Andrew Vachss: Beating the Devil
By Zak Mucha
Originally published in Gallery Magazine, April 2000
In 1988 the New York Law Journal reported on a precedent-setting judicial decision to support a preemptive strike against the imminent danger of an as-yet unborn child, identified only as "Baby B." Six of Baby B.'s seven siblings previously had been removed from their mother's custody due to abuse and neglect. The seventh was taken at gunpoint by the baby's father. When the mother became pregnant again, attorney Andrew Vachss filed a petition to place the baby in state protective custody upon birth. This was a legal tactic he invented. Vachss won the case and Baby B. was eventually adopted, never having known a single day of abuse at her "mother's" hands.
Attorney and author Andrew Vachss has made no secret of his mission to protect children and punish predators. He has said before that his work does not stem from any great love of children, but rather from a hatred of those who prey on them. Attorney David Gendelman has worked with Andrew Vachss since 1983, and vows he has never met a better legal mind nor anyone so single-minded in his pursuit of justice. "He takes no prisoners," Gendelman says. "He doesn't lose."
Most citizens know of Andrew Vachss through his series of novels centered on a character named Burke, a state-raised professional criminal whose motivations in life are survival, revenge and protecting his family-of-choice. Burke is often seen as Vachss' alter ego, but the author says he and Burke share only the same taste in women, music and gambling, although he acknowledges their "politics" are similar. Through Burke, Vachss has passed on the lessons he has learned: namely, that behavior is the truth; family is defined operationally, not by DNA; and that pedophilia, while it may be a sickness, encourages acts that are simply evil.
While some practitioners of the soft sciences can't accept Vachss' relentlessness or his black-and-white vision of human behavior, the reason may be the difference between life and the laboratory. "Look," Vachss begins, "the frame of reference for most people is not their life experience, but the movies or television. So when you have a book reviewer who says, 'This isn't real,' all this twit is saying is, 'I saw a movie about crime and this wasn't the way it was.'"
As early as 1987, Vachss detailed how child pornography was being passed through computer modems. Complaints and criticisms surfaced asking how the author could invent such things. Vachss laughs bitterly at such reactions, and says repeatedly that he only wishes that his books truly were fiction.
Born in 1942, Andrew Vachss grew up in New York City, south of Houston Street before the area was ever called Soho. "In my neighborhood, everybody knew about kids getting beat by their parents. You couldn't avoid seeing it," Vachss says. "But the idea that some parents were sexually assaulting their own children wasn't within our grasp."
He had one friend who was constantly beaten by his father. "One afternoon the boy came over to the house," Vachss remembers, "asking if he could sleep in the basement. My father said, 'No, you can stay in the house.'" It was obvious to Vachss that the boy was too frightened to go home. "The kid's father, who was this giant bodybuilder, comes out in the street and starts screaming, 'Send the kid out here so he can get what's coming to him!"' Instead, Vachss' father, who had played football for NYU and semi-pro ball on weekends before World War II ended his athletic career, came charging out the front door, offering himself instead "with my mother hanging on to him like a feather on an elephant. 'C'mon, you wanna fight so bad, let's do it,'" Vachss quotes his dad, pride evident in his voice. "Mr. Bodybuilder decided to go home alone."
Since then, Vachss has discovered much worse. Over the years he has seen almost every sort of social ill and crime you could name. After graduating from Case Western Reserve University in 1965, Vachss started working for the U.S. Public Health Service, tracking syphilis in an attempt to break its chain of deadly infection. "I was a detached investigator," Vachss says. "So I had to interview people with sexually transmitted diseases and persuade them somehow to disclose all their sexual contacts." Vachss worked the waterfront between Steubenville, Ohio, and the West Virginia side, tracking people with no leads other than a first name, a vague description and maybe a location such as a juke joint or a street corner. "I knew by that time," he says, "I knew of things that happened in houses, things I never dreamed of. But I still never thought of it happening to babies, I mean little, infant babies."
Vachss thought he was a tough kid who had seen everything until he found one chain that ended in an infant dripping gonorrhea and the baby's rapist hospitalized because he'd torn himself in the act. "The first time I met such a human being," Vachss says, "I really thought I'd met Satan. I really thought this was the only one of his kind on the planet. I didn't really get fried until I learned this human had brothers and sisters." It wasn't long before Vachss ran across more predators, more people who enjoyed hurting children; people who set off a rage that has focused his life.
Vachss left the public health service, but found there were few programs devoted solely to protecting children. "I wasn't as interested in epidemiology as I was in violence against children." Vachss became a case worker in the New York City Department of Welfare and began organizing for various groups and causes, all touching on child protective services. By 1969, Vachss' work came to the attention of the Community Development Foundation, a branch of the Save the Children Foundation, which had UN consultant status. Many millions of dollars had been raised to feed Biafrans who were starving under the blockades and bombings by the Nigerian military regime. As with most military embargoes, children starved before soldiers. Vachss explains, "If you look at Rwanda you'll see exactly the same thing—genocidal tribal warfare ... So they had this money, but their concern was how could they translate this money into actual food for the children." The Peace Corps had already evacuated and the first Red Cross plane ever shot down in history was over Biafra. "There was nothing left. There was nothing resembling an infrastructure, it was just jungle," says Vachss. "They needed somebody who was willing to try and penetrate the war zone, figure out what was going on and set up a route so food could get in. My only qualification was that I was crazy enough to do it."
Booking a flight to Biafra, a country that did not officially exist, during a war was an absurdity. "You had to go to Lisbon," says Vachss, "and you had to meet a guy who sent you to meet a guy in Geneva who gave you some papers and you had to go to Angola and then go to a little island and then from that island if you could get a ride on a plane that was going to Biafra, that was what you did."
As soon as he landed in Biafra, Vachss realized it was too late to do anything. Before escaping, he caught malaria, suffered severe malnutrition and was exposed to horrors to match those witnessed by any soldier during the Vietnam war.
Returning to the states, Vachss tried to start working again. "I was so damaged after Biafra," he says. "But I figured that if I didn't start coming up with ways of using my head instead of my hands, I would always remain powerless, because I was always getting fired or disciplined or suspended and I wouldn't really be able to make the impact that I wanted." During those years Vachss was always moving from city to city. "The reason I kept going on was that I wanted to do child protective work. But you can't stand your ground if you've got no ground to stand on."
In 1970, Vachss made his way to Chicago where he briefly studied community organizing under Saul Alinsky, helped organize a "people's congress" in Lake County, Indiana, and later found himself working in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. Uptown was largely populated with Appalachian migrants who had come north looking for work in the factories, but more often than not, ended up working day labor or on welfare. "It was Hillbilly Harlem," says Vachss. Vachss began community organizing with the Reverend Iberus Hacker at the Uptown Community Organization. Typical of the neighborhood, police records for the first week of June, 1971 list 18 killings, 132 reports of alleged spousal abuse, 25 calls to stop bar brawls and two homicides—both middle-aged Appalachian men beaten to death.
Ruth Dennis, who worked in the UCO, remembers, "The building caught fire 13 times in a 35-day period. The arsonists were very drunk and not very good. That sort of thing was not particularly out of the ordinary."
After leaving Chicago, Vachss worked for a time in a Boston halfway house before accepting a job running Andros II, which was Massachusetts' only maximum-security prison for juvenile offenders, in 1972.
Dr. Yitzhak Bakal, then assistant commissioner for the Department of Youth Services, chose Vachss partially for his experience in community organizing. "And at that time," Dr. Bakal says, "he was involved in a variety of groups that dealt with prisons and ex-cons, helping them learn to get back into society."
Andros had previously been run by a mental health program with no experience controlling the juvenile arsonists, rapists and murderers who were considered too violent and dangerous to be placed in community-based corrections. "They closed all the juvenile prisons," Vachss says, "and this was supposed to be a therapeutic community behind bars." Instead, Bakal explains, "It was chaotically out of control ... There were some very violent and very sick kids in there."
Hired to start immediately and with no staff behind him, Vachss' first night at Andros was nothing but a show of psychiatric insanity. "Me and a guy," he says, "who actually spent a long time in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and had been shanked in the eye while in there, we were good friends." The two men walked in and introduced themselves as the new staff. "The prison was full and we spent the night there like that, back to back. We didn't even so much as play cards."
Each day Vachss filled the prison with his own hand-picked staff, of which a majority were ex-cons. "I pitched to them, 'You really want to get even? ... You said that if you were in charge you'd run things differently. Here's your chance.'"
One of the major changes Vachss made was getting rid of the prison guards. He also eliminated offices and required all staffers to be on the floor at all times. In the hopes of turning the prison into a self-maintaining program built on mutual respect, Vachss told the kids, "It's us against them; it's not you against us, okay?... If you want to actually get out of here, you want to actually have a life, there's ways. But, you're not running this place anymore, boys. We are, and everybody's going to be safe here."
"Of course," Vachss recalls, ruefully, "you don't just say things like that." Part of the price of retaking control of the chaos was violence. Vachss himself suffered a fractured jaw and a couple of broken ribs. "But eventually we stabilized the place," he says.
"Progress was made almost overnight," says Dr. Bakal. Volunteers, college students, began to flood Andros. Demands for real food were made and met. Solitary confinement was eliminated, along with the weight room and the boxing program. "People needed to learn how to read," Vachss says. "They already knew how to hit people." He illustrated this by explaining that more could be stolen with a briefcase than with a pistol. "I wasn't trying to create perfect people," he says. "'I was trying to create non-violent people. We had realistic goals."
Respect had to be earned and deserved at Andros. Dr. Bakal remembers one staff rule: "If you hurt anyone here, you'll be fired. And if you let anyone here hurt you, you'll also be fired." Vachss adds: "Instead of it being a place where might makes right, it was a place where you could distinguish yourself by a contribution. We treated people like human beings and demanded they reciprocate." By the end of the year there were was not a single instance of a stabbing, rape or suicide.
With no instructions on how to habilitate a prison, Vachss learned step one from day one. "All of these things you need," he says, "we just learned in combat. We had everything: kids who were retarded, kids who were geniuses, kids who were sadistic, kids who were terrified. It was an impossible mix, but that was where I really learned the lessons."
Not until working in Andros did Vachss see the life-changing impact a lawyer, good or bad, could have. He had been working with kids who had committed every atrocity imaginable and had been thrown away by the state, virtually as infants. "The reason that one kid ends up in a maximum security prison," says Vachss, "and another kid ends up on probation was how skillfully he was represented, not what he did."
Between the juvenile prisons, the courts and the homes the kids came from, Vachss saw the connection between today's victim and tomorrow's predator. Vachss wanted to break that progression. "To be blunt," he says, "I was going to court all the time, I was watching these lawyers and I was thinking, I could kick their asses right now."
When Vachss began law school in 1972, it was with the sole intent of representing children. He soon stopped telling his fellow law students his plans. "Too many of them just laughed at me," he says. "They just thought it was the stupidest thing they'd ever heard of in their lives. How could you make any money? How could you even pay your phone bill? There's no such job ... What do you want to do, work for Legal Aid? Because they figured I was some thug who didn't get it about law school, Darwinism would take care of me and I'd flunk out." Instead, Vachss finished first in his class and won the full scholarship that allowed him to continue on to the next year.
Despite his travels, Vachss has always considered New York his home. "It was where I knew people," he says, "and I knew that to make a living I would have to represent criminal defendants." From his previous vocations, Vachss was known to career criminals and he knew he could start working immediately.
While driving a cab at night, Vachss began his law practice in January of 1976 and set up his office in the back of a Chinese restaurant. "It was a fair trade. They would answer the pay phone—'Mr. Vachss' office. He not here now, you call back, okay?'—and when I'd have a client I'd say, I'm on my way to the courthouse. I don't have time to go back to my office. I'll meet you at such-and-such restaurant. I had a booth, free food and translators when I needed them." In return, Vachss provided "legal services to the consortium that operated the restaurant."
His name began popping up in the papers with, he says, "somewhat high-profile cases defending juvenile criminals." One of his clients was the first to test a recently passed law stating that a 13-year-old could be sentenced to life. "When the law goes into effect on midnight," Vachss says, "about two in the morning this kid, allegedly, blew somebody away."
Suing the New York Times Fresh Air Fund three separate times in the early 1980s forced people to begin identifying Vachss as someone who would defend kids in an atypical form. The Fresh Air Fund offered a home away from the city during the summer for poor city kids, but it was later learned that no in-depth background checks were made for FAF host applicants. "A woman came up to me," Vachss recalls, "and said she'd heard of me because I defended some guys who allegedly were people for hire. She really was looking to hire them." The woman saw no other remedy for what had been done to her daughter while she was with a Fresh Air Fund host family. Vachss talked the woman into an alternate method of revenge.
In 1981 the New York Post quoted FAF spokeswoman Jean Halajian: "If a family has been nice enough to offer to take a child, it's not in the spirit of what we do to investigate [backgrounds]." Vachss was quoted in the same article, saying "If Charles Manson was on parole, he would apparently have little trouble getting a child from the Fresh Air Fund." The lawsuit was successful and other victims started coming forward.
Vachss' first novel, Flood, appeared in 1985. His reading audience grew over the years and his books have been reprinted in a couple dozen languages. (The twelfth Burke novel, Dead and Gone, is due in November.) He took the opening and ran for daylight, seeing a way to preach his truth to a congregation he would have never had while working as a community organizer, in prisons or in the courtroom.
Vachss' work was always a question of building. "Each thing was a fantasy fulfilled," he says. "I never dreamed I'd be a lawyer, and when I had a law practice that could actually maintain itself and allow me to represent kids, I thought that was heaven." When the books brought in enough money to drop the criminal practice and represent children exclusively, Vachss found himself at a different level. "The attention that I got gave me the platform to reach other media," he says, "which opened the door to effect legislation. It was always one door opening into another."
His latest battle is the Child Abuse Reform and Enforcement (CARE) Act of 1999, a bill slated for presentation during this year's congressional sessions. The bill will eliminate what Vachss calls the "incest exemption" of current child molestation laws. He explains it this way: "If a person goes down the street and molests a neighbor's child, he goes to jail. If they rape their own child, they get probation and therapy. What's the difference?"
While 40 states have laws that penalize the top count of sexually abusing a child with 25-years-to-life, 45 states in the U.S. have laws that allow lighter sentences for incest than for child molestation. The CARE Act proposes that states that don't reform their child sexual abuse laws will lose federal funding.
So far, U.S. Representatives Robert Ney and Michael Oxley, Republicans from Ohio, are the primary sponsors of the bill. It's garnered support from Bob Barr and Robert Underwood and praise from radio's Dr. Laura Schlesinger. What the bill needs right now is more co-sponsors. "Who's going to get up and oppose this bill?" Vachss asks. The problem is not opposition from the enemy, but support from citizens. The trick is to keep the bill from being killed in committee.
At any one of his book signings Andrew Vachss is likely to hear the question, "What can I do to help?" He directs them to the CARE Act website (www.careact.org) and his own website (www.vachss.com). Vachss can't count how many times he's heard people swear they love children and will do anything to protect them. Now, he wants them to prove it.
For Vachss, nothing has changed. He's as focused as the day he met the devil in human form. And just as determined to take him down.
Zak Mucha's first novel, The Beggars' Shore, was published in 1999.
His work has also appeared in F Magazine and the Chicago Reader.