| The Living Writers Series:
An Interview with Andrew Vachss
| by John Porter |
PHOTO CREDIT: Vachss.com
Andrew Vachss is the author of eleven novels, two short story collections, three graphic series and Another Chance to Get It Right: A Children's Book for Adults. His works of crime fiction include Choice of Evil, Everybody Pays and False Allegations. In addition to lecturing and writing, he is a lawyer in private practice, representing children and youths exclusively. He lives in New York City.
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WAG: You've been writing Burke crime novels for close to twenty years now. How do you keep it fresh?
Vachss: Well, if I had to be a conventional writer, I probably would have burned out fifteen books ago. But because the material from my actual life is so deep, I probably have enough for another fifty books, if I live long enough to write them.
WAG: I know there would be a lot of readers willing to read all of them.
Vachss: You know what? I'd rather the well dried up. I'd rather that the freaks stop surprising me. I'd rather that newer and uglier ways to maltreat human beings didn't show up. I'd rather have no material. In fact, if I had a wish, it would be that the books were all the work of the imagination.
WAG: Your role as a novelist is certainly complicated by your own experiences.
Vachss: I don't see myself as a novelist so much as a journalist. I'm using a fictionalized form because I include a wealth of important, brand-new scientific information in my novels. If I were writing a nonfiction text about the traumatology of brain development, how many people would read it?
WAG: About six.
Vachss: If I've done my job right, by the time you get to that stuff in my book, you're sufficiently engaged to want to see how it comes out. It's part of the mystery, and so you read it.
WAG: On the name of Burke: there was an English criminal—
Vachss: Exactly. Burke was, in Old England, a grave robber.
WAG: He supplied cadavers to medical students.
Vachss: And when he ran out of graves and they offered more money for fresher bodies, he started making his own. 'To burke' at that time in England meant to strangle to death without leaving marks—that you didn't know what hit you. And since these novels are all Trojan horses, that's the name I picked.
WAG: In addition to writing the Burke novels and working in the graphic novels field, you are a successful attorney who represents hundreds of children each year in New York.
Vachss: Yeah, I have a full-time law practice. And part-time, at least, I have a consulting, training and public speaking business. And I write the books. However, it's all the same work. These are just different manifestations of it.
WAG: But you've used the Burke novels to educate more people than you ever could as a lecturer or a nonfiction writer.
Vachss: True—because there's no audience for that. People have to read the books and talk to other people. Because the truth is educating the American public is a bloody waste of time. This nonsense about 'consciousness raising' is a shock. It's based on the idea that a) people have a consciousess and b) that if it's raised, they'll do something about it. The failure to impact self-interest equals the failure to get anything done.
WAG: Do you think that the people who would come into a consciousness-raising are already intending to raise their consciousness anyway?
Vachss: Truthfully, I don't understand the purpose of it. How much consciousness-raising do we really need? You don't think people stalk other people? You don't think people rape their own babies? You don't think...what? I mean, what does your consciousness really have to be raised about now?
WAG: I'm always surprised by the people who just ignore it, thinking that it will never happen to them.
Vachss: I prefer the term 'collaborator.'
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Choice of Evil
Alfred A. Knopf
WAG: 'Collaborator' is a good term. It reminds me of the people in wartime who collaborate simply by looking the other way.
Vachss: They don't join the resistance. There is absolutely no way to opt out of this.
WAG: The family by choice: that is an undercurrent in all your books. Burke was raised by the state and has nothing but contempt for his own biological parentage.
Vachss: All it says on his birth certificate is 'Baby boy Burke.' And he knows his mother was an underage prostitute—or at least, that's what he was told. He's never seen either of them.
WAG: And never cares to. But he has created his own extended family.
Vachss: Not 'extended.' This is his intimate family. These are not aunts and uncles. These are his brothers and sisters. Close as they can be.
WAG: And the Nazis in the Burke novels are also forming their own families. Do you see this actually happening today, as we break away from the Leave It to Beaver nuclear family? Are we going out and forming our own substitute family?
Vachss: I don't think we ever had these damn families that everybody thinks existed. I think journalists ought to take responsibility for that. The truth is, if you picked up a newspaper—any newspaper—from the 1950s and read it from cover to cover and you were an alien from another planet, you would think child abuse did not exist in the United States of America.
WAG: It was certainly not reported.
Vachss: Right—and that's my point. 'That which was never reported' doesn't mean 'that which never existed.' So I don't know that we've had this cosmic change, and I'm tired of this "destruction of the family" being blamed for every social evil. What's being destroyed, as near as I can determine, is our biological imperative because we are the only crew left on the planet that tolerates unprotected parenting and same-species predators.
WAG: What can we do to change?
Vachss: Very simple: focus. People who care about decent things tend to have smorgasbord mentalities. Now, you look at the NRA—what do they care about?
WAG: They care about guns.
Vachss: Anything else that you can think of?
WAG: Not a thing.
Vachss: Right. And so they're very effective. You scratch your typical—I don't know what you want to call them—liberal or nice person or caring person: they care about the whales and they care about the trees and they care about kids and they care about air pollution and on and on and on. So they take all their energy and spread it. It's like taking a pat of butter and spreading it over a twenty-foot-long piece of bread and saying, "I can't taste the butter."
WAG: Why is it we as a nation have become so obsessed with serial killers?
Vachss: Because we're a nation that worships power.
WAG: And the serial killer represents the ultimate power.
Vachss: He takes life. Of course, if you look objectively at it, you'll realize this country's not obsessed with most serial killers—only the ones that have the good tastes to kill young women. Look at books written about serial killers. Look at John Wayne Gacy versus Ted Bundy. Bundy outsells John Wayne Gacy a hundred to one. Why? Because he was more of a monster? Of course not. He was more interesting? No. He killed young women. And if you go into any of these foul places that call themselves bookstores, you can find all kinds of books about the joys of torturing women. But you won't find many about the joys of torturing men. And that's why the fascination with serial killers is aimed more at a Richard Ramirez or a Ken Bianchi than a John Wayne Gacy.
WAG: I remember True Crime books from when I was growing up and reading about various aspects of law enforcement. There were people like Rob Nash, who was writing books on whether Dillinger was actually killed by the FBI.
Vachss: And I'd vote no. I kind of agree.
WAG: After reading his evidence, I'd have to vote no as well. He was very thorough in his research, very well detailed. But now I go into the True Crime section of a bookstore and all I see are things that look like they were culled from the various Tattler magazines and pasted together on pieces of paper with the most lurid pictures one can find.
Vachss: If you want to read classy True Crime, you have to read Jack Olson. He's superb. And he's a real journalist because there isn't but one god and that's Truth. A lot of this stuff is just porno masquerading as True Crime. In fact, if you look at the way journalism covers stuff and you read the account of a rape victim, she'll be an 'attractive' blonde—as if that's got anything to do with the crime. They never say that a male victim is handsome. There's a lot of prejudice in the media. If a male molests a five-year-old boy, the media reports it as 'homosexual' child abuse. But if it was a five-year-old girl, the media doesn't say 'heterosexual' child abuse. And indeed, if you molest a little girl, you have a much better chance of getting off in this country.
WAG: We know how to create a monster. How do we reverse that?
Vachss: I'm not sure we can reverse that. We might be able to interdict it in the process of formation. If we took a tiny percentage of the money that we squander on crap—give me the money that Kenneth Starr spent—and I would save this country from a thousand predatory sociopaths by early intervention. Once that die is cast, though...do you think you could help Ted Bundy with therapy? I don't.
WAG: What's the best thing to do? Separate them from the herd?
Vachss: Once identified, they cannot be allowed to be among us. You can have endless arguments, if it pleases you, about death penalties and stuff. I personally think they're a mistake. But I do believe in total incapacitation. They should never be with us again.
WAG: Can further study identify them more easily?
Vachss: I think that is something that we believed at one time—that if we isolated such people and studied them, we'd learn something. I think they've taught us all they have to teach us. I don't believe we have anything new to learn. And I think that they really enjoy sitting around in groups and recounting their crimes. It excites the holy hell out of them. The truth is we know—we know—that chronic, early abuse and neglect (including emotional abuse) bends that twig. And unless the twig is moved while it's still flexible, it's going to grow crooked. Does that mean he's going to be a sex murderer? No. But it will be a person without a conscience. And while that can make for a very successful politician or preacher, it doesn't at all protect us if that person decides that their pursuit of self-gratification requires the torture of others. They'll just do it.
WAG: Is it possible to slow the trend to violence down?
Vachss: I think it is possible to reverse it, actually. Once we start calling things what they are, once we start defining families operationally and not biologically. The truth is, when you're denied the opportunity to bond as a child and are given the opportunity later on—ask any hooker or any member of a motorcycle gang—you seize that opportunity perhaps more fervently than you might have if it had been offered during the natural course of things. There is a huge army of very vulnerable young people, and they march to whatever drum they hear first. It's always been my contention that the majority of skinheads would have been warriors for the right cause, had they been accessed differently. I don't believe they have any natural, biological, intellectual disposition towards their crazy, racist stupidity. I think they join the only club that will have them.
WAG: Nobody's been able to prove that a particular gene is responsible for violence.
Vachss: The last person to say that was a guy named Hitler, as near as I can remember.
WAG: Yeah. There was a brouhaha about that as well.