Contemporary Authors, Volume 214, 2003
I came to writing late, and to being published much later. But reading was so inextricably intertwined with the complex threads of my childhood that it could have been genetically encoded.
My mother was a teenage bride whose husband was thousands of miles away, on the battlefields of Europe. She read to me every day, without fail. And it was my mother's father, my beloved grandfather, who introduced me to the magic kingdom on Fifth Avenue, that huge monolith guarded by stone lions.
My parents were not ambitious in the conventional sense, but their dreams for their children were unlimited. As my mother read to me, she knew the day would come when I would be reading to her. And when my Grandfather Nathan took me to the library, he never tired of telling me that one day people would be reading the books I wrote.
I never met my dad's father. He was a career soldier, who had given his life to his country while my dad was still a child. His war hero father was "replaced" by my grandmother's new boyfriend, and my dad's life changed forever.
He was still a teenager when he became the blocking back in a Single Wing offense—roughly the equivalent of being a human bowling ball against very hostile pins. Those were the days when football "equipment" consisted of a thin leather helmet and rudimentary "pads." But the prospect of physical injury had held no fear for my father. He'd seen worse. In his own home.
The author's parents, Geraldine and Bernard Vachss, c.1950s
My father was such a gifted athlete that he earned a full college scholarship. He played for NYU, at the time a major football power. NYU's crosstown rival was Fordham University, nationally ranked and famous for its "Seven Blocks of Granite" front line, anchored by a guard named Vince Lombardi. In 1936, Fordham only lost one game, a classic played before a huge crowd in Yankee Stadium. In preparation for that epic contest, NYU's Freshman Squad wore Fordham jerseys and "played" the varsity for weeks. My seventeen-year-old father was a member of that squad, (at that time, freshmen were not permitted to play varsity football). I still have the silver football my dad was awarded for his contribution to NYU's greatest victory.
When World War II came, my dad answered the call. And when my dad's tank—named the "Geraldine Phoebe" for my mother—broke through the wall at Buchenwald, he kept a promise to his father that I would not understand until many years later.
My father had no way of knowing if he would ever come home to see his newborn son. So he wrote me letters. My mother saved them for me. I still have them. And, every once in a while, when it gets dark in my life, I read them.
My father left many of his dreams on the battlefield. When he returned from overseas, finishing his education was as impossible as providing for a family on the G.I. Bill.
Economic pressure was nothing new for my father, a child of the Depression. His pre-war scholarship had paid his tuition, but it didn't provide the necessities of life. For those, he played semi-pro ball with the Patterson (NJ) Panthers and the City Island (NY) Skippers. Years later, I asked him if his college coach knew he was playing for money on Sundays. After all, that was the same "violation" for which Jim Thorpe, America's greatest athlete of all time, had been stripped of his "amateur" status (and Olympic medals) in 1913. "The coach played on Sundays, too, son," he answered, not a trace of cynicism in his voice.
The only person I ever met in my life who hated bullies more than my father was my mother. Decades before the term "child abuse" became part of American consciousness, hurting a child in my parents' presence was a serious mistake. My father was a hulking, powerful man, capable of pounding an adversary like a carpenter driving a nail; but everyone in the neighborhood knew that my mother was even more dangerous. Of all the qualities my parents tried to instill in me, the hatred of bullies was always at the foundation.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a scientist. I read in the library books I endlessly brought home how scientists cured diseases, saved lives, changed the world. My father haunted pawnshops to find me a steady supply of vials, test tubes, magnifying glasses even, one special day, a microscope. We never lived in spacious apartments, but, somehow, there was always room for my "laboratories."
Andrew as a baby, with his mother
One day, I found a vacant lot that was home to a host of black widow spiders. I explained to my mother how the males were rarely seen, because they had such a short life and I needed to see one for myself. Not a photograph, not a mounted specimen, the real thing. She blanched when I told her that the only sure way was to find the eggs, allow them to hatch, then isolate the males before they could mate and die. But all she said was, "You be careful" advice I have almost never heeded since.
I spent hours collecting my eggs, avoiding their deadly parents. And many more documenting my "findings," filling notebook after notebook with what I was certain would, someday, be invaluable information.
Looking back, I think I might have gone on to become a scientist but for two things. One was books.
Not library books. Not anymore. There were some books I read and re-read so often that I just had to own them, to have them at hand anytime I needed them. That's when I was introduced to a treasure trove: used books, and the stores that sold them. Back then, a dollar could buy a significant supply of used paperbacks, and I had long since discovered ways of making a buck.
It was just that kind of neighborhood. Belle was a beautiful, husky young woman who worked behind the counter at the candy store. She would flirt with her customers, and wink at me as she pocketed the tips they left. Sometimes, she would give me a few nickels, saying I brought her luck. And she was always good for a free soda every time I told her what I'd learned "in school" (in fact, from my reading).
Old men in white shirts and suit pants sat around little tables outside of storefronts with windows too murky to see into. Some of them were always slipping coins into my pockets after asking me to recite from memory a long string of numbers they'd told me the day before. They predicted that, someday, I would "make real money" with this gift of recall.
My mother always objected when one of the neighborhood women would pinch my cheek, tell me I was going to break a lot of hearts someday, and give me a dime to "go buy yourself something, boychick." But she always gave in.
And when her father would say, "A young man needs a little money in his pocket," she never argued.
Of course, no one ever did anything like this in front of my dad. For my dad, if you didn't earn it, it wasn't yours, end of discussion.
People always wanted little errands run. I did what I was asked, out of a politeness they never failed to comment on. But it was a rare occasion when I wasn't told to "keep the change."
I never collected baseball cards or comic books—my accumulated loot was always spent on books. Some of those books stirred me so deeply that science lost its hold on me. Because it didn't hold the answers I came to crave.
With father, Washington Square Park
Scottsboro Boy stunned me. A searing, matter-of-fact account of the legal lynching of a group of black teenagers in Depression-era Alabama on a bogus charge of gang rape, it had been written by the alleged "ringleader," Heywood Patterson, while he was still a fugitive from "justice" after a prison escape. I read it compulsively, over and over, before I finally asked my father if it was a true story. He said it was, sadly.
I began to understand that science was neutral. It could be used to cure or kill. And it wasn't science, but people, who made those decisions.
Cell 2455 Death Row was the autobiography of Caryl Chessman, a self-admitted career criminal sentenced to death for a crime he claimed he never committed. I knew young men just like him. I grew up with them, but never studied them with the same intensity I'd brought to black widow spiders, or praying mantises, or monarch butterflies I just took them as a fact of life.
I needed to know the truth. For myself, not secondhand. I wrote a letter to Caryl Chessman. The warden of San Quentin sent me back a polite note, that inmates were not permitted to correspond with minors. Caryl Chessman was executed the year I graduated from high school. I wonder if my letter ever reached him and if he understood what I had needed to know.
I kept reading. Emmett Till. Charles Starkweather. Leopold and Loeb. For me, Rebel Without a Cause wasn't a James Dean movie, it was a truth-seeking psychologist's attempt to penetrate the mind of a psychopath. I tried to read critically. Many of the accounts—the Lindberg Kidnaping, the Sacco-Vanzetti Trial, even the hunt for Jack the Ripper—-just didn't ring true.
When I said as much at the dinner table, my dad found me a copy of Clarence Darrow's epic work, Attorney for the Damned. An unspoken message that the answer to injustice isn't rhetoric, or debate. It always comes down to a fight.
I learned there was a science called "criminology." I read every book with that magic word on the cover. And reluctantly concluded that the "science" always seemed to come down to different people interpreting the same data to find different "facts."
Science wasn't the answer to injustice. It wasn't a path; it was a tool.
But I was stumbling around, with no guide. All the parental encouragement in the world didn't help.
And by the time I was a teenager, my attitude toward education changed. I never lost my love of knowledge, but high school killed any belief that I would find my path with the schoolbooks we used or the teachers who tested only how well I memorized them.
I was so detached that school felt like slogging through cold, colorless Jell-O. I spent less and less time in class. My schoolbooks never left my locker. My grades dropped as quickly as my interest. I found my truest, deepest friends outside the school's rigid lines. I didn't join high school clubs, didn't play sports, didn't go to the prom.
I spent the next few years as a passenger in a fast car, with testosterone at the wheel.
I routinely did stupid, risky things. Violence happened. I lost friends to whatever darkness called to them: drugs, booze, jail, suicide. The young men my age who thought about their futures weren't the ones I spent time with. We were all waiting for whatever the next thing would be but not with any eagerness.
The author as a child, Manhattan, circa 1940s
I was still a scientist in my heart. I still kept asking "why?" I thought back to childhood friends who were beaten so regularly at home that they had integrated the experience into their reality. To girls who told me about "funny uncles," as if every family had one. To whispered stories of things people did to their own children. I remembered my best friend, a brilliant student who dropped out to join the Army. The saddest words I ever heard were him telling me, one night, "I would give anything if I had your mother."
In some ways, he did. Although I was born in Manhattan, my family lived on Long Island while I was a teenager. Of the many (never kept) promises of the "suburbs," one that stayed with me was my mother's wish for a "real garden." Her favorite was always lilacs. On the Saturday night before one Mother's Day, my pal and I stealthed into a large nursery and appropriated a lilac bush, roots and all.
It took us hours to get it over to where I lived. Neither of us had a car, so we had to transport it in a "borrowed" wheelbarrow; taking turns, one of us pushing, the other holding the prize upright. We worked through the night. When my mother saw it the next morning, the look on her face was worth it all. Even afterwards, when I could tell she suspected, she never said a word.
That tribute meant so much to my mother. And it meant so much more to my childhood pal, to be a part of that love.
I'd never ordered a high school graduation ring. My buddy had. When he left for the Army, he gave it to me.
Despite the dim view the high school "guidance" counselor held of my prospects, I finally came up with a plan. In 1959, the Marines offered a program called the Platoon Leader Corps. If you could pass the battery of entry tests, they would pay your way through college in return for summers spent training and a multi-year commitment—as a commissioned officer—after graduation.
The Marine recruiter told me I was the perfect candidate. "You've got that hillbilly build, son. Skinny as steel wire. Men like you, they make the best Marines."
I worked hard, preparing myself. Endless sit-ups, hours at the chinning bar, running, rope-climbing, boxing. The actual exams were easier than I expected. I was ready to go.
When I was child, I suffered an injury to my face which had damaged the "domino mask" of muscle that encircles the eyes, and keeps them aligned. I had long-since acclimated myself to impaired depth perception. It was a bigger handicap in hitting a baseball than it was driving a car, (which is why a one-eyed man can get a driver's license—although I was always careful to take off the eyepatch before taking the test, just in case). By the time I was a high school senior, I never gave it much thought. When it came to reading eye charts, my one good eye always got the job done. But the day I was to be sworn in, a Navy doctor—previously, I had only seen Marine corpsmen—asked me to read the chart. I said, "Sure," confidently until he had me sit at one of those instruments that looks like a pair of binoculars. When he closed the left lens, I might as well have been blind.
I was found unfit for military service, which dealt a body blow to my plan to escape making the factory work I did in the summer my lifelong career. That's when I last-minute applied to every college I could think of, armed only with SAT scores that cast doubt on the validity of my lousy grades.
High-school graduation photo, 1960
I was accepted just before the semester started. The school—then Western Reserve University, now Case-Western Reserve—agreed to provide enough financial assistance to give me a chance to prove I was smart enough to keep around.
Turned out I sort of half was. Unprepared for college, I treated it like high school. Cleveland wasn't New York, but finding a card game or a poolroom or a racetrack wasn't hard. Inevitably, I failed some courses. But, almost despite myself, I did well enough in the others to call it a draw. An equal number of A's and F's came out to a working class—it would be ridiculous call it a "gentleman's"—C average.
The first time I got back a theme paper, I saw the not-unfamiliar "Please see me" note from the professor on the margin. But the grade was an A.
The professor, Toby Lelyveld, was a handsome, hard-voiced woman. She told me two things: that I could be a writer, a real writer; someone who actually had books published. And that unless I changed my ways, my gift would disappear. A very literate way of saying, "use it or lose it." I compromised. I changed my work habits in her class.
I spent considerable time in the Dean's office, and it wasn't to discuss my writing career. It wasn't just that I was a poor student, I was a pretty poor citizen, too, assuming what they called "the leadership role" in a number of activities the school found less than amusing. Looking back, I still can't understand why the school didn't just kick me to the curb and have done with it.
Instead, they decided I was going to fulfill my potential, with their very active participation. I found myself enrolled in an Advanced Creative Writing class, taught by a brilliant, sarcastic, much-adored campus icon, one Mac Sawyer Hammond. It was in that class that I first read aloud something I'd written, which taught me a lesson I never forgot: when it comes to writing dialogue, you have to be a reporter, not a "creator." I had read words such as "argot," but I had never heard anyone speak them aloud. Now, when reviewers raise their privileged eyebrows at my "unrealistic" dialogue, they're telling me more about themselves than any résumé ever could.
While I was blissfully failing subjects such as "The Growth and Structure of Modern English," I got top grades in graduate courses like "Fundamentals of Television Production" (where I chose to write my own script, instead of adapting one). When it became undeniably apparent that I would not fulfill the requirements for an English major, the Dean found another way for me to squeeze through, loading my curriculum with speech courses that I didn't appreciate until many years later.
My college pals, themselves not highly motivated, spent a lot of time trying to motivate me. One, a visionary who never listened to his own prophecies, dropped out of his permanent marijuana haze long enough to advise me to chuck the whole thing and just "Keep writing this stuff, brother." Another, a beautiful black woman who made Eartha Kitt seem countrified, asked to "look over" some of my short stories. The next thing I knew, they'd been published in little literary magazines.
But despite everyone's best efforts, I stayed lost. Writing didn't call to me the way acting, or music, or art called to other students. To me, writing was like shooting pool. Sure, I was pretty good at it, but I had no illusions I could make a living doing it.
I was drifting—certain only that anything was better than driving a laundry truck, or moving furniture, or repossessing cars. Or any of the dozen other jobs I took to pay my way toward graduation.
But then I met a girl who was working her way though school as a switchboard operator in a nursing home. One day, we went down to City Hall and got married. The next, we both dropped out of school.
I found work as a debt collector. My chief "client" lent money to people who couldn't go near a bank or a finance company. He also booked bets and dealt in "merchandise." He never stopped telling me how a young man with my brains could go far in the business. It felt like I was a kid again, performing memory tricks for fatherly gangsters.
After a while, I took a night course. This time, I wasn't playing around. When grades came in, the school once again "found" the money for me to return, full-time.
Just before I graduated, a recruiter from the United States Public Service visited campus. When he told me about the great war being fought in America to eradicate syphilis, it felt like I was back in the Marine recruiter's booth.
Only this time, they took me. My official title was "Program Representative," but what it was about was brutally simple: when you got word that someone had been diagnosed with syphilis, you went out and "talked" with them.
What you needed was a complete list of all their sexual contacts within the "critical period"—anywhere from ninety days to a year, depending on the stage of syphilis—and then you were expected to find those people, interview them, and keep on going until you broke the chain of infection.
For once, my background was an advantage. I was at home in gambling joints, poolrooms, after-hours clubs, migrant labor camps, whorehouses, jail cells, and lots of other places alien to my fellow investigators. Most of all, I could speak the language.
Eventually, I became a specialist in cases where the infected individuals either refused to cooperate or were clearly lying about the extent of their activities. In those days, a recalcitrant "source" might be hiding anything from an extra-marital affair to underground sexuality. A wide variety of persuasive techniques were required. I got very good at all of them.
When you're tracking someone—even if it's to try and save their life—you can't walk around in a business suit, and you can't carry a tape recorder. I had to blend in, I had to listen, and I had to learn to hear a lie the same way a conductor hears a sour note in the orchestra.
And I found people, too, sometimes working with no better information than "I think she was a blonde, but it was dark in the room, and I couldn't see too good. I remember that she worked for Big Mary, down on Water Street, and I think her name was Brenda, but I was drunk, and "
I loved the job. I loved the fact that, once I left the office on a case, "supervision" was non-existent. You could be gone for days at a time, sleeping wherever the trail led you, not stopping until you found what you were looking for. And then you started again.
The money was lousy, and I was reminded—constantly—that my "unconventional" methods were not likely to bring me a promotion anytime soon. But I had never felt so good about what I was doing with my life.
I wrote, constantly. A journal recording every case, every observation, every contact, every lesson I was learning. But I didn't think of it as writing. To me, it was tool-building.
Up to then, I always thought of myself as a pretty tough kid. I hadn't been raised in prep schools. I was so sure I knew my way around. Some of the things that shocked my colleagues were things I had known since childhood. I knew people did all sorts of ugly things to each other, for all kinds of reasons. I knew about "child molesters," those freakish men who hung around playgrounds, with a bag of candy in their pockets and evil in their hearts. But I never knew humans had sex with babies. And, on that job, I learned the truth. Not just any babies, their own babies.
Decades before the great "controversy"—was there an "epidemic" of child sexual abuse in America, or was the country on a "witch hunt," fueled by a torrent of "false allegations?"—I saw the truth for myself. Every day. Not the statistics, not the "gray areas," not the debates. An infant with a prolapsed rectum dripping with gonorrhea is not capable of "fantasizing." A twelve-year-old girl giving birth to a baby with congenital syphilis—a legacy from her father—is not "making up a story."
What stunned me was not just the hideousness of humans who grow their own victims, but the sociopathic sense of entitlement they always displayed. I still remember one of those predatory degenerates who had just been informed that his child had syphilis, and that he was the cause of the infection. Confronted with the consequences, he looked at me, and, in a voice vibrating with outrage, said, "That's my child."
It took me a while to understand what he meant. And even longer to understand that this human was not unique. He had brothers—and sisters—all over the world.
I wasn't interested in fighting infection any more. Disease, like science, is neutral. My mortal enemies weren't. And neither was I, from that point, forever.
The path my wife and I had been walking parted, and so did we. Everything I owned fit in a duffel bag. I threw it over my shoulder, and stuck out my thumb.
I wasted some time, chasing foolishness, but soon came home to New York. I moved in with some pals from the old neighborhood, and looked around for the next place to stand my ground.
That turned out to be a job as a field caseworker for the infamous City Welfare Department (later euphemized to "Department of Social Services"). There I met, in many forms, the phenomenon I always thought of as "The Beast." But, more often than not, the abuser wasn't an individual, it was the "helping hand" of the government. I found myself standing between two camps: the liberals who wanted to increase Welfare grants and the right-wingers who wanted to eliminate them.
One group fostered dependency, nourishing a culture of despair so powerful that it trumped hope itself. I still remember asking a little girl what she wanted to be when she grew up, and listening, stunned, as she told me, "I want to have my own case."
The other believed children should pay for the "sins" of their parents, visualizing their "clients" as lazy slugs whose only purpose in life was to drink, rut, and populate prisons.
I went back to writing every night. My case notes were weapons, because the only way you could actually be an agent for change was to learn to play the complicated keyboard of codes that made up the "regs."
If a man with six children and an eighth-grade education wanted to learn to drive a truck, so he could provide for his family and leave Welfare forever, the government wouldn't pay for it. But if that same family had a fire which destroyed all their possessions, the government would "replace" them. (Welfare had a price list for everything from a pair of socks to a bed; that no shopper could hope to actually buy the items for those prices was not considered relevant). But if that "fire" never actually happened, the "replacement" money could be used to send a man to truck-driving school.
I'd heard all my life that writing could change lives. This was the first time I'd ever experienced the value of creative writing. I became so skilled at "working up" a case that other caseworkers came to me for help. Try getting a therapeutic abortion for a teenage incest victim before Roe v. Wade. Try getting the money for a mother to bring a man's baby to him for a visit in prison. Try getting the money for a wig for a child who lost her hair to traumatic alopecia.
The Welfare Department was torn between admiration for my ability to get things done and intense dislike for my methods. They tried everything: punitive transfers, suspensions, various threats. Then they came at me from the other end, appointing me an "acting" supervisor (essentially, getting the title, and the salary, well before I was eligible to take the civil service promotional exam), and even offering me a scholarship to attend graduate school full-time.
That last offer reminded me of the Marines. In return for the full-tuition ride, I would have to return to the Welfare Department ("commissioned" as an upper-level supervisor), for a number of years. I thought about it for about an hour.
All this turmoil was in the middle of the American horror story called Vietnam. Like so many others, I was torn between being against the war and being for the soldiers conscripted to fight it. Radicalism swept the country. Some people wanted to reduce a foreign country to a parking lot, all in the name of "stopping Communism." Others cheered on the "pacifists" who gave aid-and-comfort to those torturing imprisoned American soldiers. Anyone standing between the two polarized camps was caught in the crossfire.
Then the Draft Board called. They told me that, although I had been rejected by the Marines years ago, that rejection was of me as "officer material," but it did not apply to being a regular soldier. Between my anger at the same government which had refused my offer to serve now demanding that I do just that, and my sense that I just didn't know what the right thing was, I reported.
This time, they didn't reject me. I got a "temporary deferment, physical." When I asked what that meant, I was told that, "it means just what it says." The smug non-combatant who "explained" this to me warned that I could be "called back" at any time. I'm still waiting.
While one massive war raged in Southeast Asia, another erupted in Africa. When England removed its colonial "protection" from Nigeria in 1960, it left behind a complex civil service structure, run by members of tribes practicing Christianity (essentially, but not exclusively, the Ibos). The other tribes (mostly the Hausa, who were Muslims), felt excluded from the wealth of their own country. Because that wealth consisted largely of oil, the new rulers had no trouble attracting various foreign "investors." And what they invested in eventually became a genocidal war. When one set of tribes decided to form the independent nation of Biafra, the (by-then, military) government of Nigeria decided this was an insurrection, to be put down with force.
Nobody knows how many people died in the war that followed, but nobody could miss the TV coverage of the chief weapon employed by the Nigerian government starvation. As the doomed "country" of Biafra was driven away from the port city it originally established as its capitol, it became land-locked. Roads were blocked, rivers dammed (or, it was rumored, poisoned), and all incoming aircraft were fired upon. All the Nigerian government had to do was wait.
The media flooded the world with images of starving children. People opened their hearts, and their wallets. A fortune was raised for the "relief effort." But there was no "peacekeeping force" on the way, only more shipments of arms. Tribalism had run amok, and the only future was death.
A group of organizations with UN-consultant status, among them Save the Children and the Community Development Foundation, put together a plan to invest in various self-maintenance projects inside Biafra. The problem was finding a way to get the "relief" delivered.
They needed someone to enter the war zone, assess the situation, and, the hope was, set up a route by which the development money could be translated into long-term, self-sustaining projects.
The major job qualification for the mission was the willingness to go. And that I had, in spades.
Portugal was supporting the Biafrans, although, as one of the major colonialists remaining in Africa, its motives were hardly humanitarian. So I flew to Lisbon, spoke to some shadowy people, and went on to Geneva, where, after waiting a few days in a hotel room, I was contacted by a suave, beautifully-dressed, multi-lingual gentleman who got me "clearance" to enter the war zone after I tendered the appropriate "donation." From there, it was on to Angola, and, eventually, to a tiny island off the coast of Nigeria called São Tomé (then wholly owned by the Portuguese).
Within a couple of days, I'd talked to enough of the "wrong people" so that I had to get off the island immediately. Every night, there were two flights into Biafra—old four-engine propeller jobs, piloted by "private individuals." They flew low over dark water and into the interior. If they got far enough, and made radio contact with the ground, a brief row of flares would illuminate the "landing strip." Those flares in the night were red flags to the bomb-and-missile equipped bulls of the "Nigerian Air Force." Those planes, too, were piloted by "contract men."
The earlier flight was more dangerous, because there was still light in the sky. All out of options, I ran to the airport, and jumped aboard. No one asked any questions.
We weren't moving long before an enemy plane showed. The men inside spoke in calm, quiet voices. I asked where the parachutes were. One of them told me, no emotion in his voice, that, if we were hit, being taken alive would be a lot worse than going down with the plane.
Several days later, in the jungle, I learned that the night I came in, the second plane hadn't made it.
The war—actually, homicide on a national scale—was no longer reported "live" by the time I entered the zone. The journalists had gone. So had the Peace Corps volunteers. It didn't take me long to understand that Biafra would not survive. All the wonderful plans to develop, to rebuild, to support and nourish the independence of a free people it was too late. Biafra's leader had already left the country, taking up residence in the Ivory Coast.
When the enemy planes attacked, people ran for the "air raid shelter," which was nothing but a tunnel in the ground. After my first time there, I stayed above ground. Like the guys in the airplane said, there were worse things than dying quick.
One day, I was helping push a Jeep up a muddy bank when I passed out. When I came to, it was a few days later. Malaria, they explained. Burning fever, cold chills, no strength. No medicine was available. The Biafrans watching over told me the truth about malaria—some people lived through it, some didn't. That summed up their daily existence, too.
Time passed in a place where it had no meaning. One day, a couple of tiny African nuns half-dragged, half-carried me to a departing plane—then they went back into the jungle, their work not done. The ghost-gray plane had no symbols on its sides, and flew very low to the ground, but it had enough fuel to get me back to Lisbon, where I found a hotel room and collapsed.
When I was evacuated, I weighed less than a hundred pounds. Malaria isn't always fatal, but starvation is a sure thing. To this day, no one knows how many lives were lost to this "tactic."
As I recovered, I was de-briefed by various individuals and agencies, some of them official, some clearly not. A theme emerged, which has stayed with me ever since. The world has many more humanitarians than it does exploiters, but the exploiters are far more dedicated to their task.
I was told the Nigerian government had me listed as a war criminal, apparently in the belief that I served as a mercenary during the conflict. Or maybe because anyone trying to feed the people they were deliberately starving qualified as an enemy of the state.
By the time I recovered enough to get back to my life, it was late in 1970. I accepted a fellowship at the Industrial Areas Foundation Training Institute in Chicago, the creation of legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky. I loaded my duffel bag and headed for the highway.
I spent only a very short time at the Institute itself, being assigned almost immediately to an operation underway in Lake County, Indiana, an area where life was dominated by giant steel mills.
Once again, I found myself engaged in a mission where my "side" was anything but unified. Many of the "community organizers" viewed all working class whites, especially white males, as racist thugs, and believed any effort to organize them was best left to the KKK. They could quote Malcolm X and Huey Newton and Eldrige Cleaver, but had never heard of Wesley Everest, or Big Bill Haywood, or the MacNamara Brothers, or the IWW. It was their brand of misguided, elitist liberalism, I believe, which allowed the George Lincoln Rockwells of the world to co-opt "white power" into the synonym for violent racism it is today.
But, as with every other job I'd ever worked, I also found true comrades; those who shared my dreams and fought beside me as I took the risks those dreams demanded.
When the assignment was over, so was my interest in community organizing. I thought I'd try being a juvenile probation officer, working with street gangs. But I knew soon enough that this wouldn't be any different than the Welfare Department.
I wanted to fight, but not with a cold back. So, after a few tense weeks, I moved along to a "grassroots" community organization. It was in Chicago's infamous Uptown community, then populated almost exclusively by displaced Appalachian migrants. They'd come north looking for work in the mills, and found only poverty and despair. It was also home to the largest group of off-reservation Indians in the country. It was a desolate area of tenements, SROs, storefront liquor stores, pawn shops, gin mills, spot-labor joints. Selling blood was such a common occupation that the van everyone called the Draculamobile came around as frequently as the police.
The "community" organization turned out to be controlled by a fabulously wealthy individual whose "philosophy" was (mandatorily) extolled by all its employees. The "clients" were seen as ill-born savages, and the "organizing" was, in fact, nothing more than classic missionary work.
I quickly found partners within the organization, and we set out to take it down. When we quit en masse, we sent my highly detailed letter of resignation—my journal-keeping habit had documented everything—directly to the funder. Within weeks, "community organization" closed its doors.
At the same time, we were opening our own, in a tiny storefront on North Broadway just off Wilson Avenue, the epicenter of Uptown. Unlike the traditional "welfare" model, our organization was "members only." You had to pay to join; at that time, it cost a quarter. And you were expected to be a participant, not a passive recipient.
The community responded with class, dignity, and pride. The Uptown Community Organization offered everything from religious services—we featured the charismatic, notorious Rev. Iberus Hacker, whose anti-Klan church had been dynamited out from under him back home in Tennessee—to job-finding to counseling to a food pantry, all contributed by the membership, using the style of a cooperative.
The experience was wonderful for me, but I felt disengaged. The more time I spent with the damaged children, especially the graduates of the Illinois "training schools" who had become gang members, the more I realized I would have to move closer to direct engagement with The Beast I was still hunting.
This time, I followed the highway to Boston, where I got work running a re-entry center for ex-convicts. There were numerous candidates for the job, and the entire membership was the selection committee. I didn't have the credentials of many of the other candidates, but I did have the "references" that resonated most deeply.
Libra, Inc. grew rapidly, and we had many successes. As always, I used my interviewing skills to learn, and my writing skills to produce income for the organization. But by then, I realized a fundamental truth—the only true organizers were those who could move along to the next assignment, forever.
At this time, Massachusetts was at the leading edge of the wave of "de-institutionalization" that was sweeping the country. There was universal recognition that juvenile prisons were not only brutal, dangerous places, but that they were producing brutal, dangerous graduates. It was part of a continuum of understanding: if abusive childhoods propelled children toward anti-social conduct, wouldn't abusive responses to that conduct only exacerbate the problem? Rather than being "rehabilitative," juvenile prisons (no matter what pretty names they were called) were crime factories, and the product endangered all society.
Of course, when Massachusetts decided to close all its "training schools," and place the inmates in "community-based facilities," it was left with a hardcore precipitate young people whose crimes were so violent, or whose institutional record was so bad, that the "community" would not accept them in the local "residence." So a locked-down "therapeutic community" was envisioned for those who could not be "recycled." There was a detention center just outside of Boston that would do nicely.
The "therapeutic community" failed. The values and culture of the juvenile institutions in which the "residents" had been raised proved far stronger than the "get in touch with your feelings" rhetoric of a staff whose life experiences had not prepared them for the task of interacting with brutalized—and dangerous—teenagers.
The word "failed" was not an academic judgment. Escapes were common. Staff members were assaulted, some of them sexually. Violence among "residents" was endemic. Attempts to introduce a "token economy" in which prisoners could accumulate "points" by "acting in a manner conducive to the spirit of the community"—translation: not stabbing someone—were ludicrous in a world where "might makes right" was the only religion, and all the inhabitants were fundamentalists.
When the institution was labeled "permanently out of control," I got offered the job of running the place. I had no illusions about why I was hired. What they wanted was an articulate thug: a man who could bring peace and quiet without returning to the days of violent physical oppression by the custodial staff.
Given a free hand, I brought in my own people. Many of them were ex-convicts, some of whom had done time within those same walls. The transition was not subtle. We explained that the old ways were dead. There was going to be a new regime, a new culture, and a new way of doing business. You could choose how you were treated, but choice could only be expressed by conduct, not conversation.
We scrapped the "points system" and laid out the three rules: no violence, no sex, and no drugs. We were well aware that all institutions have those same rules, and that they were uniformly ignored in favor of a "kid boss" system, where staff relied on inmates to "keep the place quiet."
But that wasn't our way. We did not rely on hardware to do the work of humans. We closed down the "solitary" cells and the "counselor's office," and required all staff to be out on the tiers with the residents, at all times, and in all places. We understood that a "quiet" prison is not necessarily a safe one, and that, until we could protect the residents from predators, we could not hope to make change. And until we could engage the residents, we could not change the institutional culture.
As word of this grand, high-risk experiment spread, a wide range of volunteers joined the mix. Musicians, literacy teachers, law students, artists, and others from a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds all contributed.
Some of those volunteers "proved in" sufficiently to join the staff. One was a beautiful, fiery law student who had been a VISTA volunteer inside New York's Rikers Island, one of the largest and most dangerous jails in America. After she left the job to return to school, she was given a State commission to write a history of the institution. I was one of her mandatory interviews. Somewhere later on, I realized I had found my life-partner. In a lifetime of gambling, it has proved to be my biggest win. My wife, Alice, went on to a career which included serving as Chief of the Special Victims Bureau of the Queens County District Attorney's Office. When she was fired (a family tradition) for refusing to "go along to get along," she wrote a non-fiction book whose title says it all: Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators. Today, she protects victims of stalking, elder abuse, and similar atrocities.
Inside the institution—which we named ANDROS II—we all tried to be both teachers and learners. Staff developed such a cohesiveness that we were often seen as a gang that had moved into new territory. We took extreme risks, every day, knowing that we could be closed down with a snap of administrative fingers.
We had two levels of achievement. Only people "in the business" understood the significance of the first: during my tenure, the institution had no rapes, no stabbings, and no suicides. The second was more universally understood, as young men whose entire life had been crime and violence became, in a word, "citizens."
Our success was not universal. While some left us to become honest laborers, and others went on to vocational schools or colleges, some went back to crime. One killed a pair of police officers. And one—a full-fledged, sadistic sex predator before he turned eighteen—never left the "system."
I had one perfect insight into the truth of those "failures." By the time we had gotten there, it had been too late.
It was that understanding that became the foundation to the rest of my life. Here's what I learned: there is no bio-genetic code that produces a rapist, or a serial killer, or an arsonist who giggles at the flames. We make our own monsters. We build our own beasts. Child protection and crime prevention are inextricably intertwined. And the earlier the intervention, the greater our chances of a successful outcome.
It was at that point that I decided that, in order to be an agent of change, I needed to be a free agent. I would never be a "good employee." I wanted to pick my own battles, and fight them with every weapon I could command. So I decided to go to law school, and to devote my practice to representing children.
Throughout this entire period, through all those various jobs and experiences, I was writing. Not just reports, journal entries, proposals for funding, and detailed analyses. I was writing "fiction," trying to put what I learned into the kind of books I had so admired as a child. Books that would make people think, sure. But, most importantly, books that would make people angry enough to do something about it.
Strictly on the strength of some early short stories and my "journal" entries, I had attracted the attention of one of those literary agencies that have since passed into myth. The John Schaffner Agency was a patrician, highly-regarded "literary" agency in the truest sense of the word. First John Schaffner himself, and later his partner, Victor Chapin, spent years encouraging me, without ever seeing a dime from their efforts. I'd kept a journal up through the time I left for Biafra, which I turned into a novel. They kept trying to sell it, swimming upstream against a flood of rejections. When I got discouraged, they'd point out how each rejection letter contained nuggets of praise for my writing ability, finding fault only with the material itself.
Victor worked with me on form and structure, and taught me the concept of narrative force. He promised me, over and over again, that, one day, it would "all happen."
But it didn't. And when I started law school, I was ready to pack it in. I wrote Victor and told him that, from then on, my writing would be confined to motions, briefs, and appeals. I still have his letter in response.
"[The] only way you'll ever be a healthy free human being is if you are a writer. It seems to me that it's a deep and important part of you and if you ignore or neglect it you'll pay. And it could be a help and a solace. You have so much to say and feel strongly about so many things plus the fact that you've had so many experiences not usually part of the average writer's life. It adds up to a great potential for writing. That's the way we see it, anyway. So please don't despair and please do think about writing even if you're too beat to do anything about it right now. And we'll keep pushing."
I had used all my accumulated savings to stagger through my first year in law school, aided mightily by one of the two friends I made there. We shared a roach-infested dump, subsisting on processed fish "donated" by friends from the docks. After that first year, I was Tap City. Stone broke. I returned home to New York, found a job, and began the search for a local law school I could transfer to—a school that would provide some financial assistance.
And I started working on a novel, one that summarized what I had learned about crime, and its causes. Trying to teach what I had learned. A Ph.D. thesis without the footnotes.
Victor, as always, was supportive and encouraging, even though he candidly told me, "This is just too dark, Andrew. A book has to have its time, and this one's time hasn't come."
"But it's the truth," I would tell him.
And my agent, my friend, would raise his eyebrows, shrug his shoulders, and silently convey that he knew all about finding one's time. Because Victor, in his own way, was as brave as my father. An openly gay man in an era where it wasn't safe to be, Victor had upped the ante by declaring Conscientious Objector status during World War II. He did his "alternative service" in an institution for the insane. And wrote a book about it. (On The Hill, Museum Press, Ltd., London, 1956)
I never planned on returning to Boston. I thought I would continue to work, at whatever job I could find, until I saved up enough money for another round. Then my first-year grades came in the mail. I thought the report was a computer error. But a phone call from the school confirmed their validity. And, in that same phone call, I learned that the school offered exactly one scholarship for second-year students, reserved for whoever finished first in the class.
That was me. And I packed the duffel once again, threw it in the back of my much-reworked ten-year-old Oldsmobile, and went back up north. My other law school pal let me move in with him. I got by with gambling, the occasional piece of consulting work, and very economical eating habits.
My next effort was a novel called A Bomb Built in Hell. This time, the rejection letters were more specific. I was a writer of "enormous power," and I had a "brilliant gift of language," but the material "out of the question." Editors went on and on about my "sick imagination," and "hideous fantasies." One called my work "a political horror story." Another said it was so unrealistic, it was "beyond science fiction."
A Bomb Built in Hell ends with a deeply disturbed young man, so alienated that he no longer considers himself to be a human being, entering a suburban high school with a duffle bag full of weapons and making a serious attempt to kill everyone in the school before he takes his own life.
Couldn't happen. Ever. After all, this was 1973.
Many years later, A Bomb Built in Hell was published as an online serial novel by Amazon. Their description speaks for itself:
In 1973, the novel was too hot to publish—but times and standards have changed, and what was considered unspeakably violent back then is real-life media fodder in 2000. We'll warn you: even today, the book's graphic violence is not for the squeamish.
Victor kept telling me I was getting closer. I just needed to tone it down a bit, put some light in the darkness, not be so bleak and unrelenting. "Try going back to the first person narrative," he counseled. "You don't have to be a Chandler-clone to write crime fiction, but there has to be something about your protagonist that can engage the audience."
But by then I was working on something else. I graduated from law school, and began building a law practice from scratch. I got a job driving a cab nights, printed my own stationery on a borrowed "compositor," and made an arrangement with a Chinese restaurant to let me use the back booth and their pay phone in exchange for legal services.
Because it was impossible to make a living by representing children exclusively, I turned to the one thing I knew about crime. I did criminal defense work part-time, and that paid the bills for representing abused and neglected children and for defending in juvenile court those kids the "child protective system" had missed when it had the chance.
I never had to look for customers, and not just because I knew so many people whose life-style guaranteed that, sooner or later, they'd need a criminal lawyer. As a law student, I'd written a law review article detailing the struggle to free a friend of mine who had been incarcerated for many years for a crime he had not committed ("Parole As Post-Conviction Relief: The Robert Lewis Decision," New England Law Review Vol. 9, No. 1 1973). By the time the article came out, my friend was free, but I got my first "fan mail" from prisoners all over the country, who told me they were planning to use the template I laid out to appeal their own denial of parole. And the word spread.
The author working in his office, c.1980s
I was called in to help out on cases all over the country: a racetrack-fixing trial in Detroit, a homicide in Florida, an appeal in Rhode Island, an assault in Pennsylvania, a pardon application in Louisiana . And, back home, I had the honor to represent a dedicated, courageous group fighting for the life of Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. When their struggle led them to a mass takeover of the Chancellor's Office of the City University system, I negotiated with the police who surrounded the building.
Meanwhile, I was still writing, but I'd given up on fiction. My project was a textbook, incorporating what I'd learned from running the institution. The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach was published in 1979, the process considerably speeded by grants from the John Hay Whitney Foundation and the New York Foundation, both of which were vitally interested in juvenile justice issues.
But while the book was well-received critically, and resulted in numerous consulting, public speaking, and non-fiction writing opportunities, it never reached that "big jury" I'd wanted to address from the beginning. Its impact was confined to the profession. And that wasn't enough.
Because by then my hatred for those who preyed on children had turned pathological. And although every courtroom victory protected an individual child, I wasn't protecting children. I was fighting child abusers, but not laying a glove on child abuse.
I remembered a movie I'd seen many years ago. The Bad Seed was the story of a little girl who was adored and treasured by her loving family. She was a pretty, clever child who was also a serial killer. A no-conscience psychopath who saw humans as objects to be manipulated, the little girl was terrifying in her absolute self-absorption. And how was such a monster "explained"? It seems her grandmother was also a murderer, and the "disease" had "skipped a generation." I wonder how many abused children have been condemned by juries who believe the young people standing before them are genetic defectives? How many in America believe a child can be "born bad"?
Determined to strike that balance Victor was always talking about, I developed a private investigator some later called the "anti-Chandler." All it says on his birth certificate is "Baby Boy" Burke. He was abandoned in the hospital by a mother he never met. In the space for "father," there is only the word "Unknown."
Burke is a mercenary, a man-for-hire, a career criminal (and two-time felony loser). The prototypical abused child: hyper-vigilant, distrustful, and, in Burke's case, intensely bonded to his "family of choice," a collection of outlaws who had nothing in common but their membership in that vast tribe I called the "Children of the Secret." Burke became the antithesis of the "White Knight" so beloved of detective fiction.
I intended the book as a Trojan horse. A crime novel that pulls the reader into the story at the same time it delivers a steady diet of hardcore reality. I didn't own a radio station, or a newspaper, or a television network. This was a working man's propaganda bulletin, and I never pretended it was anything else.
Even the name "Burke" is part of that. The infamously homicidal partnership of Burke and Hare began as a graverobbing enterprise. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the duo supplied the local medical school with fresh cadavers. When they finally emptied the graveyard, they began to create their own "product," by opening a hotel. Very few guests checked out. Because they could not present a corpse with fresh wounds to the medical school, Burke became so adept at killing without leaving marks that, to this day, the phrase "to Burke" means just that.
Burke was hung, his execution attended by thousands. Hare, who became a police informant, was set free.
If I was going to show people what Hell looked like, I didn't want an angel for a guide. And if I was going to slip the message into the medium of "crime fiction," what better name for my "hero"?
I called that first book Flood, the name of the woman on a journey to find the predator who had raped and murdered her best friend's child. He got access to that child because he worked in a daycare center. I expected that publishers would have the same "problems" with this book as they had with every other piece of "fiction" I'd written, but Victor assured me that "We've got it this time! Everything we dreamed about, this book is going to make happen."
And then he went and died on me. A heart attack. March 4, 1983.
Years later, I was being interviewed by a journalist about some of the cases I was working on. In the midst of our conversation, he said, "You ought to write a book." I told him I had, but.
He asked to see the manuscript. I pulled it out of a drawer, dusted it off, and handed it over.
That journalist was David Hechler, who later came to write a brilliant account of what he properly labeled the "child sexual abuse war" (The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War, D.C. Heath, Lexington, MA, 1988). He is one of the least deterrable men I have ever met. With the help of his father, the brilliant economics innovator Ira Hechler, my manuscript eventually found its way to the infamously irascible Donald I. Fine, as well-known for his temper as for his many literary discoveries. Fine was just beginning his own small publishing house, and Flood was one of his first projects.
It was dedicated to Victor Chapin.
Reviews were "mixed," which has become a trademark. I was either "a modern Dickens" or "the king of vigilante slasher-porn." Some reviewers—whose idea of "raw realism" is a heavy-drinking private eye who takes cases out of the goodness of his heart every time a swell-looking babe walks into his low-rent office, then thumbs the safety off his revolver and stalks down the mean streets seeking justice, never dissuaded by the inevitable gunshot wounds and blows to the head by blunt objects—were just outraged that I departed from the sacred formula. Others felt that, if I wanted to write a novel about child abuse, I shouldn't use "crime fiction" to do it—as if the abuse of children was some sort of social problem and not a crime. And some strongly supported what I was doing, and why I was doing it.
To those who regard "crime fiction" as some sacred icon which must follow a rigid formula, I will always be the man who writes 18-syllable haiku. Fundamentalists hate heretics. But, to me, crime itself is one of the universals of human existence. Crime takes the pulse of a culture. It tells us the truth about us as a species. And I reject the genre-ghetto to which such writing is too-often relegated.
Today, while I dismiss most "criticism"—especially given the favor-trading that has polluted the writing business since book reviewing began—the one that never fails to rankle is the stunningly stupid claim that I write "graphic depictions of child sexual abuse" or that my books would be "sexually stimulating" to pedophiles. The definitive response to all such garbage—be it malicious, or ignorant, the definition fits—recently surfaced in a text by Dr. Anna Salter, one of America's leading authorities on sex offenders, responding to an apologia for pedophilia penned by one Judith Levine:
Sex between adults and children—these new advocates tell us—doesn't do any harm, anyway, and we're just being moralistic by calling it "abuse." Even the old invective is back. This time it is less often attacking the children or even the mothers, although some have done so. This time the invective is mostly for those who evaluate or treat abused children or advocate for them. In Levine's world, Andrew Vachss, the attorney and mystery writer, becomes a "sex thriller writer," although if there is anything Vachss doesn't do, it's describe sex with children in any way that makes it "thrilling." (Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, and other Sex Offenders: Who They Are, How They Operate, and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children, Basic Books, 2003, p. 68)
Within a few days of Flood's release, I was offered a multi-book contract, and I suddenly heard from publishers who had rejected the earlier novel, having "re-thought" their position. Within a couple of months, I retired from part-time criminal defense. Since then, the books have enabled me to represent children and youth exclusively.
As of 2003, the Burke series has gone fifteen rounds, in more than a dozen languages. The pattern was set long ago. When I wrote about predatory pedophiles modem-trafficking in kiddie porn, some reviewers immediately attacked it as a "perverted fantasy." That was in early 1987, before the Internet impacted American consciousness. Routinely, my work brings me into contact with information that has not yet surfaced in the world of books. I don't have to "research" my material. And rather than being hyper-amped "fantasies," they are, if anything, toned down. Sonny Mehta, my editor and publisher, coined the phrase "investigative novels" to describe my work. And for a writer who considers journalism the highest form of the art, I couldn't be more honored.
With President Bill Clinton, 1993, after the President signed the National Child Protection Act, which created a database to help track child abusers. The author suggested the bill while a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show.
I didn't set out to write a series. Who but a terminal narcissist would? That's why, in my opinion, Flood is the weakest of the Burke series. I thought it was going to be a one-round fight, so I threw every punch I had—the book could have been shorter by a third. In truth, the books are really chapters. My characters are not set pieces, awaiting new adventures. They age, they change, some of them even die.
The books have done more than provide an income to cover the costs of a law practice. They have opened doors in places I never even imagined visiting. From the opportunity to address audiences in person all over the world, to chances to write in other venues. From op-ed pieces in the New York Times to articles for Parade to comic books to a "Batman" novel to short stories in forums such as Playboy and Esquire, to a massive Web site (www.vachss.com) that now averages over 1.5 million visitors a year, I have been given the opportunity to preach my gospel—child protection is crime prevention—from every pulpit imaginable.
What (if anything) I have done for writing is up to others to judge. I imagine that judgment will vary with individuals, (and their agendas). But what writing has done for me is indisputable: it gave me my chance to make change. And I will always try to make the most of it.
© 2003 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
Read Andrew Vachss' entry from Contemporary Authors, Volume 214, 2003.