All We Need of Hell:
The Stern Truth According to Andrew Vachss
By Julie Christopher
Originally published in the Nth Degree, Vol. 1, No. 2; October 1999
Mystery-thriller writer and child-defense lawyer, Andrew Vachss turns a cold eye to the world. He's a noble cynic who's parlayed his hatred of child abuse into a cause celebre. Not because he has a particular fondness for children. But because he needs an object worthy of his felt antipathy. And who can fault another for hating child abuse?
Vachss' self-professed aim in writing his bleak stories is to incite anger, to reveal the depths of hell on earth. His dispassionate prose offers disquieting glimpses into the secret, ghastly lives around us. Pedophiles. Pornographers. Junkies. Killers. The 56-year-old Vachss peoples his fiction with reasons to hate. When asked if he ever tires of dealing with everyday evil, he says, "Just because you refuse to look doesn't mean the evil isn't there."
Vachss took to writing in the early '70s in order to reach an audience outside the courtroom. His initial effort, a textbook on juvenile crime published in 1979, received glowing reviews but failed to reach the wider audience he sought. So he turned to fiction with Flood (1985), the first of his sometimes controversial novels featuring Burke. The book concerns pedophiles deliberately getting jobs in day-care centers in order to molest kids.
Vachss has chronicled the grim investigations of Burke and his associated band of riff-raff in 11 books to date, including the recently published Choice of Evil. Burke is part-criminal, part-detective and all vigilante. Vachss deals exclusively with commonplace horrors: even when writing about Batman (in Batman: The Ultimate Evil, 1995), he has no use for supernatural fiends. His main message is: Who needs Satan or the biblical hell? We have all we need of hell already.
ND: I've read you were a difficult high school student. Tell me what led you to a career in law.
AV: I was 17 years old, working in a factory and signed up to enlist in the Marine Corps. And after going through all of that, they had something called the Platoon Leader Course, that if you passed all their stuff they'd pay for college, room, board, tuition and books. Then right at the end, as I'm ready to step over the line, the doctor asked me what happened to my face (referring to his injured right eye, which he typically covers with a patch). And I told him what I'd told everyone up to then, which was that I'd injured it in a fight but it would be okay soon. Now the Marines don't have their own doctors, they use a corpsman to do the first examinations. But that day, there was a real doctor, a Navy doctor. And this doctor took me in to read the charts.
Well, that was no problem. I read the chart just like I read all charts: memorize it, then read it with my left eye. But then he put the binoculars on, flipped the lid on the left eye closed and said, 'Now read it.' Obviously, I couldn't, so I was done. He sent me home. Now, all my options were gone and college was my only chance to get out of the factory (where he worked after graduating high school). But I don't want to claim that I am academically-motivated. I got into college because of my SAT scores. My grades wouldn't have gotten me into trade school. I hated school and didn't want to be there.
ND: How do you think law school shaped you or didn't shape you to be the kind of lawyer you are?
AV: I didn't go to law school right after college. I did quite a few things in between: I was a Federal investigator in sexually-transmitted diseases; I was a case worker in New York City; I was in the war in Biafra; I ran a maximum-security prison for violent youth; and twenty or so other things. It was at the end of all this that I thought the only way I could make a change was to be my own boss. I didn't fit well in these alleged "helping" professions. And that's when I decided to go to law school.
By the time I went to law school, it didn't have any effect on me at all. I saw law school as sort of an annoyance, like if you got three points on your driver's license and you have to spend a day in traffic school. That's how I saw law school. I'd been married and divorced, had experienced a lot of risks, some serious injuries and some high stakes and frankly, passing or not passing an exam didn't raise my anxiety level.
ND: What did you do after college?
AV: I took the most adventurous job I could find—as a field investigator in sexually-transmitted diseases for the U.S. Public Health Services. It was a major program and the enemy was syphilis.
Among the sexually-transmitted diseases that concern someone of your age (Gen X), syphilis probably isn't even on the list. I'm not saying it doesn't exist. But frankly, you're worried about AIDS, herpes or chlamydia; you're not worried about syphilis. So my job was to find the people who had the disease, and persuade them to talk to me. Which was no mean feat since you needed to obtain all their sexual contacts within the critical period. I was detached, self-supervised, out in the field most of the time. I didn't come to the office everyday. For some investigations, I was completely undercover. You couldn't use notepads, or recorders. I spent my time in juke joints and whorehouses, night clubs and back alleys, penthouses and basements and labor camps. It was really exciting and challenging. But the hard part was getting people to give up their contacts and then finding the contacts. I was usually looking for "some blonde named Mary Ellen" in some joint where the infected person met her.
ND: What qualities make you a good attorney?
AV: My background as an investigator and as a person who's worked with every kind of human being you could think of, has given me a clear sense that preparation is more important than any other aspect of a case. I think that makes me a good lawyer. I think I really know my field and the players intimately. I also don't know what it means to throw in the towel.
ND: Do these same qualities make you a good novelist?
AV: With the law, there is a quantifiable result: I win the case and the kid is removed from the parents, or the kid is adopted, or the perpetrator has to pay the kid a lot of money, or someone goes to prison. But when you write a book, what is a good novelist? I write the books for a reason and I don't really care about rewards. I learned a long time ago that if I am going to take seriously the reviews that say I am the new Dickens, I have to take seriously the ones that say I am the king of vigilante slasher porn. So I don't take any of them seriously.
ND: It's strange for the protagonist in your books, Burke, to be a criminal. What sparked you to pick a character like Burke to portray your fight against child abuse and women batterers?
AV: I wanted to show you what hell looked like and I didn't think an angel would be the appropriate guide. I wanted to do the anti-Chandler. I didn't want like this handsome, intellectually-gifted, well-dressed, morally superior white knight who does everything for the right reasons. I just thought that would trivialize my subject because no one accepts that as reality. And reality is what I really wanted to show folks.
ND: Are you trying to teach something in all of your work?
AV: I'm not sure if I am trying to teach something as much as to ignite anger. I mean, people say they learn things from the books. But I am really trying to put out warning labels as opposed to teach people. I wrote about modem trafficking and kiddy porn in 1987 and what I got from book reviewers was what a disgusting imagination I have. It had nothing to do with imagination; we were seeing this stuff. And over and over again, I'll write about something and some ditzy reporter will call me up and say, 'Oh, my goodness, life just imitated art' because they just discovered the reality. We've had this all along, from the very beginning. Even child abuse as a topic was regarded as "strange," but it became the plot device of the 90's. At least in the crime-suspense field.
ND: Have you seen any real world impact from your literary works?
AV: I can't measure it, except that I get so much mail. Unless one person is writing me thousands of letters, people are independently engaged. But impact? It's too egotistical of a word for me.
ND: What about your fight against child prostitution in Thailand?
AV: Well look, Thailand has changed a lot. But I sure as hell didn't cause the southeast Asian financial crash, the primary cause of the change in traffic, which is now moving somewhat out of Thailand and into the Philippines. I think I get far more credit than I deserve. People will say, 'Look at all the changes in child protection and that's your work.' That's nonsense! Or, 'You're the only lawyer that does this work.' That's crazy! I've gotten a ton of attention because of the cases I've tried. Perhaps it's because the media has been way too interested in me. I don't know.
The reality is, anyone who sits around and measures his or her impact is really not worthy of discussion. I don't know how you do that. I think 50 years after you're gone, people could legitimately decide what, if any, impact you had. I'll tell you what I do know: I have had a measurable impact on the individual children I've represented. I can tell you in very specific terms what is different about their lives because I entered it. But some global sort of pronouncement, I just couldn't do it. That's not me.
ND: Are you involved in any lobbying for legislation to get tougher penalties for crimes against children?
AV: Some say that's all I do is lobby. Some say that every book I write, or article I write for Parade (a Sunday newspaper supplement), or speech I give is nothing but lobbying. I wrote the basis of the National Child Protection Act of 1993. But do I belong to a national organization? No.
ND: I've read that you don't agree with capital punishment?
AV: I think it's stupid.
ND: Why would you rather have the taxpayers pay for life in prison than for the state to engage in capital punishment?
AV: Do I think we are better off with these people dead? The answer is absolutely, 'Yes.' But the argument that it costs the taxpayers money doesn't work because it costs more money to kill somebody than to incarcerate them. Reality is, the average person sentenced to death waits 13-and-a-half years before execution at per-year costs several times that of a person in a conventional prison. So the money argument is silly.
ND: Is the cost so high because of the appeal process a person sentenced to death is entitled to?
AV: It's based on how long the process takes and on the kind of incarceration you have to provide for someone on death row. You see, the analogy is sort of the difference between someone in a hospital ward and someone in a private room. Also, you have to provide counsel for these appeals and there is something really magical about the sacred death penalty. For example, in New York, you might be paid $40 an hour to defend someone on a murder charge. But if it's a capital murder charge, you might be paid $175 an hour. It actually costs a lot more to have the death penalty; it doesn't save money.
And the death penalty itself has been applied in the most racist, classist, arbitrary and capricious manner you can imagine. So I can't be in favor of that. I also can't be in favor of it because of the very real possibility of a fatal mistake.
I also know for a fact that it doesn't deter anybody. The states with death penalties and without don't show any differences in murder rates. Essentially, you either commit a murder not expecting to get caught, or you're in a mental state where it isn't a factor.
ND: You seem to hit on a number of themes consistently in your stories. Is it becoming increasingly more difficult to come up with new ways of exploring them?
AV: I wish it was. I mean, I really wish it was. In fact, if I had a wish, if there was a God I believed in, I would pray to Him for the books to be based on fiction.
ND: You have a new collection of short stories that came out in September. What can you tell me about it?
AV: My first short story collection outdid the publisher's expectations. Vintage is publishing the new series. The opening story features the only romance I've ever written. I have two different series: one is called, Cross and the other, Underground. Stories from both appear in this collection. And then there is just a motley assortment of stuff that has appeared everywhere from Esquire to Blood Drip.
ND: Speaking of Cross, I've read you weren't happy with Dark Horse's comic-book adaptation of some of your Cross stories the copies to be destroyed.
AV: First, I commend Dark Horse for keeping its word on that. I was disgusted with the artwork. It was horrible. And that's why they were destroyed.
ND: You explore a new topic in your latest novel Choice of Evil. What compelled you to write about this?
AV: We were talking before about where I get my material and this is kind of right in your face. Well, I've connected a lot of threads and gay bashing is important enough in and of itself to drive the book. It was a chance to make points about it and I used that chance the best I could. But that's not really the drive of the book. You'll have to read it to figure out just what the drive is. I'm not giving anything away.
Reprinted with the permission of Nth Degree.