Avenger of the Abused Child
In courtroom and in print, Andrew Vachss targets "miserable vampires" who prey on the young.
By Kelly Luker
Originally published in Sober Times, September 1992
Sober Times: Why have you dedicated your life to fighting child abuse?
Andrew Vachss: I think you can do two things with your life. You can spend your time in introspection or you can spend your time doing something. The time it would take me to sort out why I do this is really of no importance. Certainly no client has asked me. It's a cocktail party question, but the reality is: why aren't you—not why am I?
Sober Times: When you started doing this around 25 years ago, incest and child molesting was considered by polite society to be nonexistent. Are you surprised by the statistics being quoted now?
Andrew Vachss: Certainly not!
Sober Times: Do you think they're accurate, when some sources say one in four women have been sexually abused?
Andrew Vachss: I think those are guesstimates. I don't think accuracy applies to a crime that is almost always committed in the darkness. It's a crime in which the victim is made to feel complicitous. It's a crime in which believing the victim is very rare. It's a crime that doesn't get quantified like burglary does. Insurance companies don't keep accurate statistics. It's not even an FBI index crime. What they're doing is taking a number of known cases and applying a multiplier. For example: 10 percent of all cases get reported so we'll multiply this by 10. One in four sounds high to me to be honest with you. With prostitutes, it's more likely than not. It depends on the pool you sample.
Sober Times: How do you explain so many adults engaging in such taboo behavior?
Andrew Vachss: First of all, who says it's taboo? Maybe that's the media message, but that's not the reality message. The reality message says, "We'll cut you a whole lot of slack. In fact, if it's your own kid we'll cut you more." Look at the law. Explain to me the difference between molesting a 5-year-old girl down the street and molesting your own daughter. One we call sexual abuse, rape or sodomy and we want to send the perpetrator to prison. We call the other "family dysfunction" or "incest"—what a sweet word that is—and we send the perpetrator right to therapy.
Sober Times: If you were to give a thumbnail sketch of the psychological profile of a mother or father that molests their kid, what would it be?
Andrew Vachss: Essentially, they're sociopathic. They either lack or completely suppress any empathy they might have and simply pursue their own desires without regard to the victim. That's the essential element of any such crime.
Sober Times: What are common characteristics of those who sexually abuse children?
Andrew Vachss: The essential one is absolute absorption with self. Concern only for oneself. Indifference to the consequences of their acts or the pain of others. They tend to be very manipulative. They tend to be more intelligent than the garden variety criminals. Better educated, very well masked so they can go anywhere. They tend to be camouflage experts and they tend to devote themselves to their criminal activity with an obsession that no other criminal has. They study kids—they're incredible diagnosticians. A predatory pedophile that has been at it awhile—you can throw them in a day care center and in an hour he can tell you which kid's having problems at home, or comes from a broken home, who has parents who are alcoholics, who has been abused himself. They're predators. They study their prey.
Sober Times: If you could change the laws regarding child molesters, what would you change?
Andrew Vachss: Essentially, I would raise the stakes. Right now, it's a cheap buy-in, a very low-risk activity. There's something nuts about a country that will give you a life sentence for possession of a piece of cocaine and give you probation for sodomizing your child and filming it for sale. After that, there's a whole number of sub-issues such as a national registry for convicted child molesters. The elimination of the nonsensical "rehabilitation" programs which suck huge sums of money out of the budget and don't return us anything. More advanced training for social workers who are now required to make the investigations. Combination police-social worker teams, instead of saying one does rehab and the other does investigation, which is crazy. The elimination of the schizophrenic role of social workers who are supposed to rehabilitate perpetrators and protect victims which is an impossible role to be in.
Sober Times: You have a pretty low regard for the possibility of rehabilitating perpetrators.
Andrew Vachss: I don't have any regard for the possibility, because I don't consider it to be a valid one. You have to distinguish abusers; there are essentially three types. There are the inadequate—people who simply don't know how to parent. A prototypical example is a 12-year-old with a baby of her own. An alcoholic is a perfectly good example. They may be the best-meaning parent in the world, but people who smoke in bed when they're drunk are a danger to every kid. Then they have low frustration levels, and things like that. Inadequates, I believe, are absolutely amenable to rehabilitation, and very successfully so. Then there are crazies—and I mean card-carrying, legitimate crazies—who are parents, like schizophrenics and such. People like that benefit to the extent psychiatry's got a response to their particular disorder. So we're real good with obsessive-compulsives and real lousy with schizophrenics when it comes to protecting kids from them. The third category is where me and the social workers part company. And that's people who are evil—people who hurt children for their own pleasure or their own profit. People who have sex with children. And to talk about rehabilitation in the same breath with such people is ludicrous. There is absolutely no evidence that any of them have ever been rehabilitated. The current cutting-edge thought is that you can't rehabilitate them but you can give them some sort of internal controls.
Sober Times: What would you do with them?
Andrew Vachss: I would do the same thing with them as I would with someone with typhus or what I'd do with a truckload of toxic waste.
Sober Times: Have them killed?
Andrew Vachss: No.
Sober Times: Have them put away?
Andrew Vachss: Yeah. Isolated. I have no desire to kill anybody or torture anybody. I'd be perfectly happy to isolate them with a color TV and nice gymnasiums, whatever they want. And I'd be perfectly willing to let all the rehabilitative experiments you want go on—behind bars. In terms of recycling them back into the community to allow them to prey again, no.
Sober Times: How did we get more concerned for the rights of the perpetrators than the children?
Andrew Vachss: The perpetrators vote, children don't.
Sober Times: Many women don't recall abuse memories until adulthood. By then, the statute of limitations prevents them from filing charges. Would you advocate changing the statute of limitations?
Andrew Vachss: Of course. Trauma is nothing but scar tissue on memory. It goes without saying that if you make your own victims and you do a good enough job, then you're outside the law. That doesn't make any sense. Of course, I would extend the statute of limitations to run from the time when the abuse is discovered.
Sober Times: I just read about a backlash group against sexual survivors, I believe called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. What is their stake in it?
Andrew Vachss: I don't know. I don't analyze other people. Part of their stake could be entrepreneurial—there's big business. Child-molester treatment and child-molester defense is the growth industry of the '90s. There's no money in being a drug lawyer anymore.
Sober Times: How has working with the "cesspool" of society all this time affected you personally?
Andrew Vachss: I don't know. As I said, that would be an introspective game. All anyone has to know about me is I'm not asking them for money and I'm not running for office—so what else do you need to know? I've devoted myself to being effective. And if you look at light beams, the most effective are the lasers because they're concentrated.
Sober Times: You've mentioned before that you've created enemies with the work you've done. Can you give us a picture of who that would be?
Andrew Vachss: I can't because I don't get to interview them. [These are] people who send me threatening letters unsigned or make foul phone calls. People who write me these insane letters saying, "Incest is fun." I get many many letters like that from alleged victims who say, "Daddy was the best sex I ever had." And people who are in rehab groups who claim they lost a parole because the judge read one of my books. Or people who send me funeral cards that say, "So sorry about the death of your whole family," or send me pictures of myself with cross-hairs drawn over my face. Obviously they're upset and angry and that pleases me.
Sober Times: How much of Burke is you and vice versa?
Andrew Vachss: Who knows? We have the same taste in women and horses and music.
Sober Times: I noticed that your women in the novels are never perfect or beautiful. You describe them as strong, chubby, large, etc.
Andrew Vachss: They look like women look like. I don't know who ever met a sequence of perfect people. I think that focusing on body parts as a way to care about somebody is a little dumb.
Sober Times: Do you have children yourself?
Andrew Vachss: No. I had a vasectomy a long time ago and it's worked.
Sober Times: Is it based on what you've seen happen to kids?
Andrew Vachss: I don't think so.
Sober Times: Any word of encouragement to our readers who are healing from childhood sexual abuse?
Andrew Vachss: Evil is a matter of choice. Those people who have been victimized and refuse to imitate their oppressors are in my mind the greatest heroes we have. I don't believe in forgiveness and I don't think that's the path to healing. I do believe in vengeance and I believe that helps to heal. I think one of the things that helps make people drunks, dope fiends or anything self-abusive is guilt and a damaged self-esteem. And what I always tell folks like that is every time you do something stupid, they win. It's a fight. And you'll be in the fight until it's over. You might never get even with the person who hurt you, but you can contribute to the protection of others, which means they [the perpetrators] don't win—they don't multiply like the miserable vampires they are.
Sober Times: Do you see any hope?
Andrew Vachss: Of course! When I started in this business, we couldn't have had this conversation. The whole idea of prosecuting child molesters was virtually unheard of. Incest prosecutions were fantasyland. The tools that we had were miserably inadequate. Battered-child syndrome hadn't even been discussed. Now that the media understands it to be real—yes, there's a backlash and we expect that. But the pendulum has swung way, way from where it was. We're not winning, but we will. Not in this lifetime. It's a slow process, a drop here and a drop there. Things are far better. As miserable as they are, they're far, far better for children today than they were 20 years ago.
Sober Times: You have said that you don't consider yourself a writer. Did you pick up a pen one day and it just came to you? Did you take classes?
Andrew Vachss: No, no. I don't consider myself a writer because I only write about what I do. If you gave me an assignment I wouldn't be able to take your money.
Sober Times: But you put a whole plot together time after time and that's not that easy to do.
Andrew Vachss: I suppose, but without the motivation, I wouldn't be writing anything.
Sober Times: When's your next comic book coming out?
Andrew Vachss: A new one just came out a few days ago. It's published every other month.
Sober Times: How is writing for a comic different than a novel?
Andrew Vachss: It's a different audience, so I'm grateful for that. There's people that wouldn't have been hit by this message that I can reach through comics; I like that a lot.