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In Defense Of Children

Every day, New York child-defense lawyer Andrew Vachss wages a bitter war against child abuse. Outside the courtroom, with his series of acclaimed crime novels, the Adelbert College graduate wants to rally us to the fight.

By Ken Kesegich
Originally published in CWRU Magazine, February 1990

Also available in Russian (

"You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. ... It's just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal ..."
—Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"I get angry," says Andrew Vachss, "to a level most people couldn't comprehend."

Believe Andrew Henry Vachss when he says this. The 1965 graduate of Adelbert College has turned his anger not only into his life's work, but his life—one committed to thwarting the tormentors by offering children defense, refuge and appeal.

"The effect that child abuse has not just on the victims, but on their subsequent victims and on society as a whole, is, in my judgment, far more devastating than the threat of drugs, of political upheaval, of economic disaster, or of environmental destruction." says Mr. Vachss (pronounced vax). "I really think that child abuse is the most significant threat not just to the quality of life in this country, but to life in this country."

Mr. Vachss poses a double threat to abusers of boys and girls. First and foremost, he runs a one-person Manhattan law practice devoted to the protection of children. Since 1976, he has rescued children from all forms of physical and sexual abuse. The relentlessness he brings to his cause has earned him prominence in legal circles, and brought him cases throughout the country.

But for Andrew Vachss, having an impact in courtrooms is not enough. He wants every citizen to share his rage. He would like to prompt the emergence of a single-issue constituency on the order of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. So, to convey to the general public the everyday, heinous reality of child abuse, he supplements his legal career with another occupation: writing crime fiction.

His latest novel, Hard Candy, published last summer by Alfred A. Knopf, joins three earlier novels and a handful of short stories. Starting with Flood, published by Donald I. Fine in 1985, and progressing through Strega and Blue Belle, published by Knopf in 1987 and 1988, Mr. Vachss' novels have been published in a dozen languages and have won literary awards in Germany, France and Japan.

Drawn in part from Mr. Vachss' caseload, the fiction stares unblinkingly at the atrocities done to children by their parents and by exploitation artists, from pedophiles and pimps to makers of "snuff films"—movies showing actual, calculated murders. "The trouble," Mr. Vachss has said often, "is toning down the reality so people will believe it."

A New Yorker born and raised, Andrew Vachss claims that he was not socially conscious as a child. He entered Western Reserve University in 1960 after being denied entrance into the military because of a childhood eye injury, which still requires him to wear a patch.

"At Western Reserve, I got introduced to all kinds of things that just had never occurred to me before as a kid," he says. He started as a science major, switched to English, dropped out of WRU, reentered and graduated with a degree in speech. He remembers with affection the exposure to foreign students and the tutelage of two professors in the English department—Mac Sawyer Hammond and Toby Lelyveld.

It wasn't until after he graduated in 1965 that his life turned on its present course. He spent a year on a job for the United States Public Health Service, tracking down sexually transmitted diseases across the Midwest.

Time and again, he discovered children who had contracted the diseases from their parents. "I can clearly recall seeing not just battered kids, neglected kids and maltreated kids, but kids who were the specific targets of sexual abuse," he says. "I remember that particularly inflaming me then."

He followed that stint with a succession of social-service jobs in New York, Indiana and Chicago. Sponsored by a foundation in Connecticut, Mr. Vachss traveled to Biafra, West Africa, in 1969 to check on the use of American relief money. He nearly died of starvation and disease in the war-torn country, and struggled home a year later.

For a year beginning in 1972, Mr. Vachss served as director of ANDROS II, a prison in Boston for violent juvenile offenders. By doing that, he says, "I got a lot of my own questions answered." His questions concerned the root of violent juveniles' behavior. With stunning regularity, he found child abuse as part of the answer.

"It was there," he says of ANDROS II, "that I decided to go to law school." While still director of the prison, Mr. Vachss began night classes at the New England School of Law, with the sole intent of becoming a lawyer to represent children. Finishing tops in his class after the first year earned him a full scholarship for the second. He graduated in 1975.

Originally, Mr. Vachss' law practice centered on representing children accused of crime. His practice evolved into what it is today: An adult providing a voice for abused children.

Mr. Vachss points out, however, that he can concern himself only with individual cases. "People call me a child advocate," he says. "I really have a problem with that. I'm an advocate for the children I actually represent. I'm not one of these self-proclaimed saviors."

Andrew Vachss receives pleas for help from parents, from social workers and other professionals—even from young victims themselves. He is unable to represent all who seek his services. Those children who don't become his clients find help through his large network of contacts. Mr. Vachss' practice is aided by a powerful computer that helps him to track abuse cases throughout the country.

Mr. Vachss sets aside a portion of his time to serve as a state-appointed lawyer known in New York as a law guardian for any case in which a child's interests are affected.

His success in saving kids from abusive families—often by having either the children or the abusers pulled from them—makes him an aberration in the family-court system, which seeks to hold families together. Mr. Vachss' exhaustive case preparation and confrontational style in court have been known to fill his adversaries with dread.

"If I was doing criminal defense," he says, "people would say, 'Yeah, he's a good, aggressive, sharp lawyer.' But when you're representing kids, you're not supposed to do this stuff. Everybody's supposed to sit down and calmly discuss things. That's not my view of representation of any client."

Above all, Andrew Vachss is effective because he knows the territory of child abuse. He has spent many years studying firsthand the territory's extent and the characters who populate it. First, he says, neither the problem of child abuse nor its magnitude is unique to the United States. He has talked to journalists from around the world who describe the problem in their own countries. "I'm talking about a human condition," he says, "not a cultural one."

He opposes the popular notion that child abuse in general is on the increase. "I don't see any hard evidence that child abuse has significantly increased, except in very specific, technologically driven ways," he says. Some advances, such as the personal computer, have increased the ease with which sexual abusers of children can operate. He notes as well that VCRs, fax machines and other modern-day equipment have changed the nature of child pornography production and distribution.

In discussing one of the least understood forms of child sexual abuse, pedophilia, Mr. Vachss says it is important to make a distinction between a pedophile and a predatory pedophile. "A pedophile is obsessed with sexual feelings about children," he explains. "A predatory pedophile acts on those feelings."

Perhaps most frightening is the predatory pedophile's ability to blend into our society "They look like you, they talk like you, they dress like you," notes Mr. Vachss. "Despite the myths, they don't dress up in ninja outfits and jump out of trees. They work in day-care centers. They work as big brothers, as scout leaders, as coaches."

Andrew Vachss shows no patience for people who confuse pedophiles with homosexuals. "A homosexual is no different from a heterosexual: A normal one has sex with adults," he says. "Indeed, a significant number of pedophiles have no sexual preference. What attracts them is children, period. But it is this kind of pernicious mythology that has enabled the pedophile to work so well."

Despite the evidence of evil that he encounters in his work, Andrew Vachss can't imagine burning out. "What would I have a burn out about?" he asks. "I can save more lives in a year than an emergency room surgeon."

Still, he harbors no delusions about halting child abuse. His goal is to effect change in the attitudinal climate in which abuse exists—hence his novels, hence his radio and television talk-show appearances, hence his lectures to lawyers and other groups on the front line of child protection.

Mr. Vachss adds, "I'm also training people. I'm hoping and praying and working so that when I stop this work, there will be a number of people taking it over from me. So that sustains me as well."

Ultimately, he says of child-protection work, "I won't be satisfied until law schools actually teach this. And until the child-protection profession becomes a profession. I never stop hammering away at that."

Mr. Vachss views writing as an effective means to that end. "Writing," he says, "is an organic outgrowth of the work I do. It is another tool." In 1979, he co-wrote The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach, a scholarly work that remains an important reference in the field. Another text, The Child Abuse-Delinquency Connection—A Lawyer's View, was published last year. Mr. Vachss contributes articles to major periodicals, often proposing tangible steps that can be taken against child abuse.

Mr. Vachss' full-length fiction, however, is winning him his widest audience. He is backed by the clout of Alfred A. Knopf. And ever since he signed on with Knopf for his second book, Strega, Mr. Vachss has enjoyed Robert Gottlieb as his editor—even after Mr. Gottlieb left his position as Knopf's editor-in-chief to head The New Yorker. Knopf and Mr. Gottlieb are in his corner again as he works on his next novel.

Set in New York City, Mr. Vachss' four books are driven by spare but vivid prose that offers no sentiment and little hope. At the center of the novels is the unlikely and not entirely likeable protagonist, Burke, a paranoid, morose, chain-smoking ex-con who admits to no first name. An unlicensed private detective and practicing scam-artist who is expert at traversing the city undetected, Burke provides the novels with their distinctive first-person narration.

Burke's world induces nightmares. In describing the demand for black-market baby parts, in which kidnappers sell children to human chop shops for later use in transplants, Burke says. "The world I live in, it's a lot deeper underground than any subway. It's a world where you can buy a baby's heart." Andrew Vachss fabricates nothing. Burke's world, Mr. Vachss makes clear, is our world.

Burke shares with Mr. Vachss a knowledge of and hatred for abusers of children, but with one major difference: Whereas Mr. Vachss halts such deviants legally, Burke is not averse to terrorizing, maiming and killing them.

Some reviewers can't get past the novels' violence. But no reviewer, says Mr. Vachss, has questioned the author's authenticity of detail. Other observers say that Mr. Vachss adds a needed voice to the crime-novel genre. In a review of Hard Candy, the Chicago Tribune wrote that Burke "fills a void in a cluttered, too often unchallenging genre. With his soiled white hat, this Lone Ranger of the '90s asks difficult questions of readers, while also shining light into the darkest recesses of their souls."

Andrew Vachss admits that the attention his work garners is a double-edged sword. "There's a balance between wanting to get the message out and not wanting to be the subject," he says. He refuses all requests for documentary coverage of himself, and has turned down a number of offers to sell the rights to his fiction to filmmakers. "I think there is a tendency or desire either to sensationalize what I'm involved in, or to euphemize it because it's so distasteful. Neither one would work very well for me."

Further, owing to the danger inherent in his work, personal celebrity can make larger targets of him and his wife, Alice, who works as chief of the Queens District Attorney's Special Victims Bureau. They have no children. Like Burke, who has rigged up impenetrable security devices, Mr. Vachss takes special care to protect himself from the deviants he hunts.

For Andrew Vachss, his fiction and the reaction to it sum up all that he does. He appreciates hearing from readers who have been moved by his books, or who have gained the courage to speak out about their own victimization. "But I don't like it," he says, "when people stop me and ask for my autograph. Because this person is not any recruit in the war I'm fighting."

Ken Kesegich is assistant editor of CWRU Magazine,
the magazine of Case Western Reserve University.


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