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A Lawyer's Novel Voice Pleads: Halt the Assembly Line for Society's 'Monsters'

By Linnet Myers
Originally published in Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1989.

Andrew Vachss works within the law; the character he created works outside it. Yet both the author and his fictional character “Burke” work toward the same goal: to protect children. And they share an intense anger at a system that so often fails to do so.

Vachss is a New York lawyer whose business card reads, “Limited to Matters Concerning Children.”

He is also the author of three novels that center on Burke, a private detective, ex-convict, outlaw and killer and a creation of the system Vachss hates: a child-care system that is creating tomorrow’s violent criminals.

Burke grew up without a home or family. In Vachss’ most recent novel, “Blue Belle,” Burke tells a fellow inmate about his path to prison: “I did the State Shuffle. Orphanage to foster homes to the gladiator schools. To here.”

To shield himself from the fear and violence surrounding him, Burke strives to be, as he puts it, “Ice-cold. Stone-hard.” He reads a psychology book in prison and comes across a word that decribes the kind of man he wants to become:

“Sometimes, alone in my cell at night, I’d say the word softly to myself. “Sociopath.” Calling on the ice god to come into my soul. Willing to be anything but afraid all the time.”

But while Burke strives to be heartless, he never quite accomplishes it. Some of Vachss’ real-life clients have.

Vachss’ clients are kids, usually those who have been brutalized or neglected. Often kids who are too young to know what’s happening as the courts decide their fates. Not too young, though, to vent the anger and hatred they’ve known. Not too young to be murderers or rapists-in-training. “Child protection work,” Vachs said in a recent interview, “is the only clear crime-prevention work.” Pay now, he said, or pay later.

“Invest heavily now—not because you don’t want to see kids beaten up or brutalized but because today’s victim is tomorrow’s perpetrator,” he said.

“Do it out of self-interest.”

When people hear of a violent criminal, “they say, ‘Oh, he’s a monster,’ as if he came out of his mother’s womb that way,” Vachss said. “They don’t see the assembly line.”

But Vachss said he has seen it repeatedly: abusive and violent homes, misguided courts who protect parents’ rights instead of children, temporary foster homes that add to the instability of abused children’s lives, juvenile facilities where neglect and violence are commonplace.

And he has seen the products: “I’ve seen kids who were 8, 9, 10 who had the same morality as this table,” he said. “I get to know them in ways no one else knows them. . . . If you could listen to their souls, if you could put a stethoscope to their souls, you’d hear ‘tick, tick, tick.’ Somebody is going to pay for this.” Vachss believes nothing can change the child once he crosses the line from victim to victimizer and becomes a hardened adult criminal. “Confronted with that, you incapacitate the beast,” he said.

“That’s the only thing you can do.”

Before he got his law degree, Vachss worked as a health department investigator, during which he came across children with venereal diseases; a social services caseworker; an investigator of relief funds in Biafra, where he contracted malaria; a community worker in northwest Indiana and in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood; and the director of a Massachusetts juvenile prison.

His first book (with coauthor Yitzhak Bakal) was called “The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach,” which opened with an interview with a 16-year-old rapist. While working on “Life-Style,” Vachss traveled to Mississippi to visit Jim Procter, a longtime friend and then a reporter for a Jackson newspaper, who helped edit the book. The two men worked from morning until at least midnight each day, stopping at night only when Vachss’ eye—injured in a childhood incident—began to weaken, Procter recalled. Procter, now metropolitan editor for the Gary Post-Tribune, had met Vachss in 1970, when Vachss was working with the Northwest Indiana community group.

“I recall his emerging theory that you give what you get—how you’re treated as a child determines what you’ll grow up to be,” Procter said. That theory later came together in “Life-Style,” yet Vachss realized the book’s audience was limited largely to those in the field of juvenile justice.

Hoping to reach a broader readership, Vachss turned to fiction.

But his first novel, “A Bomb Built in Hell,” was never published. Too brutal for the publishing companies, the book prompted some interesting rejection letters.

“I read every word with fascination,” one said. But the letter called the novel “a political horror story” and said, “I don’t like this book.”

Vachss’ second novel, “Flood,” was published but not without a battle. Burke really wasn’t a very sympathetic character, the publishers said. Couldn’t he be more of a Yuppie, they asked, or perhaps a CIA agent?

“With my typical attitude, I said ‘no,’ “ Vachss recalled.

The eventual publisher of “Flood” paid only $5,000 for it, but the paperback rights sold for $165,000, said Vachss. By the time his second novel, “Strega,” came out, he was becoming known. His third, “Blue Belle”

(Knopf, $15.95), came out this fall; he said each book has been more successful than the prior one. Of “Blue Belle” Kirkus Review said:

“Machine-gun prose and ebony emotions, dark and deep as the Styx: Vachss and Burke shoot to the head of the P.I. class with this one.”

Vachss says he cannot invent his characters and stories but is able to fictionalize experiences and people he meets on the job. His work comes first; the writing is squeezed in his off hours. His wife, Alice, is an assistant district attorney in New York who prosecutes rapists and child abusers. The couple have no children.

In July, Vachss successfully argued that an unborn child should be taken at birth from her mother, who earlier lost custody of her other children because she abused them so severely.

Judge Louis Barone, who presided over the family court case in Westchester County, N.Y., said Vachss convinced him the baby would face a horrible risk if allowed to stay with her mother.

“In my opinion, he saved this child from being abused or killed,” the judge said. “He takes an active part in his cases, he follows up, he investigates. . . . He looks out for the children he represents. No question about it, he’s five stars.”

Attorney Jeffrey Salant, who opposed Vachss in the case and represented the mother, said that Vachss is “probably the best lawyer I know. I mean, he’s brilliant. He’s brilliant and he’s really aggressive. . . . He fights hard. Maybe he’s a little too aggressive.”

“Loyalty is a word I always associate with Andy,” said Procter. “He has evolved, broadened and grown, but he’s still the same guy. He’s becoming a major novelist, but that hasn’t diverted him from his life’s work. . . . He wouldn’t shelve the law for these books—no way. He feels you’ve got to do it in the courtroom, in the real world.”

In “Blue Belle,” Vachss’ own feelings about the justice system occasionally are revealed through Burke. In one chapter, Burke recalls the trial of a friend Hortense. She was accused of killing her boyfriend after discovering he had raped her foster daughter. Burke observes: “The judge hit Hortense with two-to-six upstate. Only child molesters get probation in New York.”

Vachss’ books are filled with violence, centered in the New York City underworld of criminals and street people Yet despite a cynical view of the world, Burke keeps a spark of humanity. It’s that spark that makes him risk his life in “Blue Belle” to take on the killer of child prostitutes.

Somewhere along the line, Burke developed a sense of empathy—something Vachss said many of his young clients don’t have.

Vachss sees Burke as a man whose main goal in life is to survive. Yet Burke failed at his first goal—he didn’t become what he wanted to be: Stone. Cold. Ice. If only Vachss’ clients—the real-life characters—didn’t either.


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