Author Picks a Fight With Child Abusers
by Bill Lohmann
Andrew Vachss is blunt and profane, angry and obsessed, and all business.
He is an attack dog with a wry sense of humor and a gruff eloquence. His image is only enhanced by the black patch he wears over his right eye.
Vachss is precisely the sort of person you would want on your side in a fight because you sure as heck wouldn't want to face him as an adversary.
Vachss is a high-profile New York attorney specializing in juvenile justice and child abuse cases. He also is a best-selling novelist whose books revolve around disturbing tales of crime and violence against kids.
The points he makes in his writing serve well his efforts to help children and hinder those who would hurt them. And the money he makes from his books finances his legal practice, which doesn't bring in much cash since his only clients are children.
Considering those circumstances, he proudly refers to his books as his "Trojan horses."
"I have the legitimate right to say that because my first book was a textbook, which didn't go in disguise and didn't go anywhere," Vachss said in a telephone interview from Dayton, Ohio, where he was promoting "Safe House," his latest work. "Since then, I've used plenty of car chases and sex and violence and anything else people want. If that's what gets you in the door, fine. Then you'll stick around for the rest."
The "rest" likely will get you, too.
"I measure my success as a writer very simply," Vachss said. "If you read one of my books and if when you're done you're not angry, then I'm a failure."
Vachss will be in Richmond today at 4 p.m. to sign copies of "Safe House" at Carytown Books, 2930 W. Cary St.
It would seem timely that Vachss, the ultimate advocate of children, is traveling the country on a book tour during Child Abuse Prevention Month, which is what April has been designated across America.
But Vachss scoffs at the notion of such a month.
"I frankly don't see what designating a month does," he said. "I'm damned if anyone's been able to explain to me how anyone prevents child abuse. Sounds good, though. And since it's impossible to measure, it's pretty economically viable.
"We're in the revenge business, not in the prevention business. I mean, God bless people who want to prevent it."
Vachss, 55, who lost the sight in his right eye in a gang fight as a kid, has worked in the field of child-advocacy for more than 30 years, ever since he was a field investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service tracing the spread of syphilis and he encountered a child who had been raped.
"After I saw that," he said in an interview several years ago, "rage replaced every emotion."
He became a lawyer and then a writer. He is persistent and persuasive and single-minded in his purpose. And he comes with rough edges.
On first glance, he would appear an odd choice for a child advocate. He is, by his own admission, not a warm person. He also has no children. He wasn't cut out to be a parent, he has said.
Given those characteristics, some people have questioned his motives, something he finds offensive.
"Why would the children who are protected by my work give a damn?" he asked. "Measure me by my conduct. I'm not going to sit around and explain myself for doing something that is righteous. I think people ought to have to explain themselves for doing something wrong. Or for doing nothing."
Vachss reserves the most venom for child abusers, but he saves a substantial amount for politicians.
"We have a system that is essentially run by a collection of slugs and drones and whores who will do exactly what they are pressured to do," he said.
Which is why his model for getting things done is the National Rifle Association.
"There's no NRA for kids," he said. "There's no single-issue constituency. There is no obsessed group of folks with a single-minded objective. Just a bunch of 'concerned' people, and their idea of doing something about it is going on 'The Rikki Lake Show' and saying we need better parenting."
Progress has been made in the area of child abuse by the simple fact that it is a subject that is now publicly discussed. But it's nowhere near being resolved and never will be, Vachss said, as long as we have laws that treat children as property of their parents.
To make his point about the U.S. legal system, Vachss said a neighbor who raped a child is more likely to receive a severe punishment than a parent who did the same thing.
"Clearly, the difference between raping your own baby and raping the guy next door's baby is that you can do as you wish with your own property," Vachss said. "You can't beat your dog, though. Then people will complain."
Vachss said a first step in further protecting children would be eliminating such "incest exemptions."
"All I ask people to do is be obsessed," he said. "All I ask them to do is write a letter to their representatives and say, 'If you vote to eliminate this incest exemption, I will vote for you next time and if you don't, I won't.'
"If enough people wrote that letter, that law would be changed."
Meantime, Vachss will go on doing what he does best: helping kids, writing books, raising hackles and harpooning pomposity.
"I'm just a soldier, I'm not a general," he said. "There's another wave behind me, and another wave behind that.
"At least I've gone the distance. Nobody can say I've flitted around with a career."
© 1998 Richmond Newspapers, Inc.
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