A Freelance Fighter for Kids
Interviewed by Tom McPheeters and Ellen Becker
Andrew Vachss combines a flair for the dramatic with an unyielding passion for kids on the edge. He is both an activist and an iconoclast, challenging society to take action on problems that may be obvious but are still ignored. As an attorney he limits his practice (and his income) to representing abused children. As a writer, he produces dark novels that explore the depths of human behavior. These novels allow Vachss to explore some of the issues that confront children in a modern, media-driven culture in a compelling and often horrifying way.
Tom McPheeters: What is it you do? And I suppose we have to break that down into what you do as an attorney and what you do as a writer.
Andrew Vachss: What I do as a writer is really an organic extension of what I do as a lawyer, so there is really no great separation. So, very briefly, I was a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, I was a case worker in the infamous New York City Department of Welfare, I was on the ground during that genocidal insanity that history now calls Biafra, but has since merged into Nigeria. I ran a re-entry center for ex-convicts, I was a labor organizer, I directed an institution that serviced urban migrants in Chicago, and I was in charge of a maximum security prison for violent youth. All this before I went near a law school. So my background doesn't come from being a lawyer. I went to law school so that I could represent a specific population—to wit, children. And that is what I have done since.
Tom: In some ways it sounds like your very varied career was preparation for what you do now.
Andrew: The career prior to becoming an attorney is what persuaded me that I needed to become one.
Tom: What sort of things were you seeing that persuaded you that this is what you needed to do?
Andrew: It wasn't what I was seeing; it was what I was experiencing. Because what I saw doesn't even bear recounting; anybody who is not deaf, dumb and blind has some insight into the plight of children in this country. But what I experienced was a sense of my own powerlessness, because getting fired or getting suspended or getting disciplined in one form or another was the normal course of my employment history. And I wasn't able to make change when most of my energy was spent fighting my own employers. I became a lawyer so that I could directly change things in ways that I couldn't do as an employee of others.
Tom: You use the term predator to describe people who abuse children.
Andrew: No, I use the term predator to describe certain types of people who abuse children. Essentially child abuse is in three distinct categories, only two of which are recognized by the so-called helping professions. The first one is people who are, for want of better terminology, inadequate. They simply do not know how to be parents. The second category is people who are crazy, paranoid schizophrenics—people who howl at the moon, people who are delusional. Folks like that benefit minimally, only to the extent that psychiatry has an answer to their problems. So far, these categories are agreed to by the helping professions. But the third category are people who are evil—people who hurt children for their own pleasure and/or profit. And a dollar spent on rehabilitating such human beings is a dollar squandered, from my experience.
Tom: What have you learned about predators that sets them apart from the rest of us imperfect parents?
Andrew: Well, remember this isn't the movies where serial killers are considered cool. And it's not the Lifetime channel where all sociopaths are charming and intelligent. In real life what sets predators apart from the rest of us is a profound deep-rooted absence of empathy. They feel only their own pain, they respond only to their own needs and they are unencumbered by morals or ethics. It's certainly possible to be a sociopath and not prey on children. It's when the individual sense of need or gratification is founded in the abuse of children that you are going to see predatory child abusers.
Tom: In one of your novels you make a very strong connection between information and power. And in your law practice you say you make a point of taking only cases which you have the ability to investigate personally. So I'm wondering about this information-as-power model.
Andrew: What I really want to do is disabuse people of the idea that knowledge is power. I think that's a tired cliche. Knowing how to get to Detroit is not the same thing as having the bus fare and too often we just worship the idea of knowledge. I'm much more about trying to empower people towards change than simply giving them the information.
Tom: But in the dynamic between a child and an adult, particularly when the adult has some specific role in the child's life as a parent or a teacher or whatever, there you do have a power situation.
Andrew: Sure, all abuse is abuse of power. A child who is in an abusive situation, and has no frame of reference other than that situation, is more likely than not to believe the situation is typical. One of the things that always shocks children I work with is to learn that there are other children who are not treated the same way. The knowledge-power connection comes if they can get the knowledge, the fact of their situation, before those who will actually intervene. That's very powerful. If they cannot, that knowledge is of no use to them whatsoever. It's just the source of their own pain.
Tom: So the question in many cases is, how do we as adults help them get that information to somebody who can make use of it?
Andrew: I think that's a really good question and we've not succeeded in doing that. Certainly, no rational person believes that if somebody calls Child Protective Services, they are going to get a well-trained, well-supervised professional with a reasonable size case load to promptly investigate and reach a logical conclusion. But unless and until we have such things, I'm not sure what any of this business of encouraging kids to report abuse does.
The recipe for monster is really kind of simple: you take a small human being and you surround him or her by the people that, having been designated to be the protectors, now mistreat the child. You have the child's cries being heard by the larger parent, the government, and you have that government pat the abusers on the head, giving a seal of approval, and walk away. You have now created a child that will believe that all that can be relied upon is himself. That all he should care about is himself, because after all who cared about him?
Tom: So one of the solutions then is a more effective legal system?
Andrew: No, I don't think it's so much the legal system, I think it's a more effective investigative system. We just don't have it. The people that we designate to go out there and find the truth for us are very ill-equipped. They are under-trained, under-supervised, they're completely understaffed, absolutely disrespected. We expect them to go alone to places where cops won't go without partners, we expect them to simultaneously protect a victim and rehabilitate a perpetrator within the same household. We've set up an impossible construct, and then we wring our hands and say, "Gee, we don't understand why this isn't working."
Tom: So, what messages should we, as adults who are not social services workers, be listening to from kids who are in trouble?
Andrew: That they are desperate. That they are not being helped, that we know the consequences of not helping them, and yet we continue. We don't need more information. Here's the problem: there's a complete lack of focus among those people who claim to be concerned about children. A total lack of focus. People who say they are concerned about children are concerned about every other damn thing on the planet as well. The focus seems to be available to people who love guns, it seems to be available to people who want to deny women a right to abortion. Every politician has this memorized: "Children don't vote." So all you have to do is pay lip service to the children and no one's going to pressure you.
Tom: Are there any people that you would consider heroes that you've run across or that you work with?
Andrew: I know nothing but heroes. I remember a woman who adopted a child that I represented. He'd been raped by a person with AIDS. The child was dying of AIDS. This woman adopted the child knowing the child was dying, determined this child would die loved. I don't know any greater heroism than that. I see things like that every single day. But in terms of media, in terms of something that is going to change our service-delivery system—no, I don't see that at all.
Tom: You have said that anger is not just useful for recovery from abuse, but it should be a part of the relationship that one who is abused has with the abuser.
Andrew: I think it's an emotion you have to allow in. I think these tired talk-show homilies about "you have to forgive in order to heal" disenfranchise so many human beings who are angry about what happened to them. They are told they can't recover until they let that go or move on. I don't think they have to get lost in it, but I think anger is what has motivated people to change systems ever since systems have been changed.
Tom: Your hero in your novels, Burke, has a pretty distinct view of the world around him. In the novel that I'm reading now, Safe House, he is sorting out who he can trust and who he can't beyond his very close circle. Who is Burke?
Andrew: A prototypically abused child. Hyper-vigilant, distrustful, deeply, deeply bonded to his family of choice. He has no belief that government or society cares about him in any way, would protect him in any way. His goal is to survive—not to thrive, not to achieve, not to acquire—just to get through, to wake up every day not in jail, not dead.
Tom: And there are lots of kids out there who are Burkes?
Andrew: Absolutely, from the mail I get. People have got these fantasies about some Pacific Island where no child is abused, but every place that we've studied, every place that's been actually looked at, some form of child abuse exists. By the way, the books are in twenty-five languages.
Tom: Our community has a school as part of it. We have children who come to the school from every possible circumstance, and some of them have the damaged world view that I think fits pretty closely into what you are describing. How does a community absorb those children, those people who have this very wary view of the world, this unwillingness to let outsiders in, to trust?
Andrew: Children change their world views pretty readily when they're in communities. I ran a maximum security prison, and when we took over the culture was simply "might makes right," and everybody adapted to that culture. As we were able to change the culture, the adaptations changed as well. Instead of telling a child, "Well, you're not entitled to your feelings or your analysis," you acknowledge that those feelings and analysis are correct in terms of that child's situation but prove that that situation isn't a universal one.
Ellen Becker: You're saying that you actually changed people's lives in this maximum security situation?
Andrew: I think we had a better chance to change lives inside a prison than we did in an open setting, because we really could have environmental control. We could really say to the kid carrying a knife, "you don't need to carry that knife in here because nobody's going to sexually assault you in this institution. Not because we have rules against it, but because we have force—we're perfectly ready, willing and able to use violence to protect you."
I don't think we so much changed anybody as offered them the opportunity to change. And any community can do that.
Ellen: And did you know when you took over that job that that's what you would end up doing?
Andrew: Well, I knew that I would end up trying; I didn't know whether we would succeed. That's the only reason I took the job. In fact, about three-quarters of the staff were ex-convicts, and about half of those had spent time in this very institution. I told them, if you really want to get even, if you really want revenge, it's not about hitting some citizen on the head with a tire iron, it's about running this place as it should have been from the beginning. And a number of them bought that.
Tom: Let's talk about the increased violence of children against children—high school shootings and the like.
Andrew: When you're talking about a school, you're talking about a culture. When you're talking about a culture, you're talking about a community. If it's a community that tolerates or even venerates bullying, you're going to have some of this explosive conduct. In order to make a bomb, you create pressure that exceeds the ability of its container. That's all it takes.
Tom: And that's what happens in some of our high schools.
Andrew: Sure. Amazon.com is now running a serial of the first novel I ever wrote. It was never published because it was too insane, too impossible, too ultra-violent. One of things that the publishers rejected was that a young man would walk into a high school with a duffel bag full of weapons, attempt to kill every human being in the place and then himself. I wrote that twenty-five years ago.
Ellen: Before you started writing fiction, you wrote nonfiction about what you were seeing, and the books didn't sell.
Andrew: Well, it's not that they didn't sell. Here's what happened. My first book was a textbook, called The Life-Style Violent Juvenile. It spoke specifically about how one uses the community of a maximum security facility institution and changes that culture as a way of changing the residents. This sold great to the profession. My dreams of it reaching the public, the bigger jury out here, were dashed. What I did was, I used the same material in these novels, wrapped it around some narrative force, some interesting characters and plot twists. It's basically the same material as my original nonfiction writing, but as novels everyone buys them.
Ellen: Do you find that some of your work as an attorney has the same effect for the children?
Andrew: Differently. I'm not in control of their communities. I can literally save a child's life—I can get a child removed from beasts who are preying on him or her. I can get a child adopted by people who actually want the child. That's the systemic change.
On occasion I've represented children who've contacted me directly. But I also do civil law suits on behalf of children who've been abused by third parties—institutions or agencies outside their family. We've proceeded against (sued) religious institutions, against charitable foundations, against social organizations. Some of these agencies are fundamentally flawed and if you proceed against them, you can change them.
Tom: You're a law guardian, right?
Ellen: Yep, and they didn't have them before.
Andrew: And plenty of states, like Florida, still don't have them. What does that tell you? Because with non-attorney guardians there's no attorney-client privilege. There's no ability to cross-examine witnesses, to subpoena evidence, to appeal. Basically you serve completely at the pleasure of the judge. And if you don't please the judge, you're history. What more of a message do kids need?
Tom: Kids are a lot more perceptive than a lot of us adults.
Andrew: Kids are much more perceptive than the jurisprudence system seems to want to acknowledge. There's a lot of mythology about children, how they're so malleable and their memories are so suspect. There's no hard evidence to support any of that. But it's become part of the way judges do business. The outcome of a trial in Family Court is probably more determinative of the individual bias and prejudice of the judge than it is the evidence. So how would you like to appear before the judge who told a five-year-old girl, "It takes two to tango" in a sexual abuse case? Or the judge who said the six-year-old boy was seductive and had to bear some of the responsibility? The only remedy for this is higher appellate courts and if you don't have actual lawyers representing your kids, there are no higher courts.
Tom: But there aren't a lot of lawyers out there challenging the system.
Andrew: I remember my first day, a long time ago. I came to court, all ready to try my case and the clerk sits me down and says, "You're new here, let me tell you something. Our better law guardians always admit the petition. The judge prefers this and it's less trouble. These kids are guilty or they wouldn't have been arrested." That was my orientation.
Tom: How much trouble did you get in when you didn't plead it?
Andrew: I started right along to have a fight. I didn't want to be friends with anybody. I just appealed every decision that went against me and after a while, the decisions stopped going against me.
Andrew: These judges are pure political appointees. Let's not pretend otherwise. They didn't win some contest about who knows the most about law. And they don't want to have any trouble. It's not a very difficult system to negotiate, and frankly, you're always competing against people who are not well prepared and who don't actually do a very good job. The idea that you get a different result from a different judge tells all you need to know about the fairness of the system.
The most dangerous kids are the ones who believe that life is a lottery. They don't believe in cause and effect. They believe it's absolutely a flip of the coin, a roll of the dice. And if these kids are caught in the system, well, if they get lawyer X they go to prison, if they get lawyer Y they get probation, without regard to what they did. Life's just a lottery. Everyone commits crimes. Some small percentage are caught. Some even smaller percentage are brought to trial. Some even smaller percentage are convicted, and some even smaller percentage go to jail. So why not?
Tom: And it's nothing to do with me.
Andrew: That's right. What you said about knowledge and power is exactly right, because the child believes that he is a chip tossed by the wind. And nothing he or she does will materially affect the outcome of his or her life—nothing. He knows people who've shot drugs for years and haven't overdosed. He knows people who've died from their first shot.
Tom: That's really a powerful statement. I've worked with homeless people who are in that situation. They often just don't make the connection between what they do and the result. Whether it's getting arrested, or getting hepatitis or a heart condition. They just don't make the connection.
Andrew: I think the system underscores their viewpoint and endorses their experience. If your parents are maltreating you and they tell you. "No one is ever going to help you," but now a social worker comes, takes you out of the home, and you go to court. And then the judge says go back home with the abusers. Don't you say to yourself, they were right all along? It's all a charade.
So the child thinks to himself, "I'm going to live for the day when I can do this to others." Because the predator-prey thing works very simply, especially in institutions. If I'm committing sexual assault on smaller children, then obviously I'm not a victim anymore, I'm the hawk.
Tom: Well you're making me feel that it's time to go out there and fight the system and not pull any punches.
Andrew: Well, we don't have enough punch to be pulling it. We have to give everything, every day, to have any hope over a couple of hundred years of making change. Empathizing isn't going to do anything except maybe get you a federal grant. We've been much more concerned with labeling kids than with actually addressing these issues. But it's really time, and I've been saying it's time for a long time.
Copyright © 2000 Journal for Living. Reprinted with permission.
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