come to appreciate the form?

Vachss: Artists. Geof Darrow is a transcendent genius. I don't know anybody who can infuse paper with life the way he can, he's truly amazing. Paul Chadwick is a wonderful artist. Gary Gianni is incredible. Frank Miller has unique skills. Harry Morris does amazing work.

blur: Your work has been adapted into graphic form a couple of times before Hard Looks. Would you consider doing original comic pieces?

Vachss: Original? I loved "Drive By" because it was adapted by Joe Lansdale. I really like "Replay" too because of the adaptation by Jim Colbert and "Born Bad" because of the adaptation by Charles de Lint. I thought they were just amazing.

blur: How involved were you with the adaptations?

Vachss: More than a human being should have been. Panel by panel, word by word, line by line. It was the most labor-intensive thing I've ever been involved in. I didn't average what I would have made working at McDonalds.

CURRENT EVENTS

blur: I want to get your comments on a few issues that are in the news these days—both as an attorney and as a child advocate. First is Megan's Law, which has sparked a lot of heated civil rights discussion, that is, the law that says the police can notify the community when a sex offender moves into the neighborhood?

Vachss: Bah, Humbug. Fine, sure, OK, do I think it will significantly alter preying on children? No I don't. The logistics are just impossible. Will it reassure some people? Yeah, sure. Will it catch a few of them? Absolutely. But no one has faced the real problem with Megan's Law which is, why are they out? You don't need Megan's Law if you have appropriate incarcerative responses to preying on children. Of the first four people to challenge the version of Megan's Law in New York, three of them committed gross sexual offenses to children and were sentenced to probation.

blur: Your comment about entering children into beauty pageants...?

Vachss: The idea of watching a six-year-old girl shake her hips on a runway should gag a maggot. The idea of makeup and high heels, the idea of adultizing children is destructive. I think the idea of beauty pageants for adults are dumb enough, but it's a question of consenting adults. It's the same rationale pedophiles use, "Well, the kids like it." Well, you can get any kid to like it if you have enough rewards. They are coddled, cossetted, and they can even sometimes become the breadwinner.

blur: Does spousal abuse automatically equal child abuse?

Vachss: Yes. Abuse in the presence of children creates a trauma so it alters the child's perceptions of how business is done. And sometimes it inappropriately sexualizes the child around violence as well.

blur: So when someone disingenuously says, "But I would never lay a hand on my kid," the fact is that all this violent activity is creating an enormous impact on the child.

Vachss: "This is your mother, I am going to beat her. Now I am going to have sex with her." You bet there's impact.

THE FUTURE

blur: What's been your experience with movie people thus far?

Vachss: Ranging from the most disgusting, including Roman Polanski making an offer for one of my books.

blur: Tell him you'll do it if he'll do it on location.

Vachss: Actually that's pretty much what I said. I said I'll sign the contract if you come to L.A. to do it.

blur: You've had some good experiences too?

Vachss: Yes, the producer I'm working with now. Lloyd Segan is the person who has got the best understanding of what I'm doing of anybody I've ever met in Hollywood. Previous scripts of my stuff have been abominable.

blur: What's coming up?

Vachss: We'll have an answer on Flood very soon and on Cross as well. But I would rather not see a movie than see a terrible one. I am in the only position of strength anyone has, which is to be the one to walk away. I have demonstrated this on many occasions. And the wild people understand that. I had a Victor Salva. clause in my contract, way before there was a Victor Salva.

THE FRIENDS

blur: Do you have a best friend?

Vachss: That's not a term I would use. I have brothers and sisters, family. Family to me is not a biological term, it's an operational term.

blur: Let's talk about dogs—you write about them, you're photographed with them.

Vachss: I love them.

blur: Do you have any?

Vachss: Lots of them. Over time, I've had every dog that you see in the book. The Neapolitan Mastiff, to the Bull Mastiff-Shepherd cross, to the Pit Bull to the Rottweiler. Now I have a Pit Bull.

blur: What is it about dogs that moves you?

Vachss: I was raised in a place that was rather rough and one of the problems with that place was rats. As anybody who has really lived in the real life, when a cat sees a rat, the cat bolts. But I had a terrier. And I cannot express to you what it's like to be lying in a bed hearing the rat's claws over the linoleum and next to me there's this little terrier who turns as stiff as an iron bar, launches off that bed, kills what scares me so much and trots back and climbs back into bed. That's a dog for you, unlike a cat which is nothing but a lap dancer with fur. You couldn't have a seeing-eye cat.

blur: But there's a certain fundamental honesty about cats. It's "Fuck you and where's the food?"

Vachss: Yeah but there's a certain honesty about serial killers too.

THE QUESTION

blur: I am going to ask you the last question twice, once in the context of a four-year-old and again in the context of an adult. At four, do you think that children can see, experience or endure so much evil that they lose the capacity to love anything?

Vachss: They can certainly lose the capacity to trust. They can experience a reordering of the neuron paths so that they process information where romance becomes rape. They can certainly fail to develop that fundamental thing which distinguishes us from the sociopath, and that is empathy. So, yes.

blur: Recast the question for an adult—do you thing that a person can see, experience or endure so much evil that they lose the capacity to love anything?

Vachss: Yes, I was in the war in Biafra. If you want an update, look at Rwanda. Some of the people who survived that, women who were gang-raped as a tribal stamp so that they only lived to bear the enemies' children. People who watched their children torched to death. I don't know though. Sometimes you see people will go through the same experiences and not only maintain the capacity to love but use it to protect others. What you've put your finger on is the key to the species. Common thinking would say, "You're an abused kid so you'll grow up to be a serial killer." But the mystery of life is why so many abused kids don't grow up to be that. And that's where we're focusing all our energy.

blur: You're one person who has seen probably more than the Western person has seen in terms of degradation and evil. Has it affected you?

Vachss: I stay sad. Sad is my permanent personality. Most of the nerve endings have been pretty well cauterized.



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