ANDREW VACHSS: Swimming at the Horizon
Interview by Pete Humes
Originally published in Punchline, Richmond's Bi-Weekly Urban Manifest
April 2-16, 1998 #20
Okay, I'm scared of Andrew Vachss. Not actually frightened that he's going to do me harm, maybe just a bit overwhelmed. It's not very often in life that I come across someone as dedicated and serious about his work. Surprisingly, even though he is a highly regarded author of gritty crime fiction, he doesn't consider writing his work. Instead his mission is protecting children.
Vachss is the only lawyer in the country to exclusively represent children. He's become an avenger for the prey of adult abusers, exploiters, and the general scum of the Earth. He works tirelessly on their behalf to bring justice to criminals who take advantage and desecrate our nation's young people. It seemed the mere suggestion that anything else took priority over his cause was absurd. When I asked how he balanced his work with the crafting of novels, he replied simply and sternly. "I write about what I do. What I have been doing my whole life. But I don't attempt to balance it. They don't need to be balanced. My work is what counts. When and if there's time available, I use it for writing. I don't accept advances, I don't sign contracts for books. I'm under no obligation to produce one, so there's no need for this balance that you're talking about."
I'm impressed and curious about how a man can be so focused. There are plenty of ways I could try to explain, but I'm no expert in human psychology and Vachss is certainly not opening up on a personal level. He's got a job to do, and he's here to do it. To hell with anything that isn't relevant to moving forward, and pity the poor fool who asks a silly question.
In the late sixties Andrew Vachss worked for the United States Department of Health collecting information on sexually-transmitted diseases. When he discovered the shocking number of parents who had infected their own children through abuse and incest—something happened. I can almost hear the giant power switch being thrown, and the shower of sparks that sent Vachss propelling toward his destiny. Not so much the story of a shining knight on a white horse, but a self-proclaimed cog in the machine working for a larger cause.
He still speaks with anger when he remembers discovering those cases. "I just hated them and I still do. I wanted to incapacitate them. And I still do. I wanted to protect the victims and I still do. Nothing changed from that moment except my ability to affect it. As a man that young, all I had was the rage. I had to learn skills."
So he became a lawyer, and he became smarter where he needed to be smarter and he worked harder than anyone else because these were cases that had to be won. He changed the system from it's foundation, and he trained others in his army. To a lot of criminals, he was the bad guy, and Vachss realized that his lifestyle would have to change. The stories surrounding his fortified apartment and loyal pack of dogs varies, but it's safe to say that, if you're not supposed to be in his home, it's not a place you're going to enjoy.
As part of his national book tour for the latest Burke novel, SAFE HOUSE, he is scheduled to stop by Carytown Books on April 8. I had heard that he was tough. To lessen the intensity of a face-to-face meeting which might leave me feeling like I just dropped my pants in front of a crowd. I wanted to ask him some questions before he came to Richmond.
The funny thing is, even though he's several states away, and it's only his voice on the telephone, Andrew Vachss has the power to intimidate. Certainly nobody you want on the opposing team. I began to sweat after reading six different articles that portrayed him as the bad-ass of good guys. He's a hyper-intelligent professional with an addiction to the truth. Quite simply, he doesn't have the time nor the patience for anything short of the best. If you're in the road, you're going to be run over.
P: Can you tell me a little bit about what your new (March 29, 1998) PARADE article is about?
AV: The biggest topic I've ever tackled. The survival of our human species and why it's so endangered by the way that we treat our children.
P: How to you think we, as a country, should deal with the recent events in Jonesboro, Arkansas?
AV: Anyone that gives you a generic answer to that question belongs on the Jerry Springer Show. If we're not prepared to individualize the offender, the offense, the victim, and put it all in a functional context, we're not doing anything. I don't have any generic answer for it.
P: Do you think the media hand out too many generic answers?
AV: I think there's nothing but generic answers. Stupid ones at that. The decision whether or not to try these children as adults means what? It means nothing. It means absolutely nothing. The real thing everyone has to look at in that case—and nobody has so far—is the relationship between those two boys. It's not unusual for children to kill. It's highly unusual for two children acting in concert to kill.
P: Is it a breakdown in the way the media is reporting?
AV: I don't think it's a breakdown, I don't think they are being reported. I think it's just blather. "There's some shooting going on," that's not a report. Then they recycle the same garbage. I don't consider that there's been any investigative journalism done so far in this case. And there won't be until relationship between those two boys is completely understood. Instead we've just got "Oh, the horror of deer rifles."
P: I thought it was pretty irrelevant to show those old Christmas videos.
AV: Plenty of children who play with guns to an obsessive degree don't induce another child to join them in setting up a gauntlet of bullets to mow down a bunch of people. Those are the easy, simple minded 'Geraldo' connections. They don't do anything for me. I've been doing this my whole life and what I'm trying to do is actually investigate and actually deconstruct, but they need an answer that can be compressed into 45 seconds, usually while you're being interrupted by some other idiot who wants camera time. You're not going to get the truth there.
P: Did you notice these problems with the media in any of your cases?
AV: The best you could hope for was that it be superficially accurate. In other words, hope that it wouldn't contain any material misstatements of fact. Very often they just miss it entirely. Then of course you have people with their own agenda, so the people who's agenda is anti-gun are seizing this and using this as their particular platform. The people's whose agenda is hyper-christianity is saying that divorce is what caused this. Every time I'm on a radio talk show, I make up a bunch of index cards. One says 'abortion', one says 'capital punishment', one says 'corporal punishment', and one says 'false allegations of child sexual abuse'. The host says "What are you doing?" I say, "Well, I'm trying to guess by the sound of their voice which agenda the caller will have." Nobody is ever calling in response to the issue. They're simply calling to express their standardized views. I'm not interested.
P: You come across as a person in strict control, and power of own life. When did this control become essential in your life?
AV: When I was a child, I wasn't raised in an area where you could not be in control of yourself without some ugly consequences.
P: Do you ever feel like you're personally making a difference? Has there ever been a...
AV: I don't care. I'm a soldier, not a general. It doesn't matter if I'm personally making a goddamn difference. I'm not going to stop and count scalps. It's a war, you fight until it's over. In this case it won't be over in my lifetime. I am in it for the duration. I don't give a rat's ass about the medals. There's been cosmic changes in the way we deal with child abuse. If I'm going to sit around and contemplate what percentage of those changes I'm personally responsible for, then I would not be the kind of person I would respect. I'm swimming at a horizon and I'm going to drown before I reach it. It's got to be the next wave, and the next wave, and the next wave that's going to actually plant the flag. I'm not going to do it.