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Author: Abused Kids Bring Tomorrow's Horrors

By John Nichols
Originally published in The Capital Times (Madison, WI), April 3, 1998

Author interview
Safe House
By Andrew Vachss, published by Knopf, 292 pages, $24

When news reports first appeared last week of the fatal shootings of four girls and their teacher—allegedly by two boys—outside a school in Jonesboro, Ark., it seemed as if the whole of the nation issued a collective gasp of shock and despair.

But Andrew Vachss, whose novels so skillfully anticipate the explosion of American pathologies, wondered why fellow citizens were so surprised. Nor was Vachss at all taken aback when dark reports of previous cases of sexual abuse involving at least one of the boys surfaced.

"The truth is that the chances of something like this not happening are pretty small these days. The only question is if it goes national,'' says Vachss. "Plenty of horrible things happen that don't tip the horror scale on the national level. But they're still horrible, terrifying, and they happen every day.''

Vachss, a New York attorney and former director of a maximum security prison for youthful offenders, will read from his new book, "Safe House,'' at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 4, at Booked for Murder, 2701 University Ave. He has few illusions about the horrific abuse of children by adults. Nor does he have any doubts about the violence those abused children will ultimately visit upon a society that fails to address their plight.

"The major incubator for monsters in our society is the home where a child is abused. But, even now, most of this country still refuses to admit that fact and it still refuses to do anything serious about it. But this will change,'' says Vachss. "Eventually, this country's going to be in a sufficient level of terror that its so-called `leaders' will become willing to invest to protect their children. Sooner or later, enough people will get so terrified that they will demand that investment and then America will finally achieve its full potential.''

What Vachss writes about in his Dickensian novels of horror and moral outrage are those moments at which the level of terror is undeniable.

In the barely fictional scenarios that Vachss spins, many of which deal graphically with the emotional and physical abuse of children, the author frequently warns America that there is big trouble around the corner. And his street sense, developed as a working-class kid in New York City and honed as a field investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service whose first case involved a baby infected with syphilis by a rapist, means that he is rarely wrong.

Bitter experience guarantees that Vachss does not underestimate the depths of human depravity, though he does sometimes soften the edges. "If I were to take some of the actual cases I have handled (as a lawyer defending abused children) and fictionalize them, they would make you vomit. ... I cannot imagine there is anything people will not do,'' Vachss explained several years ago.

What Vachss does imagine more often than not are the headlines that invariably will appear when the rest of the world catches on to the issues that he discusses in his mystery novels. In 1985's "Flood,'' he wrote about abuse of children by day care center staffers. In 1987's "Strega,'' which was published before anyone had ever heard the word "Internet,'' he introduced the world to the dangers posed by on-line pedophiles. In 1988's "Blue Belle,'' he exposed the issue of the sale of human body parts. "Blossom,'' in 1990, dealt with stalker crimes. In 1991's "Sacrifice,'' it was ritualistic satanic abuse. "Down in the Zero,'' in 1994, dealt with what happens to emotionally abused children. And 1996's "False Allegations'' dealt with the terrifying extent to which child sexual abuse occurs in contemporary America.

"I'm writing about what's coming next,'' says Vachss, who draws as much from a gut sense about human nature as he does from his own investigations and his encyclopedic knowledge of societal ills. "When the books come out, I'll get people saying, `Well, that can't happen.' But more often than not it does.''

That's a scary notion, since his new book, "Safe House,'' deals with a white supremacist group hatching a terrorist plot in New York. The neo-Nazi cell that is behind the plot intends to do damage that would dwarf that done by Tim McVeigh, et al., in Oklahoma City, and it has the resources to carry off the job.

Fantasy? No way, says Vachss.

"This is not about the Oklahoma City bombing, it's about what's coming next,'' he argues. "When I wrote about computer-linked sex offenders, I got reviews that said, `C'mon, this can't happen.' Now, everyone knows about sex offenders on the Net. And, eventually, everyone is going to know about these cells and the threat they pose. The only question is whether the threat has to be made real before people wake up to it.''

Even in this book about terrorism, however, Vachss returns to his core themes: the abuse of children and the threat that tacitly condoning such abuse poses to society.

"The book is a part of this statement,'' he says. "I don't have but one tune to play. I may play it in a comic book, I may play it in a novel. I may play it in a nonfiction article. But it's the same tune.''

That tune is blunt and unyielding.

"The truth is unassailable: We must take the abuse of a child as a threat to our survival as a society. This isn't a liberal or conservative position. What's liberal or conservative about saying there should be protection of our children?''

In fact, isn't that what politicians say all the time?

Yes, of course that's true, Vachss admits. But the key word is "say.''

"The politicians are not offering anything but slogans. Family values? What does that mean?'' growls Vachss. "Where do these politicians think the monsters come from? Where do they think the beasts are built? They're built in our families, in our homes, in our society. If we're going to change anything in this country, we need to go after child abuse, wherever it occurs. We need to put a lot of money into child protection. The reasons politicians don't do that--aside from their being congenital weasels--is that they won't vote for anything that doesn't show fruit within their term. They lack the citizenship to do what is right if it doesn't pay off for them in the short term.''

The only way that politicians will do the right thing, says Vachss, is if people demand it. But the people won't make those demands until they become informed and energized.

"Right now, people say they want these tragedies to stop. But they want them to stop the same way Americans want to stop anything--by changing channels,'' says Vachss. "We've got to change the mentality. We've got to get people to understand that the problems we worry about in society relate back directly to how we treat our children.''

Vachss makes his contribution to that fight on multiple fronts. As a lawyer, he takes cases representing children. He runs a Web page ( that last Sunday got 25,000 communications after a cover story he wrote on these issues ("Our Endangered Species: A Hard Look at How We Treat Children'') appeared in Parade magazine. He writes comic books. But, above all, he publishes compelling fiction that has allowed millions of readers to visualize issues that would otherwise be ignored.

"Why write a novel? As a working-class person, it's the only mass medium I have access to,'' says Vachss. "I don't own a television station. I don't have a radio show. I've got to wrap this message in a narrative to get it through to people.''

John Nichols is an editorial writer for The Capital Times.


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