Looking into the Abyss
Author/lawyer Andrew Vachss fights for the rights of children in the pages of his books and in the courtroom.
By Chuck Thurman
Originally published in the Monterey County Weekly, April 16, 1998
It's a sordid world inhabited by Burke, the protagonist of 11 noir novels by Andrew Vachss. Rapists, pedophiles and other sexual predators slum cheek-by-jowl with skinheads, underground arms merchants and cops paid to look the other way. Throughout the novels we find Burke obsessed with protecting women and children from these and other human beasts who prey on them. But he's too pragmatic to be considered any sort of white knight. His allies consist of an intimate circle of murderers, money launderers and forgers willing to take any measure to fulfill their quest.
With the Burke series, Vachss chronicles a world as harsh as any imagined by Jim Thompson and a character more intelligently brutal than those created by Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald...put together. If Vachss leaves no other legacy behind him, he has secured his niche in the pantheon of noir novelists. But if that happens, you can bet he'll be very damned pissed-off.
For Vachss, Burke is more than just a literary creation; he is, for all intents and purposes, Vachss' alter ego. Just as Burke crusades through the streets seeking justice for those victimized by evil characters and situations, Vachss has crusaded his way from the street to the courtroom to the printed page. Now an author and a respected New York attorney--who only handles cases "concerning children and youth: abuse/neglect, delinquency, custody/visitation, related tort litigation"--Vachss got his training on the streets.
If Burke's world seems particularly disturbing, it's because that's the world with which Vachss is most familiar. During his lifetime, he's been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social case worker, an investigator in Biafra during the 1969 war, a juvenile probation officer, and ran a re-entry center for ex-convicts and a maximum-security prison for violent youth.
Those experiences provided Vachss with the data he assimilated to create a world view that sees widespread child abuse--both active and passive--as the mainspring driving a doomsday clock for humankind. As the knight who would stop the ticking of that clock, Vachss sees his courtroom and literary careers as part of the same quest: to protect children from those who prey upon them. In fact, Vachss is proud to claim that he's obsessed by the task.
"I am an obsessed person," Vachss told CW in a telephone interview. "The books are an extension of what I do. Obsessives have all the power. Total focus."
That obsession drives Vachss to make pronouncements that sound as alarmist as anything that came out of the Cold War.
"Human animals...have tolerated--even tacitly condoned--the nonprotector and the predator, leading to an escalation of the rape, murder and torture of our children," Vachss wrote in a March '98 Parade Magazine essay. "Rather than making their survival, and the survival of our species, an unquestioned priority, we watch indifferently while the evolution of cruelty continues...We must take the abuse of a child as an offense against (and threat to) our survival. And we must replicate the conduct of our animal ancestors and respond as they did--or fail to do so and vanish as some of them did. Forever."
But accuse Vachss of rhetoric and you''ll receive a heated retort.
"If everybody was as damned rhetorical as me, this country would be pretty different," says Vachss. And then he points to his long history of fighting abuse from the streets to the courtroom and names specific laws that need to be changed and legislation that needs to be passed.
Chief among these are laws that treat sexual abuse of children by family members as incest rather than assault and laws that protect child pornographers.
"We have to stop this nonsense of treating kiddie porn as some mere peccadillo," says Vachss. "It is a photograph of a crime. And if people say they have a right to possess it because they didn't create it, that's nonsense. How come it's not OK to possess plutonium? You didn't make that? You have to contrabandize pictures of babies being raped."
He's also full of ideas about how to make the world safer. For instance, he says, given the country's high-power satellite surveillance capabilities, "there's no reason why any woman in this country, who's walking around in terror [of a known stalker], isn't walking around with a little button around her neck that she can push and the police can come right to the very room she's in."
He also believes that it's unlikely violent predators can be reformed and advocates stiffer penalties for those who break the law. He feels that the long-ingrained habit of ignoring the problem, coupled with contemporary notions of rehabilitation and understanding have gone too far, to the point where we are no longer protecting society from those "beasts" who will revert to violent behavior as soon as they are released back into society. He is fond of pointing out that other animal species deal harshly with rogue members that threaten the pack's young; they are killed or banished from the pack. And he points out that even our human forebears showed little forbearance for the beasts in their villages.
"You can't deter everybody," says Vachss, "but those we don't deter we hold on to forever and they can't continue to prey.
"It's only in our fairly recent history that we came up with the age of understanding and rehabilitation. You can't use the world ''evil'' in a sociology text. We don't exterminate the predators. Where do you think the elders came up with the idea of vampires? Do you really think they believed in bats who came down to suck blood?"
And so they drove stakes through the hearts of child molesters?
"I believe they damn well did."
Yes, it's a sordid, dangerous world inhabited Vachss' Burke, but it's no more sordid than the world he sees himself. In talking with this lawyer/author, who once broke his wrist punching a hole in a courtroom wall to demonstrate that a human fist was indeed strong enough to break a child's pelvis, one is reminded of the Nietzsche maxim: "When you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks back into you."
Copyright 1998 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.