Writing the Wrongs
Hard-boiled mystery author Andrew Vachss gets tough.
Interview by Paul La Rosa
Originally published in Gallery, September 1991
Although he's been fighting on behalf of abused children for 25 years as a criminal-defense attorney and public-health investigator, Andrew Henry Vachss did not leap into national prominence until 1985 with the publication of his first crime novel, Flood. Rave reviews greeted his book, and critics gushed that they'd found the long sought after successor to Raymond Chandler—a mystery writer with coglione.
Vachss' protagonist, Burke, is the type of tough-guy/good-guy detective people love: He has no telephone (preferring to tap his neighbor's lines), he exists on Chinese food from a dive called Mama's, his best friend is a mute strongman, and his turf is the city's gutter. Burke dares to tread where sickos are found, and because Burke was hatched by Vachss, the sickos irretrievably are connected to child abuse, kiddie porn, and incest.
After working in various jobs—including federal investigator and the head of a juvenile-detention center—Vachss wrote Flood because he wanted the country to acknowledge the wide-spread abuse of children in our society and people to see that this abuse was creating, in his words, "a generation of monsters." His goal was to have society wake up and stagger toward a meaningful response. However, his success has been mixed: A series of books featuring Burke—Strega, Blue Belle, Hard Candy, Blossom, and his most recent, Sacrifice has sold well. But society has balked at picking up the enormous challenge thrown down by Vachss. Child abuse is acknowledged more than ever but no one has come up with a plan to resolve the situation.
Undaunted, the 48-year-old Vachss—whose wife, Alice is the Bureau Chief of the Special Victims unit of the Queens, N.Y. District Attorney's office—fights on behalf of children both here and abroad. If anything, his books are more popular overseas, where he's won major literary awards in France, Japan, and Germany. That soon may change: Blue Belle is being given major Hollywood treatment by Paramount Pictures (the first of Vachss' books to reach the big screen), which should introduce the author and his off-beat detective to a whole new audience. Vachss (who wears an eye patch as the result of a childhood accident) has taken his earnings as a writer and put them into his legal practice. Not suprisingly, he takes only cases involving crimes against children.
GALLERY: Your books and your legal practice center on pedophilia, but it's a topic that most people would go out of their way to avoid. Why are you so interested in the subject?
VACHSS: Because there is a type of human being that we generically call "monster": Serial killers, multiple rapists, arsonists who like to watch the flames. They cause an amount of damage that can't be calculated. You have to accept one of two theories about monsters. It's very, very simple. They're born, or they're made. I think the key to the monster matrix is early, chronic, intense child abuse. I think that's how we get beasts. So that's what fascinates me about it. I think there are answers that can actually change the course of the way we function in this country. That's why.
GALLERY: Do you feel that today's abused child could become tomorrow's sociopath?
VACHSS: That's exactly right. "Sociopath" is the kind of word everybody throws around, but it's actually very simple. It means a lack of empathy. Empathy is not something we are born with. You have a young child. How much empathy has the kid got? Zero, right? He wants something, he expresses his wants. If it's within his physical power, he tries to take it, right? He feels only his own feelings. As the child grows and is socialized, he learns to feel others' feelings. And, more importantly, others' pain. He becomes a human being.
There are people who never develop that. They're the most dangerous people in the world because you can move very, very quickly when you're unencumbered by moral or ethical values. Now, some sociopaths become ambulatory and they're very successful on Wall Street. I'm not saying sociopath means monster, but the sociopath who is motivated violently will not be deterred by society's rules.
I think the only way to stop the production of sociopaths is early strong intervention in child-abuse cases.
GALLERY: What would you do?
VACHSS: It depends. Basically, there's a tripartite paradigm for child abuse. There are "inadequates"—[those] simply not equipped to be parents. Prototypical example: The 12-year-old girl with a baby of her own who can't distinguish between the baby as doll to gratify her needs and the baby as living thing that she needs to gratify. Such people benefit immeasurably from what social workers, in my opinion, incorrectly call rehabilitation.
Category two is people who are crazy—and I mean card-carrying, legitimately crazy. Paranoid schizophrenics. They hear voices, they have delusions. Someone thinks the baby has devils in him and they put the baby in the oven, they turn on the heat, they're gonna bake the baby. Right?
The third category is where me and the social work establishment part ways, perhaps irretrievably. And that category is evil. People who hurt children for their own pleasure and/or their own profit.
What would I do about them? I would do different things. For category one, services can really produce a result. Remediation can really produce a result. For category two, the answer is psychiatry. The extent to which psychiatry has a response to a particular disorder is the extent to which we can be successful. The third category, we're talking about a war. There is no such thing as rehabilitation for a sociopath. A sociopath doesn't feel any such needs.
What I would do is separate the categories and provide response teams for each specific category. The problem is that those who are evil get comingled with other groups, and this country gives aid and comfort to them. Let me ask you something: What's the difference between having sex with your own eight-year-old girl and your neighbor's eight-year-old girl?
VACHSS: Exactly. Nothing. Look at this illustration: You have sex with your own little child. [Sarcastic.] It's a family dysfunction, huh? You need counseling. You have sex with your neighbor's little girl, you're a pervert, right? So this tells you if you grow your own victims, you get a certain kind of immunity. That has to be ruthlessly combatted, and it is not. You have sex with a child, that's a crime. But it's not treated that way. Why is that? You have a constituency here that's being horribly attacked all across the country. That constituency lacks what every other constituency has—the vote.
GALLERY: So you think that the reason the law is so weak is because children can't vote?
VACHSS: I think historically, children have been property. If you look at the history of this country, we had a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals before we had one for the prevention of cruelty to children. I think that a nonvoting constituency is always at risk. I'm not advocating giving the children the vote. What I am saying is—If you accept the proposition that today's victim can be tomorrow's predator, [and] if you say to yourself, what's a Ted Bundy worth? What's a Charles Manson worth? What's a John Wayne Gacy worth? Then you say, "My self-interest is impacted now." If people are allowed to torture children, we'll all pay for it in some way. And if you conceptualize child protection as crime prevention, now you get the front-line effort. That's my mission, if I have one. That's what I want people to understand.
GALLERY: You don't believe in rehabilitation for pedophiles?
VACHSS: I don't even believe that there are pedophiles. Look, there's a difference between feeling the feelings and acting on the feelings. If you feel the desire to molest a child, I'll grant you that that's sick. If you act on it, it's evil. It's a different ball of wax. Can you see a couple of cops sitting around the interrogation room, and [a suspect is] being asked about an armed robbery, and he won't talk. Can you hear the cops saying, "Well, gee, John's in denial." Is there an offense called "armed robberia?" These are child molesters. The fact that we have a pretty theatric term is simply a "Get out of jail free" card. What you do, and not what it's called, is what counts. And to steal a child's soul, which is exactly what happens... there is no greater crime.
GALLERY: If these people can't be rehabilitated, what do you do?
VACHSS: Fair question. Now we're talking about the predatory pedophile, right? The first thing you do is you raise the stakes. They're playing in a very cheap game now. You molest a child, the odds are you're going to get probation, even if you're caught. So, if you raise the stakes, that will take some people out of the game. If they're looking at appropriate penalties for what they all do. Some of them won't participate. Those who do participate, we have to provide the penalties that are sufficient to take them out of circulation for considerable periods of time and escalate them for repeated offenses.
I will let the treatment people do whatever they want. But if I was the crime czar, I would say, "You got three months, all of you. Turn in your kiddie porn, turn in your networks, and you can all go into treatment. Not one of you has to go to prison. Just come in right now.'' But only for that short period of time. After that, all bets are off. After that, we drop you; you go down for the count.
GALLERY: Is the political will there to make that happen?
VACHSS: Why shouldn't it happen? Look, my books are in 16 languages. I've been all over the world. I've listened very carefully, and I believe this: If, in America, the number of people who've been abused as children would step forward, you'd have enough votes to elect a president. It's a vast group that I call "children of the secret" who have suffered egregiously in childhood. Now it comes out in different ways. I'm not suggesting that everybody who's been abused as a child becomes an abuser. l think that's nonsense. But some people do.
Part of it is propensity, part of it is environment. But it's that early treatment. People come out of POW camps and some of them function and some of them don't. A sexually abusive home is more intense than a POW camp because you don't even have the prospect of rescue. It's not there. And when you are attacked and tortured by the very people who are constituted to protect you, it's like the world flips over on its back. Once the child internalizes that no one will protect me, no one cares about me, any gratification I get has to be self-sought, you have the potential for a real monster.
When the public gets that on a self-interest basis, then the will [to do something about the situation] will be there. Because crime is the number-one pollutant, is it not? No matter where you go, if you ask people what perverts the quality of their life the most, they'll say crime. This [self-interest] could actually do something about [child abuse]. It won't do anything about car thieves, it won't do anything about embezzlers, it won't stop the S&L crisis. But it will stop the person who gets up, puts pantyhose over his face, goes hunting.
GALLERY: If today's abused children possibly become tomorrow's monsters, what does that say about our future?
VACHSS: It means that our own children are gonna kill us if we don't do something! It means that child abuse is a greater threat to this country than cocaine and communism put together.
GALLERY: You've said that the family is the most dangerous place in our society. Can you explain that?
VACHSS: The family is given reverential respect. It's entitled to an enormous amount of privacy. It's rarely penetrated by government, except for the IRS of course. Because of that, and because we make assumptions that parents love their children, and because adults have far more power than children in terms of self-expression and access to politicians and the media, a child who is a victim is much less likely to be rescued than a child in any other situations of peril.
GALLERY: You once sued a woman to have her then unborn child taken away from her when she gave birth. What was that about?
VACHSS: It is not a right to keep a child and do with it as you will. The basis of my legal action was as follows: She had a number of other children. Seven, eight children. Every single one was in state custody because of abuse or neglect. Now, she's pregnant, OK? She's going to give birth to a child. What am I supposed to do? Since I represented all the other children, I knew exactly what was going on. What was I going to do, wait for this child to be abused? I didn't see it as interfering with fetal rights: No one said she couldn't get pregnant. I didn't see it as interfering with abortion rights.
No one said she couldn't abort. What I said was that state statute says "imminent danger." If I couldn't make a case that this unborn child would be in "imminent danger" upon birth, I should turn in my license. The court accepted it. And that's what was found. All she lost was her right to have immediate custody of that child. All I wanted was an immediate emergency removal upon birth to be followed by a trial, where the burden would be on me to prove that baby was in imminent danger; if I couldn't do that, she would get it. The interesting thing was that the baby was born with a positive toxology to cocaine because the warm, concerned, caring mother had been using crack throughout the pregnancy. The baby is now freed for adoption, and that baby is about to be adopted.
GALLERY: Is child abuse about sex or is it about power?
VACHSS: It's about power. It's got nothing to do with sex. It's the same as rape. Rape has nothing to do with sex. Child abuse is the domination of another human being whom you have complete control over... total environmental control.
GALLERY: It's sick.
VACHSS: See, that spontaneous observation is what I want to change. That's their "Get out of jail free" card. Sick is something you can cure. To have those feelings is sick. Once you do it, I don't want to say it's sick anymore. How come the guy who holds up a liquor store isn't sick?
GALLERY: Is child abuse worse now, or is it that we're hearing about it more?
VACHSS: There have been some changes. One is that you guys are doing your job. Journalism is really the only force for social change in this country. Until you reported it, it didn't exist. But since the Bible speaks about it, we kind of know it predated 1983. Second thing is technological change. When I was a kid, you needed a whole network of people if you wanted to go into the kiddie-porn business. Today, you can walk across the street to any video store and come out with enough equipment to, at least technologically, make as good a film as Cecil B. DeMille made in the '50s. Computers have changed it, fax machines have changed it. So, technologically, kiddie porn has become a significant industry. That's been the big change. In terms of something like incest, I do not believe there's been a change.
GALLERY: Your writing ties in closely with your real-life values. How does your most recent book, Sacrifice, compare to previous ones?
VACHSS: Significant things happen in this book that have not happened in previous books. On the surface, this is about "satanic" child abuse because I think that's gotten mythologized very much. What I mean by "satanic" is very different from what the media means by it. What I mean by it is simple terrorist child abuse using satanic trappings in furtherance of that terror. I don't believe any connection to the devil or an international devil conspiracy. I believe that terrorists use what works.
GALLERY: It involves human sacrifice?
VACHSS: Yes, human sacrifice. In other words, there is a strong subplot involving actual voodoo and that actual practice having nothing to do with child molestation. And the conflict between them.
GALLERY: You once said that you would only do two or three Burke books. But this is your sixth.
VACHSS: The reason I said I wanted to do two or three is that I never expected to have more than one. I expected to have the book come out and make my statement. I expected some response, but I didn't expect "success." And what the books have done is far more than I anticipated. They're in many foreign languages, which gives me an opportunity to dialogue over there. You're sitting in this office because of the books. I've been doing this work 25 years, but the media didn't become interested until the books. They've simply proven to be a much more valuable tool than I thought so I'm continuing to do it. That could stop tomorrow but for now...
GALLERY: You've resisted previous overtures from Hollywood. Why did you decide to have Paramount handle Blue Belle now?
VACHSS: The reason I made the decision is that we just got so many offers. Finally, I sat down with my lawyer and said, "Here's what we'll do. We'll write down what you want. The irreducible minimum, and we'll send it out to everybody. Maybe they'll all tell you to go to hell. Maybe some will stay in the game. Whoever stays in the game, that's who we'll try to work with." So we insisted on a number of things that I guess you could loosely characterize as control but were more limitations. For example, I can't have Roman Polanski direct my movie.
GALLERY: Is that one of your conditions?
VACHSS: Oh, absolutely. Not Roman Polanski, but anybody convicted of any crime against a child. Sure. And I guess he qualifies, huh? Those were the kind of controls. A number of studios stayed in the bidding and then I met David Picker, a producer for Paramount, and I really liked the guy. I felt from him the kind of maturity and commitment for doing this right that I hadn't seen in others. We made a contract as tight as we could, and I finally responded to the sort of confrontive pressure which was: "You wrote these books because you wanted the biggest audience possible for your message. More people will see a flop of a movie in a week than the greatest national bestseller in the world. So put up or shut up." It's a question of taking a risk and I finally decided to do it. As far as who's going to play Burke, I don't know.
GALLERY: Whom do you want to play Burke?
VACHSS: Somebody who nobody has ever heard of. Somebody who works. Somebody who functions. They may not need somebody with movie-star good looks, but downright ugly would probably be rejected.
GALLERY: Do you have anything to do with the script?
VACHSS: Only in a negative way. I can't say this is the guy who'll be the script guy but I can say I don't like that.
GALLERY: Did you ever want to do the script yourself?
VACHSS: No. In fact, I turned down that specific offer to do so because in the time it would take me to write the script—which I've never done in my life and admit that I don't know how to do—I could write another book, try a whole bunch more cases, give more lectures. In terms of going back and reinventing something, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Nick Pileggi [author of Wiseguy], who's a close pal of mine, told me: 'You could write the most perfect script in the world and some director could alter it.' Since I don't have any crazy ambitions, like to direct as well, it just seemed to me not a real smart thing. All it would do is make some money.
GALLERY: Do you have any fears about your book winding up like a film version of Bonfire of the Vanities, a great book which becomes a bastardization?
VACHSS: I'm not in any way saying my book's a great book. But having said that, yes. Sure, sure.
GALLERY: Is there any way to prevent that?
VACHSS: I've done the best I can with the contract. Some of the things in there are quite specific. They have to get an actual Neapolitan mastiff to play Pansy. They can't get some wimpy little Doberman to do that. No superhuman physical feats. No lifting up cars with one hand or punching through the walls. And, again, to the best one can use language to achieve it, no trivialization of child abuse, no covert support for pedophilia. That kind of thing.
GALLERY: Do you anticipate selling any more of the books?
VACHSS: Well, the deal with Paramount is, if this one flies, they take the next one; and if that one flies and so on.
GALLERY: What is the writing process for you?
VACHSS: I kept, from my investigator's days, comprehensive notes and journals on everything I did, I keep them on index cards and when a particular theme occurs to me, like Blue Belle was about incest, Strega was about kiddie pornography, etc., I figure out how to illustrate that theme with material I already have; I figure out the writing in my head. When it's all done. I type it out, which is why I call it manual labor.
GALLERY: You've said Burke is not a hero to you.
VACHSS: I don't think he's a hero to anybody. He's a man for hire. He's a mercenary. He's also a prototypically abused child. So he has the hypervigilance which non-participants would call paranoia. He's an outlaw. The only way he gets involved with child abuse is on a personal basis. Someone has to cross his path. But he's not a person who straps on his weapon and goes out to blow away child abusers.
GALLERY: Why are people attracted to him?
VACHSS: For different reasons. I get a ton of mail and a lot of it is from victims. I think people are also attracted to him because of the realness. If you are going to show people what hell looks like, an angel is not the most appropriate guy. He lives on the underbelly. He doesn't visit it on the weekend. Survivalists are attracted to it. I get a lot of mail from both cops and convicts. Some people hate him; I can't say everyone is attracted to him.
GALLERY: What cases are you working on now?
VACHSS: Jeez, every type of case you can think of. A little girl who was abused by a cult, a child who is the victim of a kiddie pornographer, an incest victim, torture victims, infants who were abused who I'm now taking through the adoption phase, kids that have basically grown up in care and are now adults and are handling that stage of the transition. Kids who have been accused of committing crimes. Kids who have been in every level of foster care, from individual homes to maximum security prisons.
GALLERY: Why don't you and your wife have children?
VACHSS: Because the vasectomy worked. Because I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to live it. Maybe I was selfish. I knew the kind of wild life I was living. I didn't feel that women should be subjected to all the kinds of dangerous birth control that women have to use simply because I didn't want to have children. I always disclosed that I did (have a vasectomy) so no one was under any delusions.
I don't have any delusions that the world needs my children or my genes are so worthy of preservation, so I made that decision. It would give the people with whom I'm in constant conflict a weapon that they don't have now. Nobody can threaten my children. And that means an awful lot to me. It wasn't a question of not wanting to bring a child into this world. I think children have to be brought into this world who are going to change it.
GALLERY: Do you get a lot of threats?
VACHSS: Well, one is a lot.
GALLERY: Has there been a case where the threat was acted upon?
VACHSS: Sure. I got my jaw broken working out in the field. I got my ribs broken working in an institution. I have not had for many years threats that people have acted upon. I get pictures of myself with cross hairs drawn across it. Letters that say what's going to happen to me.
GALLERY: You take precautions at home?
GALLERY: Do you carry a gun?
VACHSS: You know that it's illegal to carry guns in New York. I'm not licensed to carry a gun.
GALLERY: Are you frustrated that you can't act like Burke?
VACHSS: No. Burke is a limited human being. And I fancy that I'm not. Look, you can't go through a trial and listen to somebody take a witness stand and talk about how he sodomized his child and talk about how he only hurt himself without having some emotional ducts opened up in you. But I fancy myself to be an extremely well-controlled person.
GALLERY: Tell us more about your background.
VACHSS: Before I was a novelist, I was a federal investigator, I was in Biafra during the war, I ran a maximum-security prison, I worked with a labor organizing team with Saul Alinsky's people. Long before I wrote any books. I was a lawyer defending children before I wrote my books.
My biggest beef with crime writers is their total lack of understanding about what they write about. Did you ever get hit in the head with a two-by-four or a tire iron? I got hit in the head with a two-by-four and you know what? I didn't get up in ten minutes and start looking for clues. It's just nonsense. These pristine, perfect creatures who only do the right thing for the right reasons. Life isn't like that. It just isn't. What I do is important. Writing books is a mere adjunct to that.