Andrew Vachss: Monster Hunter
Slackers, Freaks, Mutants and the Future of Our Children
By Pete Humes
Originally published by Punchline, October, 2000.
Andrew Vachss isn't likely to toss around any politically-correct or clinical terms when referring to the child molesters, abusers and predators that he spends his life fighting against. So in his world there are no pedophiles or sex offenders, only human garbage. Monsters. Mutants.
To look at him, Vachss appears to be a comic book villain made flesh: a gaunt, angular face, one eye covered with a black patch and the other burdened by an ever-furrowed brow. Except in this case, Vachss isn't the villain, he's the hero. The strong, quiet type of hero who takes care of business without blowing his own horn, and without giving a damn about anything but the war. So if Vachss is going to hump any label, any stereotype , it's going to be that of the determined soldier who knows that his own life isn't as important as the big win. A big win he is almost certain he will never see in his own lifetime.
Even as a tireless advocate for children's rights and an attorney who represents only children, Vachss somehow finds the time to put his antihero, Burke, through the paces in a fantastically successful series of gritty, crime-fiction novels. The latest, Dead and Gone, sets the character once again in the company of "predatory degenerates" where Burke's penchant for exacting brutal revenge keeps his knuckles perpetually bloodied.
"The women, the dogs and the music ... are all from my life," says Vachss, not to mention the daily horrors of a world where children are beset by predators. The obsession that propels Vachss' life becomes the background and foreground for his stories which resonate like busted glass and gunshots in a dark alley. But ultimately the work serves a higher purpose, to bring awareness to the larger jury and to spread the word about the evil that runs rampant in this country.
Until sweeping changes reform a flawed system and child protection becomes a priority, Andrew Vachss will keep fighting the war, writing novels and hunting the monsters.
Punchline: I read an article on your web site where you said something to the effect that someone caught with an eighteen wheeler full of child pornography would be punished at the same level as someone with a pocketful of crack. Why do you think there is this emphasis in America with coming down so hard on crimes that primarily affect the user while crimes with victims, specifically children, get so little attention?
Vachss: For two reasons. One, this country loves to be moralistic for others. So this country can get all excited about protecting the unborn, while not focusing too much on the born. The other reason is that its an extremely profitable thing to be "concerned" about drugs. You don't just have treatment programs, you have law enforcement programs, you have entire industries that could not function but for drugs. Including the prison industry.
It seems ridiculous.
I think America has gone psychotic. I know for a fact that there are human beings—even as we speak—dying, in the kind of shrieking, tormenting pain you couldn't inflict on a P.O.W. because America doesn't want them to be drug addicts.
What can people do to support the cause, besides buying your books—
No, no. I never said that. You buy a book for twenty odd dollars, how much do think I get? A dollar? If you want to spend twenty dollars to protect children give the twenty dollars to some agency that does it. Don't go out and buy a book and say you're fighting child abuse.
But what can they do? If someone wants to do something?
There's a screaming, horrible need in this country for volunteers who will directly work with damaged or troubled kids. It's pretty sickening that the child molester organizations publish pamphlets on how to be a Big Brother or how to get your own foster kid but people on the other side of the fence aren't filling that obvious void.
Is that something people can do without training?
Yeah, be a human being without training? Absolutely. It's pretty damn pathetic if you had to train somebody to do that.
But working with children like that ...
Don't call it working with children. Look, the quality that distinguishes human beings from sociopaths is real simple, it's empathy. Empathy can't develop without bonding. There's all kinds of children who have had no opportunity to bond with anybody. If you're a decent, good human being you respond as you heart tells you to respond, and there's pretty much no way to screw it up. I'm not talking about doing psychotherapy with someone who's haunted. That's one way. The more obvious way, the clearest way, is you know, you have these two mutants who are running for President ...
[Laughing] Right ...
Well no, no, I'm not using the term as a joke. They're line bred to be politicians. Look at their antecedents and what do you see in their backgrounds? These are clearly born and bred politicians and that's going to continue. They're running for President and they have not spoken, they have not spoken one word on child protection, why is that? Because they're morons? Because they're sociopaths? Why? I'll tell you why, because they're litmus paper. They turn whatever color you pour on them. Nobody's poured that on them. You can't run for president of the United States of America unless you somehow take a position on abortion, on taxes, on the environment, on cigarette smoking, on handgun control, affirmative action... I could go on for days, but you can apparently run for president of the United States of America and not mention child protection. I rest my case, there's not much more to say.
Is there anybody out there on the political front ...
No, we should not look for people on the political front. I've characterized them as I believe them to be. They're people without any sort of political, social or moral agenda. They are simply people who want to get elected. They're like the earthworm that has enough sense to choose mud over sandpaper. We need to produce such people and the only way we produce them is by making it an actual condition of election the way we do an issue such as abortion. Until the American public is prepared to do that, you can't look to politicians for leadership.
Back to the idea of doing something, I just get the sense that if there aren't immediate victories, most people are hesitant to get involved. You always say that you are swimming towards a horizon that you will never reach, that it's going to be many waves of fighters after you who will ultimately win the war. Immediate gratification has just poisoned so many people, I think getting them to fight one tenth as hard as you do seems near impossible.
Then they need to just smoke a little dope and slack out. Okay? I've got nothing to say to people like that. It's a long, long haul and anybody who needs to snap their fingers and make child abuse snap equally, just needs to try some better dope. I don't have anything good to say about people like that. There's plenty of young people who don't deserve that characterization. There's plenty of young people who are right now training to be social workers, training to be nurses, training to be teachers, pediatricians, training themselves, preparing themselves in some way to serve on the front lines of the only war that actually counts. Sure there's a lot of slackers, but you know what? There's a lot of 45-year-old slackers too. Children are always cynical. When you don't know something, you're cynical. That's pretty standard. You want to see cynicism, go to Hollywood. But I don't think it's fair to label a generation that way.
I think they want to fight, but they think it should be a faster process, and it's disheartening when it doesn't happen with one Bill passed in Congress, or one new President promising a fresh start.
The truth is, you don't build major structures, you don't change a world over a weekend. If that's their attention span, okay. But I'm not going to pander to them and pretend that there are hypodermic solutions to anything.
A question that got volleyed around during the debates was the one about media violence and Hollywood's responsibility to the children. When politicians attack Hollywood, is that just taking responsibility from the parents who are dropping the ball?
It's not taking responsibility off parents, it's taking responsibility off government. And it is standard. It is simply old wine in a new bottle. Now it's violent video games, years ago it was comic books, believe it or not. It was rock and roll music, it's been the destruction of the family unit, it's been the lack of school prayer, it's been everything but our failure to fund frontline child protective services. It's been everything but our failure to protect our own children. The truth is, do violent movies stimulate some kids? Hell yes. Does it stimulate most of them to do violent acts? Of course not. So the question is, how do those kids who do get stimulated reach that state of readiness? If anybody wanted to answer that question, they'd be right back to my issue.
You entered this fight with a lot of anger. That anger has been constantly fueled by what you see everyday in your work defending children. Certainly, it's been a motivating factor in keeping your purpose focused and intense. Do you think that there are other ways for people to get completely driven, or do you think that kind of rage is the most pure driving force?
I think it becomes this sort of epistemological debate that doesn't interest me. I don't care what you call it, I have never in life seen a hungry person who gets food saying "What's your motivation for giving me the food?" So I don't care if people are motivated by love or concern or service to a higher power. What the hell, who cares? I don't know that relentless examination of one's own motives is important. What you want to examine is your own conduct. The only reason you know anything about my feelings is because I'm relentlessly asked the same damn question by people who have no commitment to anything. So they're not particularly interested in the source of it, their interest is "Gee, how could you be committed to anything? I'm not."
But in your books, where you bring these stories to the wider audience, the larger jury, you're trying to get them angry.
That's right. I'm trying to do it by respecting them, I'm trying to do it by saying "Here's the truth, doesn't this make you mad?" I'm not trying to manipulate by tugging at their heartstrings or playing around with a lot of adjectives. I believe the actual, plain, unvarnished facts should make people mad, so I'm giving them enough respect to say, "If I show it to you, I believe that's going to be your reaction."
Besides letting people know about the books or the website, how can we make people more aware of—
They're aware. That's been played my friend. They're aware. Consciousness raising had its role when I started this fifteen, twenty years ago. It was a viable thing to do, it's not now. Journalism has caught up with reality. You'd be hard pressed to find even a low grade moron—who thinks Jerry Springer is Shakespeare—who doesn't know that children are being abused in America. I just don't believe you'd find such people anymore.
What about getting them involved in passing legislation?
Sure, we got the National Child Protection Act in 1993 passed and we're going to get the CARE Act passed when it's reintroduced next year.
But isn't that a direct way to get people involved, informing them about who to vote for to get the laws where they need to be?
I'm not interested in people's vote. I'm interested in people's obsessive, single issue focus which expresses itself in a vote. I'm interested in an NRA model, not a Citizens for Gore Model.
What's an NRA (National Rifle Association) model?
The NRA model is: "Senator, I don't care where you stand on abortion. Your position on the environment doesn't mean a damn thing to me. You want to trade with China, you want to bomb China, that's all fine. All I care about is my guns, see. So here's the deal, you vote for me to keep my guns, I'm going to vote for you. I'm going to raise money for you, I'm going to campaign for you, I'm going to tell my friends about you. But if you don't —regardless of how good a person you are elsewise, regardless if your opponent is Beelzebub—I'm going to do all that for him, the other guy." And that terrorizes Congress into compliance. So I'm tired of liberals telling me "Well, children don't vote." Well you know, guns don't vote but they seem to have a hell of a voice. That's what I'm talking about, a single-issue obsessiveness like the anti-abortion maniacs. That's what's going to get a change, not people who simply register to vote. And indeed without that single issue you're not going to have a candidate—that even if elected—is going to express your views. I'm going to vote for Gore because Gore is going to protect a woman's right to choose. But I'm not voting for Gore because he's spoken on my issue. The same with Bush, I can't distinguish between them.
Why haven't they spoken about it?
No one's demanding that they speak. People have demanded that they speak to the environment, to the goddamn internet, on all these cosmic social issues, people have demanded that they speak. You could not run for president of the United States without addressing these issues, but you can, demonstrably run without addressing the protection of children.
If Gore is elected is there any hope of him pushing anything to do with child protection forward?
No. I don't think there's any hope of any politician sitting in office right now advancing my cause. They didn't get elected on my cause. They don't believe that's where their support comes from, they don't believe that's where their money comes from, they don't believe that's where a block of votes comes from. Why would they do it?
In respect to your anger, your drive and the way every article or interview about you addresses that angle as the 'hook' of the piece, do you ever worry that you will end up a caricature of yourself? The really mad guy?
Why would I care? The pieces aren't about me. This whole thing isn't about me. So what does it matter if people don't understand me, or mischaracterize me, they're going to do that any damn way. I would never not do an interview because I'm worried that someone's gonna say I'm angry. There is no goal concerning me, there is no goal concerning how I appear. Most journalism now is nothing but creative writing, it's got very little to do with the facts. So people just take whatever hook they think works for them and that's what they go with.
This interview originally appeared at Punchline Weekly.