Preying on Predators, Not Praying for Their Forgiveness
An Interview with Andrew Vachss
by Todd Taylor
Originally published October 23, 2001, on Razorcake.com
It seems so simple and so right. To protect kids. To nurture them. To want them to become healthy, productive, active parts of society, not sociopaths and killers. It seems so obvious. But when the nuts and bolts of our government's laws and the underpinnings of our society's heritage are scrutinized, some truly horrifying eyes are staring back from that darkness. There has been wonderful P.R. work afoot in America that claims families are first, are valuable, and that no kids will ever be left behind. It simply isn't true. Children, by themselves, have so little leverage. In the national political arena, they can't fight for themselves. They can't vote. They can't hire lobbyists.
Andrew Vachss (rhymes with ax), doesn't talk from a hypothetical point of view. A warrior, he has exposed child abuse for thirty years. In 1969, he traveled to Biafra during its genocidal civil war to try to set up a payment system for foreign aid. Since then, he's been, amongst other jobs, a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a labor organizer, a director of a maximum security prison for "aggressive-violent" youth, and since 1976, a lawyer who represents children exclusively. In 1993, Vachss helped hasten The National Child Protective Act which formed a database to track child abusers who move from state to state. He is now lending support to the C.A.R.E. (Child Abuse Reform and Enforcement) Act, which promotes the improvement of information on, and protections against, child sexual abuse. He has also published fourteen novels.
If every human was as driven, focused, and articulate as Andrew Vachss, the world in a generation would, quite literally and pragmatically, become a better place. As trite and as unfocused as the rallying cry of "save the children" may seem as it streams out of a politician's mouth, one gets the diametrically opposite impression when Mr. Vachss talks about "Today's victim is tomorrow's predator" and how children are truly the key to a sustained civilization. What I first approached as an informative exercise and historical context of child abuse also turned into discussions on political leverage and law, the nature of serial killers, the nuances of the death penalty, and the United States' hapless war on drugs.
Special thanks go out to Vanessa Burt for not only raising this to my attention but also her selfless conviction to this cause.
Todd: In layman's terms, what is the legal definition of incest?
Vachss: Well, the actual definition of incest is sexual contact between people who are related within a certain degree of consanguinity—blood or marriage. However, its definition isn't popularly understood, so when people think of incest they think of first cousins having consensual sex in Kentucky in a shack. They don't think in terms of a parent and a small child but the law does cover that. In my opinion, it didn't contemplate such coverage when it was first passed. If you look at the incest laws, they're quite ancient.
Todd: Is there a historic precedence for incest.
Vachss: A precedence supporting it?
Vachss: No. In fact, quite the contrary. Where it came from was through observation of nature, and humans observed that inbreeding was a dangerous thing. So, even people in the earliest forms of animal husbandry understood that inbreeding was guaranteed at some point to produce genetic defectives. Now, if you're talking about the Egyptian kings, for example, who intermarried, sure, it happens. There's no question. There were people in ancient times, and Nazis today who believe that the way you keep a race or a species or a bloodline pure, you don't mix it with outside blood. Ipso facto, you're going to have people having sex with their own kids.
Todd: I was thinking that the historical precedence for the United States would be having the vestige of British rule, which is a monarchy that used incest to keep their bloodlines.
Vachss: That privilege was always reserved for royalty. Look, royalty's always reserved to itself every hideous style or privilege—to torture people who don't agree.
Todd: What is the legal definition of rape?
Vachss: Sex by force. However, it's important to understand that force is implied in certain cases even though no physical violence is used. So, for example, if a child is too young to consent, or if a person is impaired by mental illness or if a person is intoxicated, drugged—all of those would be rape, even if the person did not require physical violence be used to accomplish their end.
Todd: What I want to deal with is the CARE Act. Why is there a legal difference between incest and rape and what are the different penalties?
Vachss: The reason is that it's an anomaly that's hung over. If you stopped any fifty people in the street, I don't believe you'd find one who would understand that, for example, a father having sex with his six-year-old daughter could be called incest. So, it's simply an anachronism in terms of law not having caught up to society. There's no legal justification for it. There's good reason for an incest prohibition, but an incest prohibition is a societal message. For example, there is a law against adultery. How many people do you think go to jail for it?
Todd: Very few.
Vachss: Okay. Never, in my life, have I heard of anybody going to jail for adultery. But, because of the sort of religious underpinning of the country, that law stays on the books as a way of expressing a view. So, it's fine to have a law in the book that expresses the view that first cousins shouldn't interbreed, but in reality, I've never heard of anybody going to jail for what amounts to adult-consensual incest.
Todd: Would there be probation or anything?
Vachss: Oh yeah, I've seen people prosecuted for it, but, again, it's such an after-the-fact thing that nobody expects it to alter the conduct of the party. I've personally been in numerous cases where there've been incest babies, but all of those involved children being sexually accessed, not adults. First of all, the FBI does not break out incest as an index crime. We've attempted to run Bureau of Justice statistics and we don't see any statistics being kept on incest. (The FBI in 1929 implemented standardized crime reporting across the country. Seven major, or index, crime categories were selected and reporting criteria were established for each: murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/theft, and motor vehicle theft. An eighth category, arson, was added later.)
Todd: Even though there aren't statistical numbers, how widespread would you estimate incest and child abuse to be?
Vachss: You mean adult incest? Or do you mean sexual activity within a family with a child as a victim? Those are really different things to me.
Todd: The second one.
Vachss: First of all, that doesn't get broken out as incest, but in terms of the numbers of children who have been sexually abused each year, obviously they're monstrously significant numbers or you wouldn't have every single state legislating against it. That's not really debatable. What's debatable here is why any human being should get special dispensation from the law for having the good taste to have sex with his own child as opposed to a neighbor's child. And that, if you examine it historically, as you seem to be interested in doing, stems from property rights.
Todd: That's what I was trying to figure out.
Vachss: Sure. Because, look, I have the legal right to burn down my own house. I can't burn down yours. Well, apparently, I have some degree of legal right to have sex with my own kid but not with yours. If you look at the radical disparity in penalty, I think that's true.
Todd: Oprah Winfrey was helpful in passing the National Child Protection Act.
Vachss: I don't think it could have been passed without her. I think it justifiably deserves to be called the Oprah Bill, as many do, because without her financing it just couldn't have happened as quickly. Most of these efforts, and even that effort, take years.
Todd: Am I correct in remembering that it passed the House of Representatives 416 to 0.
Vachss: I don't believe there was any opposition.
Todd: My question would be, what would be the opposition to it?
Vachss: Those who would oppose the CARE Act would be very quiet about it. I think there are people who certainly wouldn't want it passed. Certainly, no American thinks any politician is exempt from any form of hideous conduct but I can't see them committing political suicide and standing up on the floor of Congress and saying, "Yeah, I believe people who fuck their own babies should be appealed," and that's, in effect, what they'd be saying.
Todd: What are the largest hurdles for the CARE Act right now? What are the stipulations that people are bugged about?
Vachss: None. Let me be fair. There are, "child advocates" who take the position that since, theoretically, if the federal legislation was passed and State X didn't adopt a version, it could lose a percentage of its Child Abuse, Prevention, and Treatment Act funding since that funding is going for [in facetious voice] "the children and I don't want do anything that could possibly negatively impact the children." Bleah. And there are a few prosecutors who treat their discretion as some sort of sacred thing and anything that interferes with their discretion, they're opposed to. They don't care what it could be. It could be three strikes, it could be anything. There will always be prosecutors opposed because they want to be the ones who make that decision. But if you leave that aside, the problem with the CARE Act is its lack of constituency.
Todd: Meaning lack of people trying to push it through?
Vachss: No, no. Let me ask you a question.
Vachss: Why is the NRA so powerful?
Vachss: Nope. Don't agree.
Todd: Lots of members?
Vachss: Don't agree.
Todd: One focus?
Vachss: Yes and that makes them a deliverable block of votes. Take the gun issue. The people on the other side of the gun issue—they haven't got any focus. They don't want people to own handguns but they also want whales protected. They don't want people to smoke cigarettes. The list is a smorgasbord. Therefore, they're unfeared by most politicians. There is no single-issue constituency for children in this country because any jackass—NAMBLA bills itself as a child advocacy organization—so, it's a self-awarded title that means nothing. There is no group that could say, "Mr. Senator, here's the deal. If you vote for this act, we're going to have a million people supporting you, voting for you, raising money for you, advocating for you, and if you don't, we don't care if your opponent is Satan, those million votes will go to him." Which is the NRA's position. The NRA is unconcerned about minutia: like taxes, the environment, war, poverty, famine, disease, you see?
Todd: Or specifically who runs the country, as long as they support the NRA.
Vachss: They don't care. That's exactly right. Beelzebub could be running. So, as a result, they're taken deadly seriously. Whereas the people who are "concerned about children," have never formed that focused constituency because, you know what, they spend all of their time either fighting over grants, among each other, fighting over territory, or demanding that they be the spokesperson. In this country, there is not a child protective lobby.
Vachss: I dare you to find one.
Todd: I did a lot of searching for one, specifically, and I found little to no information. Changing gears, does this fit into the dynamics of abuse? Those who are abusing want to cover their tracks. Those who are abused are scared or ashamed and can't find the vent for the abuse, and those who aren't directly in the cycle don't want to hear about it because it's really ugly stuff.
Vachss: Except for the latter, I agree with you. I think there are plenty of people who have some concern about this issue but they have never—just by nature of the political temperament of that kind of person—they're not fanatics and it the squeaky hinge that gets the oil. See, the NRA's bankrupt. It's not their lobby. It's not their money. It's the deliverable block of votes and I don't know any group—for kids, you see—that can promise that. The Mormons can promise that in Utah. Hell, there's places in this country where the Klan can promise it, but I don't know any place where children can promise it and if you look at any organization involving kids, each of them is setting themselves up as the only game in town. There has never been a coalition. No one's ever willing to say, "I'll drop my personal issues on this long enough to get yours passed and then you can help me with mine."
Todd: Has Oprah tried, since she was successful with the National Child Protection Act, to step into this arena?
Vachss: It's not a question of stepping into the arena. It was much more Oprah's money than it was anything else that was done. The only time she spoke of this is when I was on television with her. And that was several times, sure, but it was really me talking and her saying, "Yeah." I'm not saying she wasn't supportive, but you if have looked at Oprah's shows the last year or so or two years, or three years even, they are not exactly what you'd call issue-oriented. And her constituency—if there was legislation about makeovers, I think maybe. She can certainly get people to write letters, but she's not going to get anybody, who I can see, to be obsessed about the passage of a particular piece of legislation. It's not a referendum system. If it was a referendum system that we had nationally, I believe we could get it passed. I absolutely do.
Todd: Is there any way a grassroots effort can bring this up on a referendum?
Vachss: Not federally, no. There's no legislative process where there can be a national referendum. You're talking about something as big as a plebiscite (a direct vote of the qualified electors of a state in regard to some important question). My goodness, if you look at the history of the ERA, a struggle that you think couldn't be lost
Todd: Is still going on, full throttle
Vachss: Yeah. Also, you've got to remember, for politicians, you have to offer them some inducement other than "It's the right thing to do."
Todd: Correct. I think, "It's the right thing to do and we can do it on your term. It can be finished and your name can be on that bill."
Vachss: That's right. The good part about it is the bill really appeals to those who want to see it as an anti-crime measure. It's a "Let's make child molesters do more time" kind of thing, and those who see it as a child protective measure. It has no tax consequences, so you don't have that handicap. But the fact that something's beneficial or valuable or even righteous has never been enough, in and of itself, to move Congress.
Todd: I think the family values platform is really nice to say but it's really vague at the same time.
Vachss: Let me tell you something. Family values is beyond vague. Remember, I've been doing this a long time and I can't tell you how many times I've stood up in court and had some defense attorney talk about the need to keep the family united even though daddy's been raping his daughter.
Todd: Right. So biological dysfunction is better than anything else.
Vachss: That's exactly right. Aberrational biology, the hell with behavior. I did one TV show—I don't remember which—this is probably not the one that got me audited but pretty close. No, it was later on in my career. It was when Reagan was in the White House when I first got audited. Someone asked me about family values, and I said "Who's the biggest spokesperson for family values?" And they said, "Dan Quayle." And I said, "If I was Dan Quayle, I would be for family values, too, because if it wasn't for his family, he'd be flipping burgers." It's family values in the sense of how much money does your family make that it values. Look, the law schools are full of people who are there because of their family. We're probably in the third or fourth generation of politicians now who are all connected. Udall's son is in Congress, you see. How many generations of Kennedy? Yeah, family values, that's nice. Certainly, John Gotti could have something to say about family values.
Todd: He runs a tight operation.
Vachss: Also, the right to define is the right to control. So, let's say you and I agree that communism is bad. If we agree to that, all we have to do is say "This guy's a communist," and we wouldn't have any more dispute.
Todd: And then we could have a trial, and it'll be all right.
Vachss: Sure. But when it comes to something like family values, it's way too nebulous—I mean, I really consider it a family value that somebody who sexually assaults his own child is drummed out of the human race. I don't mean killed but we don't consider him one of us.
Todd: Why wouldn't you want to kill molesters?
Vachss: I'm not in favor of capital punishment for a number of reasons.
Todd: Is it just by the mechanisms that it takes so long in the appeals process and it creates some kind of celebrities?
Vachss: Or that. You're very well read or else we think alike. All of that's true, plus, let's face it, there's the ever-looming prospect of a fatal mistake. But it does, absolutely, make celebrities out of the worst degenerates. It does cost more to kill somebody than it does to incarcerate them for life. That whole argument about "Why keep them locked up for life?" is bullshit. It's created an entire industry that shouldn't exist.
Todd: By your own experiences, do you know how child molesters get treated in prison by other inmates?
Vachss: Let me tell you the truth instead of what you've heard. How you get treated in prison depends on your size, your coldness, and your connections. I have been in prisons where people with the most reprehensible crimes you can imagine, everybody treats well. People with high-status crimes are hurt and abused and even killed. Because in there, it's very much a jungle mentality and if you bring power to the game, nobody's really concerned about the status of your crime. Now, it's true that if you fit the standard predatory pedophile definition and you're sort of a weak, ineffectual shrinking person, you're going to prison and people are going to take advantage of that but it's not because you're a child molester. That's an engrafted-on excuse.
Todd: You don't have a dynamic personality, that type of thing.
Vachss: Well, you could be good with your hands. That could be enough. Let me give you an example. Do you know who Albert DeSalvo is?
Todd: No, I don't.
Vachss: He was otherwise known as The Boston Strangler. How come he was never in protective custody? I mean, this is the guy who raped, tortured, and killed, what, fifteen grandmothers. You might check Albert DeSalvo's record and find out that he was also the light heavyweight boxing champion of Europe when he was in army. Albert was a bad guy. Albert could hurt you.
Todd: Interesting. I've always wanted to know about that.
Vachss: People have this idea that there's this cool prison subculture where the convicts shun
Todd: That there's a morality
Vachss: Forty years ago, sure, no question because forty years ago, the lowest thing you could be was not a child molester, it was an informant. People go into prison now, bragging about the other people they brought with them, for god's sakes. I mean, the people who are in protective custody are there because of specific hostility towards them, not because of their crime. And anyway, child molesters can easily be isolated in prison because all they have to do is opt for one of these treatment programs. There's separate housing, separate wing. If you look at the history of people killed in prison, look at prison stabbings, take a state, and you will see that it's Aryan Brotherhood against black Muslims, the Nazi Lowriders against the skinheads. It'll be about territory, it will be about a debt, it'll be about a sexual assault, but about a crime? No.
Todd: You've said that true anger and hatred can be effective tools against abuse. Does this go against the current trend towards forgiveness or do you think that forgiveness by itself is faulty?
Vachss: I think forgiveness by itself—let's face it—any doctrine which teaches forgiveness is probably written by perpetrators.
Todd: Well, yeah, I was thinking of the Bible.
Vachss: Let's just be honest about it—with forgiveness—that it is an individual choice and that the right belongs to the wronged, not society, but to the person actually wronged. Telling people that you can not heal unless you forgive is a pernicious, destructive lie because so many people say, "I can't forgive what they did to me so I'm doomed. I'll never heal." As if you had the obligation not only to be abused but to forgive the abuser. There's nothing about that dynamic that's psychologically correct. Nothing. In a way, it's supporting—I'm the therapist and I'm telling you—"Yeah, look Todd, I did these horrible things to you but you have to forgive them." So who am I advocating for there? Whose side am I on?
Todd: You're advocating for the person who abused.
Vachss: That's exactly right. That may have some religious validity, although I consider that an oxymoron, but I don't see where it has any therapeutic validity. And I'm not saying that everybody has to go kill their abuser or even everybody has to sue their abuser or even everyone has to simply stop any contact with their abuser, but the idea that they have to somehow forgive the person who hurt them, for them to heal, it's just a lie. It's just not true. The healthiest people I know are people who say, "I hate them for what they did and I'm going to get even. The way I'm going to get even is I'm going to protect other children."
Vachss: That has been the single-most healing thing. You would not believe the volume of mail I get from people who read the books, who kind of identify with Burke's unrelenting hatred. (Burke is the main character in many of Vachss's novels.) And the result is, "Does this mean that I'm not crazy, because that's the way I feel."
Todd: Shifting just a little bit again, do you think child abuse and incest haven't reached the main focus in the American conscience due to its impossibility of being televised on national TV? I'm thinking along the lines of the women who got mobbed by a group of men in Central Park, where there are fourteen videos capturing that
Vachss: There are plenty of videos of children being abused.
Todd: Has it been nationally syndicated?
Vachss: Of course not. Those are videos for commercial sale. They're deliberately made for product. There's no question about that. I think the reason is, first of all, child abuse is an amorphous term, second of all, people operate off of religious belief as opposed to fact, so people say, "I believe there's an epidemic of false allegation." And other people will say, "I believe that no child ever lied about sexual abuse." Those are belief systems. They're not facts. I don't believe this country will ever come to grips with child abuse until they make the obvious, simple connection between today's victim and tomorrow's predator. As long as they believe a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gacy is a biogenetic mistake as opposed to a beast that was built and a monster that was made, they'll continue to blithely walk around, saying, "I'm against child abuse," whatever that means. Then there's also the people, who, for example, spanking freaks. "Oh, it's all right to spank children." "Oh, it's the correct thing." "Oh, it's biblically ," you know. Of course, I see these same people posting to boards that are all about spanking but they're spanking between adults and purely for erotic purposes. [facetiously] But, ahh, there's no connection, I'm sure. Never mind that pictures of children being "disciplined" are the hot topic. They're sold and traded all the time. That's not because people are connoisseurs of, you know, correcting children. I don't think America's going to do anything except of that of perceived self-interest. I think it is America's self-interest to really ruthlessly and relentlessly battle child abuse because the ones who are not protected, the ones who are not safe, some percentage of them will turn on us. Most of them will not. Most of them will turn on themselves. But if you don't think the societal cost in mental health services and drug addiction services and alcoholism services is not killing us and where does that come from?
Todd: It comes from the very beginning, from the seed of it.
Vachss: Of course. The cost of early intervention in child abuse is like a dollar compared to a hundred thousand dollars for intervention in even juvenile violence, never mind adult violence.
Todd: I was trying to parallel this in my mind the other day. I thought it a little weird that there's a long-time, incredibly expensive, dubious war on drugs and there's not even a battalion devoted to child's rights.
Vachss: Amen. The war on drugs; Nancy Reagan has poisoned and ruined this country. Not only is the war absolutely futile—or if it's a war, we're all POWs, but it's poisoned pain management in this country to where people are dying in extraordinary pain because doctors don't want them to be drug addicts.
Todd: There's a stigma attached to it.
Vachss: To the doctor, not to the poor person who's in freakin' pain, but those decisions—doctors are more afraid of the DEA than they are the IRS. There has never been a war on drugs. It's silly. You've got to understand, it's just a question of privilege because there was also a war on booze, remember? The money from Prohibition financed organized crime right to this day. And if you don't think that the war on drugs isn't financing organized crime, you're absolutely crazy. If we had the money that we spent on this utter futility I don't care if people want to be dope fiends. I care what they do to get their drugs.
Todd: And how they treat other people.
Vachss: If you want to go in your house and shoot up, good for you. I don't give a damn. I really don't. But the cost of drug enforcement and the damage done by addicts and the cost of treating addicts, it's going to bankrupt this country. If we didn't have this bullshit, we could probably fund every single social program in the world times ten. We could feed Ethiopia. But, in this country, there's kids—we don't want kids to be dope fiends, that's very nice—as if there's really pushers hanging around school yards trying to get kids. What a canard. What nonsense.
Todd: I grew up in a very small town and I got into trouble quite a bit. It was a very weird dynamic. The powers that be say, "Don't do anything destructive." And it was little things like skateboarding, but they wouldn't make a skate park. They wouldn't give you something to do, only say "Don't do it and just stand on the corner of the street and stare at something." They didn't provide any activity or anything that was a viable alternative to a young mind.
Vachss: They could do it. The money is certainly there. The money has been squandered on absolute, utter nonsense. It would be fine with me if we had an actual war on drugs. If you want to have a war, I've been in a war and I know what a war is. This isn't one.
Todd: It kind of reminds me of the tactics of the Vietnam War. It's a completely shifting battleground. Battles are fought over non-sequential hills that are overtaken as soon as the forces are pulled out, and you still haven't engaged your enemy directly.
Vachss: The enemy was undefeatable because the territory couldn't be occupied. If United States had "won" that war, what would we be doing? Would we have 175,000 troops in Vietnam now?
Todd: No. I think we'd have cheaper motor scooters, that's about it.
Vachss: The whole trade balance is utter hypocrisy. You can't expect a country to protect its own children when they get on their knees and say, "Oh god, we must have trade with China, ehh, don't worry about the human rights thing."
Todd: I was curious about the current condition of The Domino Theory. Have they said, "This isn't good any more"?
Vachss: I think they must have said that because ask the Russians about Afghanistan. The whole idea was to crank up a war machine. It was to do anything about stopping the spread of godless communism in southeast Asia. You ask yourself why they didn't attack Cuba, if that was their rationale. If the rationale was that this is a fascist government that's controlling the people and, you know, no freedom in this, no freedom in that, why don't they just... Cuba's just sitting over there. And it's another example of American hypocrisy, which is why people don't respect it. I have friends who are Mexican. They say to me, "What the fuck is this? If I'm a Cubano and I make it to the shore, everybody wants to give me a kiss and a job. But when I try to go across the goddamn Rio Grande, they want to shoot me. The rationale is that the Cubans are fleeing oppression. Have you been in Chiapas lately? Mexico's a booming, wonderful democracy because they make Volkswagens?
Todd: Mexico was controlled by the same party since 1929.
Vachss: And by force.
Todd: Prior to Fox, opponents were killed. (Vicente Fox, Mexico's current president, elected in 2000, officially ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party's seventy-one-year-old stranglehold on Mexican political power.)
Vachss: They've killed them in the street. So, when people flee that, they get turned back. I would flee that, I wouldn't want to be there. But if they're Cuban, okay. That's one reason why when people talk about the Hispanic vote in this country, they're idiots. They don't realize that the Mexicans and Cubans are not exactly pals because of the disparity in their treatment by this government. It comes down to what? Deliverable block of votes. The same way Puerto Ricans have been a viable force of New York politics since, my god, the '30s.
Todd: I think there were more Puerto Ricans in New York than Puerto Rico at one time.
Vachss: Certainly more than in San Juan, no question. That's because a politician, Envito Mark Antonio, long, long time ago got through legislation that Puerto Ricans could vote as Americans. I mean, it's not a state. Any time there's political power, children, by definition, never are going to have political power. What they're going to have is "spokespersons." There is no other group on the face of this earth—I don't care if they're mass murderers—that don't have one of their own as spokespersons.
Todd: Concerning child protection laws, how would you rate America in the grand scheme of the world?
Vachss: We're at the high end as to the law. Let me distinguish between law and law enforcement. We're not where the Scandinavian countries are, for example, which prohibit so-called corporal punishment.
Todd: But we're nowhere near Thailand.
Vachss: Australia's coming up strong. Australia's going to pass laws that are appropriate but I would definitely say America's at the high end in terms of a legislative scheme when it comes to kids. However, our legislative scheme does permit you to kill kids, right? You can be under twenty-one and be executed in the United States. And you can be thirteen and tried as an adult in the United States.
Todd: I think it's getting lower and lower, too.
Vachss: No, no. Every state has a different law but they all have one provision or another by which they can make a child into an adult. In New York, for example, at sixteen you are an adult. There's no judicial process involved. You shoot a guy on your sixteenth birthday, you're an adult. But on your fifteenth birthday, they would have to get permission to treat you as an adult. And they would have no trouble doing that because we have this theory that a thirteen-year-old, obviously couldn't sign a contract, couldn't drive a car, couldn't vote, couldn't drink, but, by virtue of the maturing experience of having killed other human beings, they are old enough for criminal justice purposes.
Todd: Maybe we should just fire guns at people, to get them smarter and instantaneously growing up.
Vachss: I can tell you that having guns fired at you makes you smart for a very brief period of time. It does make you smart for the moment.
Todd: It makes your legs smart, too.
Vachss: The people who are not smart don't have a continued experience of being shot at. Did you know that the United States has not signed a U.N. convention on the rights of the child?
Vachss: Because it prohibits the death penalty. [facetiously] We're not going to do that because the death penalty has been proved to be such a potent weapon against crime. We kill more than everybody else but we seem to have more murders than everybody else. Duh.
Todd: And I don't think it's because of drugs.
Vachss: No. It's not because of drugs. It really has a reason. I mean, look, there are a lot of murders that are just, you know, stupid murders, but the sociopathic murders that scare us the most, those people are not born bad. They're just not. There's no isolatable, chromosome or gene or combination that produces murderers.
Todd: Do you think that some people are born evil?
Vachss: No, but certainly there are people whose triggers are set differently. On the other hand, lots of those people never grow up to be vicious criminals. There are checks and balances. We're all different in that respect, but born evil—evil's a choice. To be evil, you have to volitionally chose conduct.
Todd: Right, or be exposed to that conduct and not know the difference.
Vachss: Nope, you still have to imitate it before you could be called evil. You could be exposed to it endlessly but doesn't mean that you copy it.
Todd: That's true. I was thinking about that the other day, too. About if you had a serial killer and he had a twin brother or she had a twin sister, what was the difference between the two? One's successful, or definitely not out killing other people, what is that trigger, what is that margin?
Vachss: Remember, too, that some of these twin studies are badly flawed because they say, "Look, there were two twins and they both turned out to be bad, which says something about genetics." And then you say, "Geez, were they separated at birth or were they raised in the same home? If they were raised in the same household, what are you saying?" I, personally, have had families in my caseload who literally, third and forth generation, every goddamn one of them, was a rapist, a murder, a thief, an arsonist, everything you could think of, not because their strain of genes was bad but because their intra-familiar culture was
Todd: systematic, repeated abuse.
Vachss: You have a choice. Look at any juvenile prison. You see a kid come in there. He looks around. He figures it out almost immediately. There's predators and there's prey. The way you can tell the prey is they're forced into sex acts, for example. So if I force somebody into a sex act, therefore, I put myself on a different side of the fence. It's a lot of adaptive, survival-driven behavior that's pretty damn ugly.
Todd: What can you tell me that can make our readers angry? You've said, "Informed, inactive people are just as useless as ignorant people."
Vachss: That's right.
Todd: Can you give me some information that could, possibly, drive people into action.
Vachss: Yeah. The information is, you've been hosed. You don't know that there is a law that permits special, more lenient treatment of people who rape their own kids.
Todd: So, if you can raise them, you can raze them.
Vachss: The ownership of kids to that extent—people don't know this—in people's minds, incest is much older. When people think of incest, they think of a seventeen-year-old girl and her stepfather. They haven't been told the truth, and more importantly, you know I think it would make people really angry if they understood, that government priorities as such, that monsters continued to be made, beasts continued to be built, and all government will offer them is a eulogy at their funeral when the grown victim turns predator. Because all this three strikes stuff, all this "let's lock them up and throw away the key," I mean, that's just so much after the fact.
Todd: That's when the curtain's falling instead of the first act.
Vachss: Sure. What you said before is true. A politician will not support something that won't bear fruit within his term of office and when you're talking about intervening in child abuse, so as to protect one generation removed, no politician wants to touch that.
Todd: No self interest in that.
Vachss: No, because he can't. With the exception of a Strom Thurman, who's going to be around to say, "I can take credit for it."?
Todd: Just for my own curiosity, do you know any famous people who have been convicted as pedophiles or have been up for incest charges?
Vachss: Are you serious?
Vachss: Roman Polanski. He's sitting in France. An exiled hero to the Hollywood community, but in fact, he was convicted of sex with a twelve-year-old girl and decided to not hang around and go to jail. So there's this great campaign to get poor Roman back into this country. There've been all kinds of people convicted of having sex with their own child but I don't know about famous people. What I would say is there aren't a whole lot of rich and famous people in jail for anything.
Todd: Why are people trying to kill you? Why is there such secrecy around you?
Vachss: I don't know that either of those things are true. Certainly, I've had my share of stupid threats over the years and in the course of my work as an investigator and other things, yeah, you're in violent places, violent things happen. I had a law office in New York City for many years and a day didn't go by without some degenerate simply using the phone lines or using the fax machines for his or her own entertainment. When I practiced law full time, that was just something I had to bear. I don't now because I've switched to sort of a different type of work. I still do courtroom work but they're selective shots not open to business to everybody. My home address has never been public and never would be. I don't know why anybody would make their home address public, to be honest with you.
Todd: No way. On a much smaller scale, I help operate a small magazine. I want to keep the two—home and work—separate. I want to go home and not have to answer the phone.
Vachss: That's right. I don't think that's unique. I take precautions because I teach people to take themselves seriously and I intend to take myself seriously. In other words, I'm proud that I'm on the enemies list of the International Pedophile Liberation Front but I don't dismiss people who send me pictures of myself with my face covered by a crosshair or people who send funeral cards or even people who call up and say, "You're dead." Are they far more likely than not freakish little windbags? Yes. Sure. I pity the fool who would find my house and break into it, unless somebody has a real affection for pitbulls.
Todd: I get the feeling, and I really appreciate this, is that you're not solely there for child's rights because child's rights is a good thing and a wholesome thing to do, but you're going after the predators themselves.
Vachss: I've never pretended that I've got any great, special, unique love for children. That's not me. I hate the people who prey on them, but I'm doing it as a pragmatic warrior. I think the greatest threat to this country's long-term existence is not communism and it's not cocaine. It is that no society can survive if we let too much of it prey on its own young. We just won't survive. The quality of our lives, everything that we hate about our lives is somehow connected to sociopathy and sociopathy is nothing more than ambulatory humans with no sense of empathy. They feel only about their own feelings. They care only about their own pain. And I'm not saying they're all serial killers. Some are selling used cars, some are on Capitol Hill, but they're all pernicious to us because they're not of us and the only way you get that is when the socialization process is skewed. When a baby's born, it has no empathy. It just has its own needs.
Todd: It's just receptive.
Vachss: Sure. What else could an infant do? But they learn empathy through socialization. If they get sodomy instead of socialization, some percentage of them are going to get very, very dangerous. And it's not a question of a moral obligation, although it is one. It's pragmatism. We just can't keep building this thing to critical mass.
Todd: That's very interesting. In my line of work, I deal with a lot of racism—counter and pro—and I'm always looking for something that's more elemental than skin color or creed.
Vachss: I know more about that than almost anybody because when I hear the term African American, my hair on the back of my neck stands up because I was in the middle, as you probably know, of a genocidal tribal war in Africa.
Todd: In Biafra, right.
Vachss: Black people, African people, people—you can't even call it a country because it's a war zone not a country—trying to exterminate one another. And if you think that's unique, check Rwanda.
Todd: The Tutsis versus the Hutus.
Vachss: What's happening is that racism isn't the problem. It's tribalism that's the problem.
Todd: My brother was in Bosnia and he said that the Croats and the Serbs hate one another. They live across a river and have hated one another forever.
Vachss: And try to wipe each other out. And the Serbs and Croats are, ethnically, highly different. I mean, they're both Caucasian. The reality to racism is that even if each race lives separately, we have proven that that won't bring peace and harmony.
Todd: Definitely not. It'll just give them time to sharpen their weapons.
Vachss: What happens with racism is that it's become a great source for profiteers because you can explain to any inbred moron that the reason his life is so terrible is because of somebody else, and he'll buy it because he's not very smart. He'll not only buy it, but he'll act on it. If you look—and, actually, that's what my book, Dead and Gone, is about—the fusion between the extreme left and the extreme right on these issues because if you look really closely at the current Nazi dynamic, you'll notice something really different about their recruiting. You've got young people, say skinheads, right, who are Greek, are Italian.
Todd: I've known Jewish skinheads.
Vachss: Well, that's a psychiatric disturbance. There have always been Jews in the Nazi party and they're just sick humans. But there are people of an ethnicity that's not Aryan, so what they've done to increase recruitment—because they were never about racism, they were about power—is that they say, "Oh, you guys are welcome. You guys are perfectly qualified to be Aryan." Well, Hitler would be spinning in his grave—"Greeks? Are you kidding me? Fucking gypsies? Italians? Mediterraneans? Spaniards?" Look at the Nazi Lowriders. They're Latino. They don't really have any sense of all of this, but it's always been a fact. When I was a kid, when the cops would bust teenagers, the real dark-skinned Puerto Rican kids would only speak Spanish because they didn't want to be mistaken for black, see? Racism's horseshit in this country anyway. For example, if you have a black girlfriend, you're somewhat suspect, but if you have an Asian girlfriend, she's exotic. Racism really isn't an issue because the profiteers at the top of the pyramid are not racist any more than the people at the top of a drug cartel are dope fiends or any more than the people who are running huge kiddie porn rings are pedophiles. They're profiteers.
Todd: They're just dealing in a different material than Microsoft is.
Todd: Is that what your book, Dead and Gone, is about?
Vachss: Dead and Gone, the truth is if you look at the one area where the extreme left and the extreme right don't have any dispute with each other is about how children can be used. I mean, Allen Ginsburg, you know who he is, is a member of NAMBLA. Well, I mean he's also a Jew and probably you'd think that the extreme rightists would hate him, and yet when it comes to using children for their own fun, there is no dispute. It's like a Moebius Strip. They're not really separate. I'll give you another example. There's one thing that absolutely unites the extreme left and the extreme right—and although they don't speak to each other, they're united about one thing: fear of registration.
Todd: Can you explain that?
Vachss: Sure. If you look at any of the gun people, what they're always talking about is they don't want to be registered because the government's keeping lists.
Todd: A database.
Vachss: Right. And they're going to move on them some day. Well, it's the exact same thing with the anarchists who are allegedly the extreme left. See? Actually, it's not a line, it really is a spinning continuum and there's points where they intersect. If you scratch a severe enough liberal, you'll always see a fascist. This is very important because you don't combat ideology, you don't combat skin color, you combat conduct and we tend not to look at conduct. We tend to look at trappings: color, things like that.
Todd: Boxes to put things in.
Vachss: Sure, because that makes it simple and that makes it convenient. So when it's put against child abuse, when you ask them to define it, you're going to get different definitions from different people.
Todd: That's helpful.
Vachss: Take a dozen people, and ask, "Define child abuse." And they won't be able to do it and fair enough. That's the fault of our lawmakers who have not been really clear. Child abuse cases, which might be tried in family court, can be any kind of horrible. I've been in homicide cases that were prosecuted as child abuse but there's other people who have been accused for child abuse for slapping their kids.
Todd: Has there ever been child abuse cases for just mental abuse?
Vachss: Oh yeah, and I would never precede mental abuse with the word "just," because it's probably the most damaging of all.
Todd: Right, because scars can heal.
Vachss: That's right and the other thing is that it doesn't change you as much. The most common—in the people who have studied serial killers—what they're shocked about is what's so prevalent isn't sexual abuse, not even physical abuse, but emotional abuse. Unless the child—and there's a critical period in which this can happen—bonds, he becomes that hypothetical lone wolf, that sociopath. You can't bond when what you're told, "I, the adult, won't bond with you. I won't accept you. You're a worthless piece of crap. I'm sorry I ever gave birth to you. You're fat, you're dumb, you're ugly, you're stupid. You're not mine. I'm ashamed of you." On and on and on. Those detachment disorders have caused more dangerous people than physical abuse or sexual abuse. When I wrote about emotional abuse for Parade, I got 6,500 plus letters. We were staggered. This one absolutely hit a nerve, so many people saying, "Thank you, Jesus, for finally recognizing that my pain's just as much as somebody who's suffered from being beaten or being raped.
Todd: A word lashing is even worse that a belt lashing.
Vachss: It's worse when it's systematic. Any kind of kind of outburst in the world can be cured.
Todd: Can you give me some contact information so people can find out more about the stuff we've been talking about today?
Vachss: The best one: www.vachss.com. That one, if you ever click on "resources" there, you can spend several hours. It's not like, "Here's some hot links" crap. It's really thorough. It's brilliantly indexed. I had a lot of people work on it. That's the best one-stop shop. If they just want the CARE Act, it's www.careact.org.
© Todd Taylor. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Todd Taylor's book, Born to Rock, available through www.gorskypress.com.