by Night Watchman
Originally published in Tastes Like Chicken, June 2004
Also available in Russian (http://bit.ly/2mZxrqg)
ANDREW VACHSS IS KNOWN TO MANY AS THE AUTHOR OF THE HARD-BOILED BURKE NOVELS; THE FIFTEENTH, DOWN HERE, IS IN STORES NOW. BUT HIS MANY BOOKS, COMICS, AND STORIES MERELY SERVE AS TROJAN HORSES TO DELIVER HIS TRUE MESSAGE: PROTECT CHILDREN. AS AN ATTORNEY, VACHSS' PRIVATE PRACTICE ONLY REPRESENTS CHILDREN, AND FIGHTS FOR THEIR RIGHTS. NIGHT WATCHMAN HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO TALK WITH ANDREW, AND FIND OUT WHAT WE CAN ALL BE DOING TO HELP WIN THE WAR AGAINST CHILD ABUSE.
Night Watchman: Let me get everything rolling here. I should let you know I am recording this conversation, and we do direct transcriptions for our interviews. If you'd like, I can send it to you so you can check everything over before it goes online.
Andrew: Well, of course, I'd prefer to be able to check transcription errors. We've had whole cases turn around on transcription errors. The difference between, "I meant to stop him," and, "I meant to stab him," doesn't necessarily come across real well on a tape.
A: We appreciate it. We'd expect something to be fact checked, but outside of that, we don't look to change anything that I've actually said.
NW: Also, this publication is for adults, so you don't have to worry about censoring yourself in any way.
A: I never worry about censoring myself, and I try not to use the sort of language habitually that would require it.
NW: Great. To start out, it sounds like you had many interesting jobs leading up to this point, from when you finished high school on up.
A: (laughs) Well, before I even finished high school, I had plenty of jobs. All that you're looking at, I assume, is the professional resume, which doesn't indicate fruit picking or laundry truck driving, or any of the other things I did.
A: Because it's just not relevant to somebody who'd be interested in employing me.
NW: Right. But you've had quite a few interesting jobs and experiences growing up. What led you to the path of doing what you do now?
A: Well, a combination of things, of course. But even though I saw considerable child abuse when I was coming up, it was never visited upon me personally, and I didn't go to school with the intent of doing anything other than escaping the factory. I enlisted in the military, and expected to go there. At the very last minute I was turned away because of my vision problem. So I went to college, because I was sick and tired of working in the plastic factory. I didn't develop any sort of commitment to what I do now until I worked as a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases. I don't know how anybody could do that work and not come away with a passionate hatred of people who prey on children. Because, unlike the quasi-intellectual debates about child abuse, when you see a baby dripping gonorrhea, those debates are over. We're not going into unnecessarily graphic detail, keeping you on the phone for several hours. But I'll just sum it up by saying I left that job with the intent to hunt the beast, and I've been trying to do that for the rest of my life.
NW: I know that during your years of being a field investigator you kept journals and notes. Is a lot of that where your writing comes from? Where the character Burke comes from?
A: That's a very good observation. Too many people, the same sort of people who think Law & Order is a reality show, are convinced that the basic foundational material of my work comes from being a lawyer, and that's certainly not true. In fact, I became a lawyer because of all the work I've done prior. The material in my books come from a great number of sources, but practicing law might very well be the least of them.
NW: So it's just generally the people you've met and the experiences you've had?
A: Yeah. It's like anybody else, I suppose; only mine have been kind of hyper-focused.
NW: So it's truly a case of what people say to aspiring writers; write what you know, write what you've experienced.
A: It depends on what kind of writing you're doing. I think if it's writing that intends to accomplish something, if it lacks authenticity, it probably lacks power, too. I'm not dismissing writing that's done to entertain people. I think there is a tacit understanding between the reader and the writer in such cases, that the writer has no clue what he's writing about. Science fiction is a classic example. People write crime books all the time. When you read them (laughs) you know, you find safeties on revolvers, or somebody gets hit in the head with a baseball bat, and five seconds later he's up and looking for clues.
A: Well, I think there's really an agreement between both parties to that. That what is being written isn't true. If you do what I do—and there isn't inherent truth in it, much akin to journalism—I think that's the real parallel. Journalism has become well, it's become degraded in recent times. I think there's an index of suspicion about it. So, when they say, "Write what you know," I think that means two things. One, obviously, you'll do a better job if you write about what you know. But, more importantly, if you're trying to accomplish something more than entertain, you better know what you're writing about.
NW: Do you find that you have fans that either aren't familiar with what you really do, or they just kind of take it on an entertainment level, and completely miss the point of what you're trying to say?
A: (laughs) You know, I wish I could say "no" to that question, but it would be a lie. Yes, of course. I have fans who write me letters like, "When is Wesley coming back?" That's what they're interested in. There are "reviewers," and I put that phrase in quotes—
A: —who are upset, because in the last book there wasn't enough violence to suit them. So it's like I'm losing my edge in their minds. And I accept the fact that I'm too literary for pulp fans, and I'm too pulp for literature fans. I got that. But neither one was my target. There certainly are fans who just don't get the joke. I mean, they just think this is hard-boiled, and they review it the way comic book people do; like, it bothers them that Burke ages. It bothers them that favorite characters die. People who think of it as vigilante fiction, for example, totally don't get it.
NW: I know that you had been writing from a young age, and you seemed to have a natural ability for it. Did writing novels become a means to an end? Just like when you came across child abuse as a field investigator, where you decided you needed to become a lawyer. Did you also feel that you needed to spread the word easier?
A: Yes. But not in that direct linear way that you're describing. My first book was a textbook [The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach], and that organically spread directly out of what I do. It was an attempt to influence people in a certain direction concerning how we were going to deal with the kids that frightened us the most, which were teenage violence artists. Well, the book was wonderfully reviewed within the profession, but it never reached the bigger jury. It never reached people who are going to vote on legislation, for example. That is going to directly control the kind of work that I care about. So novels became, for me, a way of getting to a much, much bigger audience; an audience that's more likely to sit on the juries that I care about. So, yeah, to say it was a means to an end is exactly right. So much so that were the end to be achieved, I don't believe I'd be writing.
NW: I thought that between becoming an author and then a lawyer, that was really fascinating. A lot of people might have an idea of what they want to do for a living without knowing why. But with you, it's almost like you found your professions through what you experienced, more so than through the idea of setting out to be a lawyer or an author.
A: That's exactly true. I didn't set out to be either one. I've had a desire to do things with my life, and I've tried, as anybody would, to accumulate the tools and skills to do that effectively. And being able to both practice law and publish have been consistent with those aims.
NW: Do you find that you're drawn to causes? Like going into the military—I'm not sure that's so much a cause—or when you wanted to help kids in the correctional institution. Were you always drawn to those kinds of things?
A: If you mean did they always inspire me, yes. But you've got to understand, my desire to go into the military at age 17 was because I saw that as the best economic road for a working class boy at that time. It had nothing to do with a cause—there was no cause at the time I attempted to enter the military. If you're talking about Biafra, that's a whole other story. I was not a member of the United States military during that mission.
NW: Oh, okay.
A: Indeed, there was no United States military in Biafra. I'll go you one better; had there been a United States military presence in Biafra, the genocidal slaughter of perhaps a million people could have been spared. The only outside soldiers involved in that war were mercenaries.
NW: That was the big problem, wasn't it? You were there to try to get food and aid in there, but there was no military presence to help you achieve that goal?
A: Those are two separate things. I mean, the job was not for me to strategize; I wasn't at that level, I was a very young man. My job was to penetrate the war zone by any means necessary, and see if we couldn't find some way to directly bring the food that was rotting on the ground outside the country, inside. Because, although I'm calling it a "country", it was simply a landlocked area that was under fire. It called itself a country, but I don't believe there was any more than four or five other countries that ever recognized the Republic of Biafra during its very brief existence on this Earth. My job was on the ground, and I didn't succeed. By the time I entered the war zone, things had gotten out of control, even for a war. For example, it's the first time in recorded history that a Red Cross plane had ever been shot out of the sky. They were not creating safe corridors; even Iraq was able to trade certain oil, despite the embargo, for food. There was a question as to whether the food was actually reaching the Iraqi people, just as there is in the Sudan, just as there was in Somalia, but at least that concept existed. The concept did not exist during what I'm calling the "Biafran War," and what other people call the Nigerian Conflict in 1969. It just didn't exist. So, any way that you were going to get food in there was going to be with the expectation of being shot at. And certainly as I entered, we were shot at. That was kind of part of the deal. Had the United Nations stepped in, there would have been a different result entirely. And had the United Nations stepped into Rwanda, a different result entirely. But the world doesn't seem to be fanatically interested as to what goes on in Africa.
NW: Because there's no oil there.
A: Oh, my friend, there's more oil there than you can dream of. Nigeria probably has more oil offshore and inland than any other country you can imagine, including the Middle Eastern countries.
A: What do you think the damn war was about?
A: I mean, of course it was a tribal conflict. Of course it threatened to become—and finally did become—genocidal. But if you think aid that came in to the Nigerians—which was the winning side, the side people bet on—had nothing to do with oil, you're extremely naive. Just like you might think that the war in Sierra Leone had nothing to do with diamonds. Or the liberation of South Africa was all about apartheid, and not about uranium or gold or diamonds. Come on.
NW: Right. It's just that the other side didn't seem like they were going to be the winners, so they weren't supported.
A: You got it. The people that did support the Biafrans were the Portuguese. And why did they do that? Because they were great humanitarians? They did it because they had colonies in Angola and Mozambique, and couldn't very well launch air strikes from Lisbon, but they could have done so from what would have been Biafra, had the Biafrans succeeded. I don't mean to sound what must appear to you as bitter or cynical. I'm just cold-bloodedly explaining—nobody's giving a damn. When there was the horror in Serbia and Kosovo, there was enormous intervention. But those people were a different color. You may want to look there for an answer and an understanding.
NW: Experiencing things like this, how do you process it? I mean, did you grow up in a bad section of New York to begin with? Was it a rough area?
A: (laughs) You know, I never know how to answer questions like that. I mean, sure, the area was a rough area. But my apartment was the safest place in the whole community. So, what's rough? Did people settle their disputes physically instead of having debates? Sure. Did I miss meals? No. Did I have friends that I physically saw battered by their so-called parents? Absolutely. But this whole Mean Streets concept is very relative, and I consider my upbringing as a child to be rich and multi-textured, not deprived or harsh.
NW: Do you think this positive upbringing makes you able to look at these atrocities and find a cause or reason to make things better, as opposed to being cynical and leaving them alone?
A: I think people that say, "That's the way things are," and just leave things alone, are either without empathy, or are stone cowards. I think that there is no support for the proposition that things must be a certain way, and no support at all for the proposition that people can do nothing. I think people who say there's nothing you can do are people who are just excusing their own cowardice. Clearly, you can do something. I don't have any grand illusions that I can save the world or change the planet, but it's indisputable that I've been able to save certain people.
NW: Is that the reason you decided to go into law? In the other jobs you had, did you feel like your hands were tied?
A: No. I didn't feel my hands were tied, but I knew that eventually I'd get fired. I mean, those were your two choices. I was able to accomplish things that I'm proud of to this day, going all the way back to every single job I ever had. But, I wasn't the boss. I didn't set policy. And, very typically, the price of accomplishing things was to risk or forfeit one's job. So, in order for me to be in control of my own destiny, in order for me to have full responsibility for good or for bad for what happened, I needed to be in business for myself. And the only business to be in for myself was what I cared about, which was—well, when you strip away all the rhetoric, fighting. So, that's why I went to law school.
NW: And you went in there specifically thinking you wanted to represent children?
A: I went in there with a complete commitment to that and that alone. It wasn't what I was thinking about—it was all I intended to do. That's why I went to law school. I represent the same kids that I had been responsible for running the maximum-security prison. To represent the same kids that were on my caseload when I was doing social work in New York, or being a probation officer in Chicago, or running a re-entry center in Boston. To represent those same kids directly to the point where the outcome would be different, you see?
NW: I understand.
A: I wanted to be at the front-end, not the back-end.
NW: Do you think that if you wouldn't have been able to become a lawyer for whatever reason, do you see your Burke character as the other way to go? Is he another way to still try to help people?
A: No. I don't believe Burke helps anybody, really. He changes nothing. He's the prototypical abused child. He's hyper-vigilant and distrustful. He's intensely bonded to his family of choice; he has a pathological hatred for those who prey on children. But in terms of him making a contribution or making a change, those are almost accidents when they happen in his life. So, no, that wasn't an option for me in that way. I would have found another way to serve, as I found a dozen ways prior to going to law school. I don't think that my path is the best. I don't believe it's the only path. I believe my goal is the most important one. I think if a species doesn't protect its young, it isn't going to make it. Just ask Darwin. I think it's the right path, but I could have become a social worker. I could have become a member of law enforcement. There are a whole lot of ways that I could have served on the front lines of what, to me, is the only Holy War that's worthy of that name. So I don't think I would have been thwarted if law school hadn't worked out for me. It wasn't a lifelong dream of mine to become a lawyer.
NW: It was just a means to an end.
A: Yeah. Absolutely.
NW: When you are taking on these cases for individual children, what are the main things you are concentrating on? Is it protection of a single child every time, or is it doing something bigger? Like trying to change the way that child abuse is prosecuted or talked about?A: Well, it depends on the case. If I'm representing a child in an intrafamilial case, your "standard" child abuse paradigm, then my goal is strictly and solely to protect that child. There's nothing else. And how I would protect that child depends on the circumstances of the case. This could range all the way from trying to reunite the child with a now rehabilitated family, to terminating parental rights and getting that child adopted by an actual family. In that sort of case, those goals are very clear. If I'm representing a child accused of a crime, my goals are the same as any defense attorney. I want to get the best result possible for this child. Not the best result, which is sometimes a fantasy land, but the best result actually possible. However, when I'm representing a child who's been victimized by an institution or an agency as opposed to a parent, then, of course, my goal is to get compensation for that child. But I also want to change the way that agency does business. And those are not separate antithetical constructs at all. For example, there are agencies that I have to sue multiple times before the agency changes policy. Whether the agency changes policy because it had some insight into the damage it was doing, or because its insurance company insisted that it do so, it doesn't concern me. (laughs)
NW: Right. As long as the change happens.
A: Sure. I'm a pragmatist, so the answer to your question is not a simple, "I do it for this reason," or, "I do it for that reason." I also believe that, even in the intrafamilial cases, we're still talking about multiplier effect, because the child removed from a toxic environment not only is going to be a different human being upon adulthood, but that child's children are going to be different human beings.
NW: I've heard you talk at one of your book events about how abusers discover that it's okay to "grow your own victims"; that is to say they can get away with things if it's within the family, as opposed to molesting a stranger. And you spoke of a case where a guy was confronted about what he had done to his child, and he was saying that it was "his" child; as if it was a possession. And that just struck me as such a chilling, alien concept.
A: But it's not alien at all. That is the foundational basis for all of our human culture, and I don't mean just our American culture. Children are property. Children, until very recently, were seen blatantly as property. Are you from Wisconsin?
NW: I'm in Wisconsin.
A: Okay. It's a farming jurisdiction. I don't mean that there are no cities, but anyone who goes back far enough in the the farming tradition is familiar with the concept of "bonding out" children.
A: People did that! Okay, there are children chained to work benches even as we speak in other countries. There are children whose organs are trafficked in, there are children who are sold and rented for sex. How can you find the concept of children as property as alien? It may be alien to you emotionally or ethically; but as a fact, how can you doubt that children are considered to be the property of their owners around the entire globe?
A: The progress that we as a species have made is significant, but by no means done. Child labor laws—which we take for granted; somebody your age absolutely takes for granted in America—have not been around for centuries. And the very concept doesn't even exist elsewhere. Do you know what the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child is?
NW: No, I don't.
A: Okay. Well, it's somewhat self-explanatory. It's a document that member nations have signed, agreeing to certain principles concerning the rights of children. Just about every country in the world has signed it. But, of course, America has not signed it. Do you know why?
A: Well, you see, if we signed it, we would be agreeing not to execute people for crimes they committed while they were children. And since that would violate the rights of certain states which think it's quite important to kill people for crimes they committed when they were 15 or 16 or 17, we haven't signed it.
NW: That's the reason we haven't signed it? Wow.
A: Yeah. There is no other reason. Thailand signed it!
A: That, I believe, is the reason. I cannot speak for those who have not signed it. However, I know of no other reason. And that reason is the one that I have certainly heard put forth.
A: Yeah, exactly. I think between us, South Africa, and some of the Arab countries, we do virtually all of the killing of young people—legal killing of young people in the world.
NW: Something else you had talked about was the different types of criminals, in regards to rehabilitation.
A: I wasn't talking about criminals. I was talking about different types of child abusers.
NW: Could you explain that a little?
A: Sure. I break all child abuse into three parts. The typology is as follows: first, there are "inadequates," and these are essentially people who don't know how to parent. Maybe they were raised with a leather strap instead of words for guidance, and they think they turned out okay. So they continue the practice. Maybe they're impaired, and I don't mean intellectually impaired. They're impaired by drugs, they're impaired by alcohol, they're impaired by poverty—which is a really significant impairment to adequate child rearing. But, for whatever reason, they don't do their job properly. Maybe they don't even understand the kind of minimum care you have to give infants. Now, people like this benefit immeasurably from what we call "rehabilitation." That is, you can teach people skills they don't have, and you can also ameliorate impairments. It does require an investment. Being a drug addict or being an alcoholic is something that can be overcome, but not without an investment by the individual. However, with parents that are inadequate, you almost always see this played out in terms of neglect rather than abuse. We get an enormous bang for the buck. We invest "X" amount in good rehabilitative services, we get "X To The Fifth Power" returned to us. Not only in safer kids and better, more intact families, but less drain on all our various systems; be they social services or criminal justice or mental health.
A: The second type are people who are mentally ill, and by that I mean, for real, mentally ill. Not some made-up defense attorney disease like "pedophilia"—I mean mentally ill. Now, depending on the mental illness, we have from virtually no impact to virtually total impact. We've been very good at helping obsessive compulsives effectively parent. There's a great variety of treatments, and most obsessive compulsives will invest in the treatment—they'll make themselves part of the treatment. They're highly motivated. However, we've been quite unsuccessful with paranoid schizophrenics; not because they don't invest in the treatment, but because they can't. And the frightening part of dealing with paranoid schizophrenia is that it often responds very well to medication. However, getting the patient to continue taking the medication once released from the institution has been the most problematic. And when such a person decompensates, it's almost axiomatic that any children in their care are at risk. Okay?
A: Now, the third type is the type where the social workers and I part company. People that I'm just going to say are evil. These are people that have hurt their own children for profit or for pleasure or for both. They're predators. Spending money to rehabilitate such people is just taking the money and setting fire to it. They do what they do because they like to do it. There's no mental illness driving this. This is what they wish to do; this is what gives them pleasure, and sometimes what gets them money, so they do it. And they are sociopathic to their core. What does that mean? It just simply means that they fundamentally lack empathy. They don't feel any pain but their own. They don't perceive of anything of importance other than their own needs. Now, most sociopaths are not what you would call "pedophiles"; they're people that lack these characteristics, and they go quite ambulatory. They might become very successful business people, for example. Because the lack of ethics—just imagine ethics as this huge weight that we all have to carry around—well, those that don't have to carry the weight can move a lot faster. So, in many ways they can become very successful. However, when what they want is the pain of others—when that's what satisfies them, that's what interests them—they're completely unstoppable. I mean, we can incapacitate them, but we can't change them. How do you change somebody who doesn't want to be changed? The only time I ever heard of a predatory pedophile express regret, was after being caught. But let's be logical about it; let's say you're a normal person. By "normal," I don't mean a wonderful, superior human being, but a normal person with a normal quantum of empathy. And let's say you woke up tomorrow morning and realized that the night before you had raped a child. Wouldn't your natural instinct be to go find a handgun and remove yourself?
A: Yeah, exactly. That's a normal reaction. So, if you subtract that piece of normality, you've got a predator that preys on us. Calling them generic "child abusers" is a mistake. In other words, when you say someone's a child abuser, it can include someone who doesn't know how to change a diaper—and so the kid repeatedly has infections—all the way up to somebody who rapes that same baby, and takes digital pictures of it so they can put it on the Internet. We call them all "child abusers." That's just plain silly.
NW: So do you think that the terminology needs to be redefined in a better way?
A: Well, in your profession, it does. Perhaps not in general generic conversation, but journalists sure as hell need to. Journalism is the only force for progressive social change. But it should only have one god, and that god is truth. In my opinion, journalism has failed in many ways this whole idea of child protection. Look at the terms that journalists use: "John Jones was arrested for fondling children." What!?! You "fondle" a puppy.
NW: Right. Fondling seems like too innocent of a term.
A: It's a euphemism, and also the sort of trade they make. You know that the former governor of Oregon [Neil Goldschmidt] just acknowledged that he had sex with a 14-year-old girl, right?
NW: No. I hadn't heard that.
A: Well, okay, check it out. It was on the AP wire, so there's no way to miss it. He went to the biggest paper in Oregon and they reported on it. Now, remember this guy was governor of Oregon, and this girl is 14, right? Well, they reported it as a relationship. Now that's the biggest newspaper in the state—a relationship? That's interesting to me how the papers can, if they choose, take all the edge off what is, to me, the worst crime a person can commit, which is to violate a child. And I'm certainly not just blaming the Oregon newspaper. Years ago, in my hometown, a school teacher was found to have had long-term sexual contact with one of his students, a young girl. The one newspaper called him "Classanova"—isn't that clever and cute?
A: Do you ever watch TV sitcoms?
NW: Yeah, sure.
A: I don't mean you watch them every minute, but you watch them.
A: One of the staples of TV sitcoms is rape jokes. Now, you're going to say I'm crazy, right? Whoever heard of a rape joke? Well, think about it—how many times have you heard, "I hope he gets a cellmate named 'Otis' "? It's really funny. It's a really great joke that males get raped in prison, isn't it? Certainly funny enough for mainstream TV.
NW: Yeah. They use it all the time.
A: But you wouldn't hear them make jokes about women getting raped, you see?
NW: Yeah. That's interesting.
A: It's interesting because our culture is so much formed by non-factual nonsense, like movies. It's stunning to me how people can watch movies, and think they've come away knowing something about crime. So the antidote to that has to be journalism. And journalism has really dropped the damn ball. That's why I wrote the whole Underground series, postulating what would happen if journalism really died. I don't think our culture would survive it; I really don't. But, you know, a Jayson Blair [New York Times reporter who plagiarized stories] is a celebrity, right?
A: I really don't get that. To me, that would be like canonizing a priest defrocked for molesting altar boys. Jayson Blair is a celebrity, and he's certainly not the only one. Journalists make stuff up all the time; there is a little screaming and yelling about it, but it passes. I think when young people begin to question journalism with that same sort of cynical blasé, "Oh, it's all baloney. It's all made up," kind of the way that they view movies, we're just in a world of hurt.
NW: I understand. So you think that if they were as cynical about journalism as they are about what their parents say, that it would be a better thing?
A: Yeah. Not cynical, but skeptical. But what I'm saying is not just that it would be a better thing, but that if we get to the point where they feel the same way about journalism as they do about movies—we're done. We're done. I mean, there's got to be some place where people can look and expect to get back truth. Look, we've gone nuts. This is a country that literally has liberal journalism and conservative journalism. If you think about that, it's nonsensical. It's only supposed to be journalism. Instead, we have entire networks devoted to a certain kind of slant on the news. And I'm trying to figure out where you go to just get unadulterated fact.
NW: But there isn't one. Instead of listening to one news program, you have to listen to 15 different ones, and then try to figure out for yourself what the real truth is.
A: Yes. And how many people are willing to undertake that burden?
NW: Not many.
A: Exactly. Because we're used to, especially the current generation of young people, everything has got to be a sound bite. It's got to be quick. That's not the way that you analyze anything. And when you add the additional problem of Internet research, we're looking at an entire population of people for whom disinformation becomes their daily fare.
NW: What is the way to make that change?
A: Well, the burden is on you. I mean, you personally and your profession. If I had to pick the one profession that I think will be the most critical in the coming decades to how we as a people behave and how we as a people conduct ourselves ethically, it's journalism. And if I was doing it again, I think that would draw me more than anything else. Really, the weight's on you. If you don't do the right thing, then we're all doomed because we're supposed to be in an age where we've dropped the pretense. If you read every newspaper in America in 1956, how much child abuse do you think you'd discover?
NW: I doubt there would be any reported.
A: Right. Does that mean child abuse wasn't occurring? Of course not. You know, today, if a political candidate cranes his neck three extra degrees because a woman walks by, that's news. But not many years ago, JFK's entire repertoire of conduct was not news. The agreements are supposed to be over with. In other words, we're supposed to have these serious truth-seekers out there. Instead, we have people more revered for their writing than we do their reporting. When you say someone is a great reporter, you're talking about their literary skills, not their fact-finding. We need journalists who are committed to worshiping that one god, which is finding and telling the truth. I really think the journalism schools are holding the keys to what's going to happen for the next, I don't know how many generations in this country and around the world. Look at any country where the press is gone, and you see what happens. We have a free press in America, but there doesn't seem to be much of a market for it. Does anyone need to get the news by having it interpreted in a bizarre right wing way, or by some equal lunatic who interprets it in some left wing way, instead of just getting a news feed?
NW: Right. And making up their own minds.
A: Yeah. To me, the perfect reporter is almost transparent. He or she is not between you and the facts. And when you read a news account, you're not saying, "God. What brilliant use of alliteration."
A: "What clever puns." You should be saying, "Wow... the information. Damn!" How many people read Newsweek or Time compared to The Economist?
NW: Or from a tabloid.
A: Well, see, a tabloid's just a form. As anyone who's spent his life taking the subway to work, let me tell you, tabloids definitely have their place. Try to deal with a broadsheet on a subway sometime; although, there are people that can do it.
A: Even take Internet journalism, which is sort of universally sneered at. It could be great if any of it got a reputation for just giving the facts; chips fall where they may. I don't mean the ability to uncover a scandal, which is fine. But you'll notice that these scandals are scandals to one part of the political spectrum, and mere picadillos to the other side.
A: I believe that getting facts before the public is perhaps the highest calling a person could aspire to.
NW: For people that don't have journalism as their calling, what ways can they get involved?
A: There is no way they can't help. If you want to enlist in this war, your profession does not have to be the war itself. You don't have to be a social worker. You don't have to be a police officer. You don't have to be a forensics expert or a therapist. But there's always something you can do. Bottom line, for what it costs you for a movie and dinner, you could join a political action committee that is totally dedicated to child protection. So, who can't do that? I believe that everybody has the ability to contribute to the struggle in some meaningful way. You know, maybe you're the person who writes a letter to the editor, and says, "I don't appreciate you describing a politician's sexual abuse of a child as an affair or a relationship." That's making a contribution. Maybe it's going to your public library, and saying, "How come you're not ordering the following books?" Maybe it's supporting those journalists that do have a reputation for truth. Certainly, there are people that can write checks, and there are people that don't have the ability to write checks. But they can help in other ways. I don't know anybody who's disenfranchised with participating. You could be a Big Brother or a Big Sister. That's truly a meaningful thing. You could be a foster parent. You could volunteer to assist any of the anti-poverty agencies that are for real. I'm not talking about one of these agencies where the executive director earns a hundred thousand a year. One of my brothers, Mike McNamara, runs a program in the Chicago area called Licensed for Life, and this program is strictly and solely devoted to interdiction of teenage drunk driving. I don't know how many lives that program has saved. So it doesn't have to be stopping physical child abuse to make a contribution. We have an educational system that almost guarantees disaster. I can't think of a more important job than being a teacher. There are more ways to contribute than there are problems. Nobody really has the excuse to say, "What can I do?" When people ask us—and it comes in every day, just letter after letter to The Zero—"What can I do?" We always ask, "Okay, what are your skills? What are your abilities? And what are you willing to do?" You want to donate an hour of your time a week? We could use that. But if the only way you can contribute is to, I don't know, do some magical painting that's going to inspire people, then I'm not the guy to ask.
NW: But if you could do a magical painting and it could be auctioned off for thousands of dollars
A: Now you're talking! Sure. One of the things that we auctioned off for PROTECT was an original prop from The Matrix movie.
NW: Right. The prop that Geof Darrow donated.
A: Exactly. So when someone says to Geoffrey Darrow, "You're the world's greatest graphic artist, and you're a brilliant conceptual designer, but what are you doing about real things?" Geof's got a pretty easy answer for them. There are all kinds of people that have supported our work for a very, very long time who don't want any credit; in fact, they bitterly resist the idea of any credit. But to say they come from all walks of life is no exaggeration. We have prisoners sending money to PROTECT.
NW: Now, PROTECT is a lobbying group that is trying to get politicians to make a comment and a commitment to protecting children?
A: It's trying to go further than that. It began by attacking the incest exception in various states. But the hope is that it will eventually stand like the NRA or Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the AARP, and force politicians to not just take positions, but to vote those positions. Because, again, it's not about doing the right thing for the right reason. It's just about doing the right thing. We don't care what a politician's actual internal feelings are. We actually have two rules in my world. The first one is: "Behavior is the truth." The second one is: "If you can't be counted on, you can't be counted in."
NW: That makes sense.
NW: That about wraps up the questions that I had. Was there anything else you wanted to mention? Anything else that you wanted to bring attention to?
A: No. I thought some of your questions were actually very sharp and focused, not, normally speaking, the kind I usually get.
NW: Oh, really?
A: Oh, please. Most of them are just, "Is there any movie interest?" It's tiresome crap. Well, you saw one of my book events; you see I don't devote a tremendous amount of time to writing. But, if you notice, if I hadn't written a book, I wouldn't have gotten in front of that audience.
NW: Very true.
A: People say that all the time. "You come to these events, and all these people come out to hear you, but you really don't talk about books a lot. In fact, you don't read from your work." Well, you know what? I don't go in disguise; nobody there expects me to do that.
NW: When you've got a forum like that, why not use it for something incredible?
A: Well, if I'm not going to use it for what I actually use it for, then I'm just a hypocrite. I'm just a total hypocrite. If I get up there and went into this whole dance about why I'm important, or why you should read my books conduct has to speak for itself, and I try and let my conduct do that. I try and let people know me by what I do, not by what I say. After you're gone, that's all that's left.
A: You know, people who think they're going to be immortal because they wrote a book are idiots. You're immortal if you wrote a book that people continue to read. (laughs) Otherwise, there's no immortality. And the thing that definitely lives on beyond you no matter what is your deeds. Your rhetoric dies. Deeds are monumental. I believe that we've made so much progress in the last 30 to 40 years; if we can just get some traction. And if you're really looking at the young journalists of today and tomorrow—that's where the traction has to come from. Just report the damn truth, and then we'll find out. If Americans don't know that children are being used and abused every single day, if they don't know that, then we don't know if Americans give a damn.
A: They have to know it first. It's very easy to criticize people's priorities. But they can't even be expected to have priorities without information. When we learn to trust journalism again—and, by the way, we should only learn that if it's merited—but if we learn to trust journalism again, we could see a true renaissance in this whole battle. But until we do, I don't think so. If you just look at the reporters in the area of child abuse, you've got the false allegations reporters, and that's what they report. They don't write about anything else. But then you've got the satanic ritual abuse reporters, and that's all they write about. That leaves the average person in the middle saying, "What the get out of here." We're looking for the straightforward reporting; no spin, no agenda—reporting. Those are the heroes. The people that bring the truth to the people are the great heroes, in my view. Because then you're doing the most respectful thing you can—you're leaving it up to the people. I obviously could rant on about the importance of journalism for days, but nothing's more important to me. If you get a chance, check out the Underground stories, and I think you'll see exactly where I'm going.
NW: I definitely will check them out.
NW: Thank you so much for your time. Keep up the great work.
A: My pleasure. Thank you.
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Click here to see Night Watchman's original illustration of Andrew Vachss.