Suffer Little Children
By Steve Grant
Originally published in Time Out (London), March 1990.
Child abuse and child pornography investigator Andrew Vachss knows the hell some kids go through, and writes brutal American novels, plotted and cast from his files. In New York he talks of snuff movies, the Ghost Van and fighting the 'maggots,' and we ask, "Will this become our future too?"
"I'm never surprised by what people will do to children. Stephen King doesn't know anything about horror. Real horror is the sexual torture of a child, an act that then turns the child into an imitation of its oppressor. That's horror."
Andrew Vachss (pronounced Vax) is an angry man even by the standards of New York, where rage comes with the bagels. He's been angry for a long time, certainly ever since he saw his first case of extreme and grotesque child abuse in Chicago back in the mid-'70s. Since then, from his rather pokey law office on Broadway, Vachss has been representing children. Up to 30 at a time. They may be the victims of sexual abuse, runaways, child prostitutes, juvenile offenders, but his aim is always the same: to keep them away from the 'maggots,' the people who are doing them harm, who are, in Vachss' almost evangelical phraseology, "stealing their souls. Did you know that it was possible to steal a child's soul? You see, I believe that many of our great myths have their roots in psychiatry. There are such things as werewolves and there is such a thing as demonic possession. In this country you can grow your own victim; have a child and he's yours, abuse and confuse him and he's still yours. What is that if not possession?"
Since 1985, when his first novel Flood was published, Vachss has been taking his crusade into the bookshops. This month Hard Candy reaches Britain, the latest in his Burke novels which explore the same world of the courts and care. Since Flood and its even more successful successors, Strega, Blue Belle and now Hard Candy (he has just finished a new book, Blossom), literary commentators have been trying to establish the links between Vachss and his street-surviving outsider creation, Burke. The parallels are intriguing: both Vachss and Burke are fans of blues music and racehorses (Vachss counts ownership of a filly named Gypsy Flame among his few luxuries); both smoke too much but avoid booze; both have spent time in Biafra—Vachss was there in 1969 tracking down child relief funds during the war and barely escaped with his life. "I believe I'm still officially classed as a war criminal in Nigeria. In fact the Red Cross plane I flew in had no parachutes; when I asked why, someone said that I'd be crazy to be captured alive ..."
Burke has recurring nightmares about the same war. Vachss says he did in the past. And both are very strongly against crime. When you ask Vachss why he writes, and he writes with a gem-like economy which never conceals the rage beneath, his answer is always the same: "To make people angry. The way I see it, government has never been the main area for change. That's journalism, the media, that's what gets people to change their opinions, that's what makes governments react. Which is what they do best; but I'm not angry in a disparate, unfocused way. But I am angry at the phoney, liberal attitudes surrounding this subject. Child molesters aren't sick; they are evil. If they have those feelings they are sick; if they act on those feelings they are evil.
"One thing I'm sure of after more than 20 years working in social welfare, juvenile crime and now my legal practice, is that monsters are not born, they are made. The monster that kills or rapes was created and there is almost always in my experience some history of child abuse attached. So it is surely benefiting society to tackle this problem properly; it makes sense. But by the same token, you can't forgive child abusers by saying that they were abused themselves: I know literally hundreds of child abuse victims who haven't committed the same crimes on others. People know what they're doing."
But, like Burke, Vachss has encountered the really sinister end of the child abuse market: the snuff movie merchants, the pain freaks, the hoods who prey on the market "but who aren't that way inclined themselves. Rather like the crack dealers who don't use crack, it's the same analogy." I asked him if the Ghost Van, a hideous contraption from his third novel Blue Belle, really exists. "Oh yeah, surely. Take a walk down the prostitutes run on Second Avenue or in Times Square, every time a van passes by, they will run like hell. And that van will be fitted out: cans, gags, chains, blindfolds and all the home-movie or video equipment money can buy. There's a market in pain and crime always follows the market."
Propaganda for Fascism
Vachss will brook no bullshit, just like Burke has no aversion to blowing people away. Inevitably, this has led to some detractions. One critic called the books "propaganda for fascism" and comparisons have been made with vigilante figures like Rambo and with Bronson's shooter from Death Wish. Vachss gets angry at this too. "Firstly, everybody's opinion is as good as everybody else's. Like I've gotten letters from women saying that the sex in my books is the first that has explained sexual relations to them, others who have said my books are grotesquely sexist. But these are not James Bond. The women I create are all different; they are people, not interchangeable sex objects or whatever. Likewise, I hold no brief for Burke."
"As for 'fascism,' well, I would say that my work has the absolute opposite standpoint. Fascism says that if you're born black, Jewish, retarded, you're stuck with being inferior. My belief is that what happens to people is all that's important. I've met people so cold, so evil, rather like the figure of Wesley in Hard Candy that you'd swear they came out of the womb like that. But that's not the way it is. Burke is a survivor. He doesn't go out looking for people. He reacts only when he's threatened or when the people he loves are threatened. And Burke is a loser. Throughout the novels it's always clear that the people he loves most are going to be taken away from him.
"As far as Burke and me are concerned, well, sure there are similarities, but I'm a more complete person than he is, my life is more rounded and my way of doing things is slightly different, although if I told you some of the cases I've worked on I can promise you that you'd be physically sick. When you're dealing with that kind of hell then it is very possible to feel violent towards the maggots responsible and I get hundreds of letters from all over the world attesting to the same fact."
Like Burke too, Vachss and his wife Alice, a sex-crimes prosecutor in Queens, live in isolated splendour in a rooftop apartment protected by tripwires, countless other security devices and a clutch of the most implacable canines imaginable, including a Rottweiler, a German shepherd mastiff cross, a seeing eye dog, and again, like Burke, a Neapolitan Mastiff, "the size of six pit bulls welded together." Like Burke's Pansy, the size of a panther and not given to verbal warnings, Vachss' dog has been poison-proofed (it will only take food from him) and has been well equipped with a series of reverse commands by which if his dog is told to 'Sit!' someone will shortly be ripped asunder. What happens if people come round for dinner?
"To tell you the truth, people don't. I tend to go out for company. This place is a bit of a gloomy fortress." But then it has to be: though the death threats Vachss gets usually come from "sickos whose courage stops at torturing a child," he has been involved in several altercations which have led to "broken bones" (whose he doesn't care to specify) and someone who borrowed his car was shot at.
Stashes of Kiddie Porn
Since the high-profile repercussions of his writing Vachss has had to stop the investigations side of his practice, rooting out stashes of kiddie porn, hustling the streets from which all Burke's compadres—Max, the deaf-mute power man; the Mole, the miniscule street-smart electronics wizard; Michelle, the transsexual wildsider are drawn. "It isn't so much the fame but the fact that I'm rather easily recognisable. The eye patch, I think that's the only really remarkable thing about my appearance! How did I get it? I was hit in the eye with a chain when I was seven years old. It wasn't really a gang fight—can seven-year-olds have a gang fight?" The eye-patch however works wonders in court, adding to Vachss' chillingly hawk-like demeanour and putting the fear of god in judges who in many cases, according to one veteran colleague, "know less law than Andy does."
Vachss, now close on 48, grew up in the lower West Side of Manhattan in "a nice friendly working-class area" and went to college before doing a series of social-service-type jobs. "The fact that I didn't go to law school straight out of college has a lot to do with my success in court. Simply, I'm street-smart and job-smart; I didn't say when I was 19 that I'm going to change the world or anything." Hence his first hideous brush with child sexual abuse when he was employed as a public health investigator tracking sexually transmitted diseases.
"I know that you've had a lot of trouble recently over the Cleveland child abuse case. Well that often happens: in the USA someone came out with often extreme figures like one child in every four and people just couldn't cope. I know that many people can't cope with what I write about. But my first case was pretty straightforward: it was a one-year-old child who had been repeatedly sodomised and had gonorrhoea as a result. The medical evidence was conclusive: the anus had been seriously damaged by a large object, and the spoor result was positive. So basically nobody could tell me that baby was fantasising."
It's horrendous incidents like this which give the Burke novels their undeniable power, but Vachss accepts that there is a problem. So far he's turned down innumerable film offers, but he's now on the verge of signing a deal which will give him script and directoral veto. "Frankly, I don't have that much faith in Hollywood to deal with the subject properly, but I accept that the problems aren't all theirs. In Flood I had to depict a snuff film, not refer to it, but actually show one and I had to do it in a way that wasn't pornographic or salacious. That's a hell of a tightrope to walk. Obviously I'd rather that my books were made into movies so that the subject could be brought to an audience that doesn't buy books, but who can you trust?"
What about Scorsese, who did Taxi Driver? "Yeah, well he's been mentioned before. But there's no comparison between that film and my novels. Travis Bickle was demented; Burke isn't demented, he's not even 'paranoid' as some critics put it. Do you know the word 'hypervigilance'? Well, that's what Burke oozes, it's the kind of mistrust that's bred into a victim of child abuse which Burke is. He has a family of misfits to replace his own. And he's pathologically contemptuous of any form of established authority. That's classic."
Vachss denies that he was abused as a child, but there is certainly a similarity with Burke in what he describes as his "iciness; I just don't feel things in the same way as most people any more, but what I mean by that is that I have a narrower range of emotions, my nerve ends have altered over the years. I can give off a certain chill, I know that, but this job teaches you where the bullshit ends and where hell begins. I can still just about relax."
Vachss is adamant that there is nothing in his books that isn't based on his own life experience: the rapist who likes babies but is still allowed to work in a day-care centre; the porno-pic sessions at the babysitter's; the sadists; the babies sold for heart transplantation or just bred for a price of 50K. "I'm not a hero; Burke's certainly not a hero; but there are heroes out there; my books are dedicated [literally] to those that have died, often in the struggle—case workers, social workers, foster parents, teachers, the people who are fighting what really is the biggest evil that we face. The abuse of children is the ultimate abuse of power.
"That's why I still don't consider myself a writer; I write from what I know. That's all that interests me. Recently, and this is the only such function I've ever attended, I was on a panel organised by PEN, the writers' organisation, and I was on with P.D. James and Joyce Carol Oates. And the usual question was asked: 'How do you come to write your novels?' And the other two gave very long, complex, convoluted answers. And then they came to me. And I said: 'Simple. I just open the files and change all the names.'"
Andrew Vachss' first three published novels, Flood, Strega and Blue Belle are all being reissued by Pan at £3.99. Hard Candy is published by the Bodley Head this week at £6.99.
There is an intriguing similarity between the language used by Andrew Vachss, child-abuse specialist from New York, and the unnamed head of Scotland Yard's Child Pornography Unit quoted at the beginning of Janet Trewin's chilling Newsnight special report on the subject. While Vachss, certainly no believer in Original Sin, talks openly of 'evil', the man who heads the six strong often undercover unit said recently: "When I first began to be head of this branch I thought they were sick. They're not—they're evil."
The CPU is part of the Obscene Publications Branch of the Yard, whose job is not only to infiltrate the security conscious paedophile rings around Britain and to discover links with groups of similar people on the Continent, but to spend hours sifting through acres of obscene material: videos, slides, pictures. One officer from West End Central who deals with general pornography law enforcement says that formerly most of this material consisted of very old black-and-white photography and videos made of movies from as far back as the '40s. Imports from Holland, Germany and Denmark are now much stronger, including material as disgusting as that instanced by Vachss; and while there are more than 3,000 known paedophiles active in the porn industry, as both suppliers and consumers, the real figures are thought to be much higher. Both Vachss and the Yard also agree that paedophiles who indulge their tastes either by using material or abusing minors are likely to be, in Vachss' words, the "socially advantaged criminal category: doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, clergymen, all have featured in recent convictions. These people are part of the establishment, are extremely careful about their activities, and often operate almost like terrorist cells."
Small ads in magazines are often the main clues to the existence of rings; more sinister is the fact that certain groups are known to procure children for sex with the active participation of their parents. And there is undoubtedly a link between runaways sleeping in the streets of London, child abuse in the home, and the increase in chiId porn. The Trewin film also alleged that at least two "snuff" movies had been made, one supposedly filmed in Docklands and involving a runaway 14-year-old boy being gang-raped and then beaten to death; the second involving a youth of similar age being taken to Amsterdam and killed before his body was thrown into a canal. Gareth, a 15-year-old runaway from Halifax, told me rumours about these films were rife on the streets, and that it was not unknown for juveniles to be approached for "photo sessions." "It's an easy way to make money, if you're cold and desperate. Even though I'm not 'queer' myself, I've wanked blokes off, but nothing more, it's too dangerous."
Certainly the 14-year-old girl, hands trembling, who revealed on the Newsnight report that she had been gang-raped and filmed while on the run from care, is only one of many at risk in a booming industry where an eight-year-old child can be subjected to over 180 hours of filmed abuse. What the police want to know is how the advent of the 1992 EEC regulations, opening up the European market, will affect the flood of child pornography into Britain. Though the Child Pornography Unit is short of resources and has limited powers of arrest, the penalty of three years' imprisonment (maximum) for supplying child pornography is among the highest in Europe. In Holland on the other hand, such material is not only freely available but almost tolerated. I still remember my shock at meeting the prim daughter of an Amsterdam hotelier who casually announced that she was a "child-porn star" who retired at 15. As one police officer asked: "What is going to happen? Are we going to go it alone or not?"
Conservative MP Michael Allerson has organised an Early Day motion at the House of Commons with already over 200 signatures from all parties calling for research to be funded into the connections between consumption of child porn and the incidence of violent and sexually violent crimes against children. His project researcher, Nigel Williams, of the evangelical Christian CARE group, says that unease at the prospect of an open European market in 1992 relates to concern that "as long as it remains illegal to import child pornography and illegal to produce it at home there should be no problem unless somebody tries to bring a case on the grounds of restraint of EEC trade, which in this case is unlikely.
The other area of concern is satellite television. In theory there is nothing to stop a foreign channel being beamed into receivers' homes and it would be difficult to prosecute unless it was done in the country of origin. Countries like Holland are slowly starting to crack down, but it's true that the laws against child pornography are tougher here than elsewhere."
To close, Vachss and the CPU at the Yard are perfectly aware that children are inquisitive, about sex as much as anything else, but that it's the betrayal of trust, of loyalty, of fragility, that fully brings home the horror of this unabating scourge. "The look on a child's face in one of these films," says a Yard officer, "is enough to break your heart. Childhood has got to be sacred, hasn't it?" —Steve Grant