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An Interview with Andrew Vachss

By John Krewson, Assistant Editor, The Onion A.V. Club, November 1996


Andrew Vachss isn't exactly known for his light-heartedness. An author and lawyer—and former federal investigator, social worker, labor organizer and prison director—his life's work has revolved around representing and defending children who have been victims of abuse. His 10 crime novels, the latest of which is this fall's False Allegations, mirror his own work in real life, as do his handful of impressive graphic novels, including this fall's Hard Looks. The Onion recently spoke with Vachss about his sobering work and his visceral, vengeance-driven crime fiction.

The Onion: So how's it going?

Andrew Vachss: Well, it's a war, you know, so it ebbs and flows. We have times when we're doing particularly well, and things seem to be moving our way, and then we have setbacks. It's a fight, you know? You lose rounds.

O: Right now, do you think things are going better?

AV: In the past 30 years, there have been advances made in child protection that were unheard of in the past 3,000. So in that sense, there's been wonderful progress. On the other hand, there's the inevitable so-called backlash that we're kind of in the midst of, as we speak. I don't think this is a high point for children in this country or any other, but I don't think the ground that's been lost has been irretrievably lost, so I'm looking forward to, say, the year 2000. I think we're going to get back to having made really significant strides.

O: What's the biggest threat to kids right now?

AV: The biggest threat to children is always inside their houses. The much-mythologized predator with the ski-mask who grabs the kid out of a van, while a real thing, is a tiny percentage of those who prey upon children. Most victimization of children is within the circle of trust—not necessarily a parent, but somebody who was led into that circle, who can be a counselor, or a coach, or someone at a day-care center. The biggest danger to children is that we have never made a connection between today's victim and tomorrow's predator. The biggest danger to children is that they're perceived as property, not human beings. And the biggest danger to children is that our species has kind of lost its biological imperative.

O: By which you mean... ?

AV: What happens to a mother cat who refuses to take care of her kittens? What happens to those kittens?

O: They die.

AV: Right. And what happens to their genetic potential for lack of nourishing?

O: It's lost.

AV: Right. But not with humans, right? If you abandon your child, if you misuse your child, if you abuse your child, if you maltreat your child, if the child doesn't die, then what?

O: This is where I say that it goes on into cycles of abuse.

AV: Not necessarily. In fact, the vast majority of abused children don't grow up to be predators; they grow up to be people who abuse themselves in a great variety of ways. But they are damaged, they're injured, they're hurt. And our species, instead of [upholding] its highest duty—to protect its young—we don't do that. We simply don't do that. And although the people who would protect children vastly outnumber those who would hurt them, it's a question of who's driving the car, not who's the passenger.

O: I would think that would be a hard thing to try to tell America, to say that loving children isn't enough.

AV: That is a hard thing to tell America. I know that from the mail that I get. [Laughs.] Yeah, it's a hard thing, but a lot of truth is hard.

O: Do you find that people just don't want to listen?

AV: Of course, but my job's not to educate people; my job is to make them angry. Informed, inactive people are just as useless as ignorant people. There are people who would prefer not to hear what the truth is; there are people who would prefer that the truth be otherwise. There are people who would prefer that we be fooled. But I do believe that most people have within them this almost innate desire to protect children. And if shown a clear path to do that, they would.

O: What made you decide to channel your work into fiction?

AV: My first book was a textbook about juvenile violence. And it got wonderful reviews and lousy sales, and I realized there isn't much point in writing for "the [legal] profession," because I wasn't reaching that giant jury, you know, the jury much bigger than I'd ever find at the courthouse. So I switched to fiction, with the idea that as you digest the entertainment, you get the rest of it as well. It was an ambitious idea, and it succeeded far more than I'd ever imagined. But that was the idea from the beginning.

O: And you use the money from your novels to help fund your law firm, right?

AV: Well, my clients are all children, so it's not a very lucrative career. [Laughs.] But the really unexpected money from the writing has enabled me not just to fund the practice, but to also do things I wouldn't have otherwise been able to do with it.

O: You wrote a Batman story [Batman: The Ultimate Evil] for DC Comics, and a lot of people were shocked at some of the things you put into it. What did DC think about that?

AV: Well, you'd have to ask DC. I think their reaction varied pretty radically, but the bottom line was I wrote the book and they could either take it as is or pass. I didn't submit to any bad editing on it.

O: Not to trivialize what you do or anything, but you're kind of like Batman, with the glamorous writing life providing money to fund your practice.

AV: Well, I don't really see much of a similarity, frankly, because the point I was trying to make with the Batman book was that there's a difference between fighting child abuse and fighting child abusers. And we don't have a knockout punch for child abuse, my friend. We just don't possess one. I mean, would that there was some sort of pyramid model, some hierarchy with a king at the top where if you knocked him off, that would do it. We don't have that. This is swimming in the horizon, and all of us who are engaged in it know they're going to drown before they reach it. You know, we're counting on the next wave and the wave after that. So far from being any sort of superhero, I'm just a soldier. I don't have a role; I'm a player in a really big game, and I probably get more credit than I deserve for changes that have been made, because I'm more visible than others. But remember, I was at this for a hell of a long time before there were any books. I was a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, I was a social case worker, I was in Biafra during that insane war, I was a juvenile probation officer, I ran a re-entry center for ex-convicts. But the last thing I did before I went to law school was I ran a maximum-security prison for so-called violent aggressive youth, and that's when I saw, as clearly as if it were a neon billboard, the connection between abuse and violence, and I realized that if we wanted to interdict the great beast, we had to do it much earlier than we were trying to do it.

O: And the great beast is... ?

AV: The great beast to me is a predator whose appetite is particularly peaked by children, because that's what threatens our species more than Communism and cocaine combined.

O: Well, by stopping...

AV: Well, what do you believe? Do you believe you can be born a serial killer?

O: Actually, no.

AV: No. So if we know that there's a recipe, what we have to do is alter that recipe. And what we found is that the amount of alteration varies with the earliness of the intervention. So although trauma can take place at an extraordinarily young age, counter-trauma, which we call "setting back-fires," can also begin at a very early age. The later we have to wait before we can engage in that process, the less chance we have of being successful.

O: Explain counter-trauma.

AV: Well, that's why I use the term back-fires. When you have a forest fire raging out of control...

O: You set smaller fires to keep it from spreading.

AV: Yeah. What happens with trauma is it alters processing. A good example is, you ever seen a baby in a baby carriage? You kind of wiggle your fingers at it and the kid laughs? Well, let's say you did that and the child flinched. Would you assume that the child has learned to associate a raised hand with a blow?

O: Maybe.

AV: I might, but what I would now assume with what we know, is it's not that the child's done thought-association, or that the child's learned; the child's processing centers have been altered so that a raised hand does mean a blow. Traumatized children interpret the same cues you and I get differently. And that's how romance becomes rape. If you measure the heart-rate of a human being who's beating his wife, instead of the rapid acceleration that you would expect, it's quite common that it's at peace. When you get predators who are so distorted that peace within them is found by causing injury to others, you've got an extraordinarily dangerous creature. Nobody's born like that.

O: I know you have a harsh view of what should be done with people who harm children. At what point do you think it's irreversible?

AV: That's a really good question. Do you know what an osmotic membrane is?

O: It passes certain things and not others?

AV: You can pass through it, say, going left from right?

O: But not the other way.

AV: That's right. That's the model we use. There's a certain calcification that takes place, and what we say about the beast, of course, is that you don't know where the beast is going, but you always know where it's been. So we look for chronicity more than any other distinguishing diagnostic factor. The more behavior has become stylized—the more it's become repeated so it's part of a lifestyle as opposed to some episodic event—the less likely we are to feel the person is amenable to rehabilitation. Obviously, a piece of chronicity is age. I've worked with sex offenders as young as 9 years old, and I've got to believe—and I've got to say that at this point, it's nothing more than a belief—that we can get a result with such kids if we have intensive enough and skilled enough intervention. But I wouldn't want to try that when someone's 39. And the other thing is, where do we assume the risk? It's all very well and good to talk about rehabilitation, but the people who want to take these risks are not taking them personally. It's always my kids or your kids that these people should go baby-sit for.

O: When you're actually in court, what's it like being up against these people every day?

AV: It's a fight with very high stakes. It's not an intellectual exercise, it's not a question of who's got the best vocabulary. It's a fight with a very clear winner and loser.

O: Do you ever have any personal animosity? [AV laughs.] What do you think the person up against you feels?

AV: Are you talking about the actual perpetrator or his lawyer?

O: Either. Both.

AV: Well, some lawyers personify... Some lawyers take it very personally, and get very upset at the results. Others are sort of detached and more professional, and see it as more of a chess problem, and don't invest themselves. For the perpetrator him or herself—I don't want you to think only males do this—I devote enormous hostility. [Laughs.] Because it's ultimately very frustrating to them. They're used to being all-powerful. They're used to being God. They're used to having life-and-death control over their victims. Now they're in a situation where their movements are really circumscribed. And although they can still lie and they still do the weaselly things they do, frontal assault is out of the question. Of course, some of them are kind of craven about it, and some of them try and curry favor, and some of them try to tell you very complicated stories about what they do. Most of them try and appeal to me on the basis that they were abused children. The problem with appealing to me that way is that for every beast that emerges from that crucible, I know thousands who refuse to imitate the oppressor. And to me, of course, those are the greatest heroes. In fact, the real mystery of life is not why a tortured child becomes a serial killer, but why a tortured child doesn't. And that's the area we're looking at; that's the area of potential hope. That's the Rosetta stone to all this.

O: Any progress?

AV: Yeah. Oh sure. It takes little to offset trauma if it's done environmentally. Have you ever seen attack dogs being trained?

O: Actually, yeah.

AV: Okay. You know how easy it is to deal with a dog if the dog leaves its feet, right?

O: Yes.

AV: So if a 120-pound Rottweiler charges at you and jumps up in the air, you could slap it out of the way, right?

O: Yes, because it's lost its connection with the ground.

AV: Right. And that's what abuse does. So just imagine the trauma as a shock that sends them off the ground. It doesn't take a whole lot of pressure to divert that. You don't have to blow it up. So we believe that setting these back-fires can work, if we can get in early enough. Because to re-alter processing is a tremendous amount of work. Let's take that baby who believes the raised hand is going to be a blow. If that's the way the baby processes that, you may have to raise your hand 10,000 times with a kiss and a cuddle and sweet words before that processing starts to alter. But if you're committed to doing that, you can do it.

O: We've talked a lot about Andrew Vachss, the person and the lawyer. But the reason, basically, that I know about you is through your novels.

AV: Sure.

O: Tell me something about your fictional hero, Burke. He's hardly a lawyer.

AV: No. Burke is the prototypical abused child. Hyper-vigilant, distrustful, capable of enormous bonding because he's so desperate for it. As an unattached child, attachments mean everything to him. But he's also capable of enormous violence if the one thing that matters to him on the planet is threatened.

O: In the latest book, you seem to have progressed the themes, too. The early books were grittier and somewhat broader, although they dealt with complex issues. In False Allegations, the most important action happens because of investigations Burke performs while working for a lawyer.

AV: Supposedly he is, yeah.

O: Are you slowly trying to educate your audience even more?

AV: No. It's simply that this particular theme, the theme of false allegations [of child sexual abuse], the pure ground between the people who say it's all a witch hunt and the people who say there's, you know, a massive Satanic conspiracy? That pure ground comes from the mind, and so this book belonged there. I try and write each book about a particular aspect of the work I'm doing. When you get involved in the so-called false-memory controversy, or any of that stuff, that is in the brain. That's what this book had to be about. What I was trying to do was give the devil his due. I was trying to write a book so you would clearly see—and by you I mean the unaligned person—both sides of this issue and have information upon which you could make a decision. Because the whole point of this book is that there isn't a straight answer to this, like abortion or capital punishment. It's not a belief system. Each case is an individual case. There is a way to engage in these investigations so that only wrongdoers would feel the truth. As far as grittiness goes, I don't know if you mean gritty in terms of splatter or shooting, but sure, there's less. If you mean gritty in terms of the incredible violence that's done to human beings, I don't think this book shows any less of that.

O: Some critics have said your characters are a little too, well, comic-bookish.

AV: Yeah, people can say that. They can say whatever they want, but frankly, I'm pretty bored with this "moral ambiguity" crap. Life's too short. And some things are black and white. Raping a child is black and white. You want to tell me there's a gray area to that, you go ahead, that's your opinion. I don't share it. I know that people love the idea, especially the serial-killer books. All these wonderful shades that you're supposed to look at. Well, that's okay if that's what they want to do. But I'm writing what I see. And if folks see something different, it's their prerogative to dismiss it or call it comic-bookish. But I wonder what they actually know about the subject. So many people, especially younger people, are unhealthily cynical.

O: It's a skepticism. The best of it is, anyway.

AV: Skepticism and cynicism are not the same thing. This book was written, I hope, for skeptics, for people who have not already made up their mind about whether there's this epidemic of false allegations or whether there is, in fact, a plague of child abuse. What I'm hoping is that as somebody reads the book they'll say, okay, I have some tools now. And the next time there's a case in the paper, and the media's taking slant X or slant Y, there's questions I'd like to ask and things I'd like to know before I simply act like a sheep and follow the shepherd's rod. I'm actually egotistical enough to hope that when people read this book in any of the countries in which it's printed, some of them will say, let me write to ChildTrauma Academy [an organization which provides clinical services to children in need, as well as conducting research and training in the field of child protection]. Let me find out what's going on. Let me learn some more about it. The books are the only chance I would ever have to speak to more people than I can get together in a room. If you're a working-class person, how do you do that? This whole business is about multiplier effects. That's what my whole work is. A child who would've become a torturer or a rapist who becomes a warrior against them ... It's not like you've saved merely one person there. When you write on a regular basis, by which I don't mean novels, but when you're a journalist, the power that you have is enormous. I don't think it's deeply understood or respected the way it once was. Because of TV, mostly. I know. I've done interviews with international papers that have only lasted four and a half minutes. "How come you have a patch over your eye? Is that a tattoo on your right hand? How many times have you been married? Thank you."

O: I've seen a few other interviews you've done. The photographers seem to like to take your picture with you holding a dog.

AV: Well, that dog that I hold... that nobody asked me to do. They asked me to pose with, you know, a gun or something. The reason I used that dog... you know what kind of dog that is?

O: Tell me.

AV: It's a baby pit bull. Most people look at the picture and say, "What a wonderful dog! What a cute, sweet dog!" And that is kind of my point. You get what you raise. So, no. I don't actually pose for stuff. There's hundreds of pictures that have me sort of glaring at somebody. It's not really my taste. [Laughs.] But for this book, it's so ambitious and it is a departure, so I made sure they took a picture of me at least shaven.

John Krewson is the assistant editor of The Onion, an entertainment newspaper based in Madison, Wisconsin. To obtain a subscription, write to The Onion, 33 University Square #270, Madison, WI 53715. For more information, log on to their web site at http://www.theonion.com.



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