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"Reading: A Conversation with the Author"

by Judith Moore
Originally published in the San Diego Weekly Reader, October 24, 2002

Only Child, a Burke novel by Andrew VachssBefore we talked about his newest book, I was interested to hear what Mr. Vachss had to say about California vs. Westerfield. Asked about David Westerfield's pornography cache, Mr. Vachss said, "It was child torture pornography. Films, tapes, pictures of children being sexually tortured. I don't care how far you stretch Lolita, it doesn't get down to cattle prods. He would download from the Internet to CDs, so he had his own library. That's very different from 'Oh, I clicked on a Website ... I didn't know what was there.' There's a lot of ignorance about the case, including the fact that, because he didn't have a record, therefore this was his first offense. I don't think it was a brilliantly tried case, but fortunately, thanks to some splattering DNA, it didn't have to be."

I asked Mr. Vachss what would happen to Westerfield in prison. Was it true that because Westerfield was a child molester and murderer that other prisoners would try to kill him?

"People kill people in prison all the time." As to Westerfield's being killed because he was guilty of sexual crimes against and murder of a child, Mr. Vachss said, "is all crap. I've been saying that for book after book. The most despicable creature I think I've ever met was a guy in prison that I knew, when we were doing this giant class action against the parole board. He would literally become excited to the point where it was obvious, when he was describing what he called his 'wish-boning technique,' which is he'd grab little children and take one ankle in each hand, and split them like a chicken. He used to giggle about sliding in on the blood. When this guy walked down the corridor people said, 'Good morning, sir' to him."

I asked why this was so.

"He was just an incredibly confident, violent man who could kill you with either hand. He was a dangerous, deadly person. So he comes in there with the lowest-status crime you could possibly have and people defer to him. There was a bank robber in the same prison; bank robbery is supposed to be the highest-status crime; he was repeatedly raped. It was because he was physically weak and had no sort of power emanating from him."

As for Westerfield, Mr. Vachss said, "If he goes to death row, the chances of him even being among other prisoners is very small. The second thing is, he's got money. By prison standards, he's got money. I mean prison. I mean, you get somebody whacked for a carton of cigarettes in prison. I mean, the economy is entirely different. Somebody who can count on what you might consider a measly sum, like, say, $500 a month—well, he could buy anything he wants in there. Plus, because he's notorious and because people are going to want to do book deals and movie deals, he's going to be some sort of celebrity as well. He won't have the same high status that a Richard Ramirez had. If the girl had been ten years older he'd be high status. Because the rape, torture, murder of young women is the highest-status crime among that group. You know, if you look at the fan mail, it's the serial killers who get all the stuff. And they all have girlfriends. I don't just get letters from them. I've gotten letters from their girlfriends. All the same thing, you know. 'I'm the person to collaborate with on a book."

I had noticed on Mr. Vachss' website——a mention that the State of North Carolina had signed the "Close Incest Loophole" bill into law. "Humans who rape their own children in North Carolina," Mr. Vachss' website offers, "are no longer given any special bonuses for growing their victims—they're subject to the same punishment as the stranger who rapes a child." I asked Mr. Vachss about the incest exception.

"I'll illustrate it for you with New York law. In New York State, let's say a male has sex with the next-door neighbor's nine-year-old daughter. That is first-degree rape and it's punishable by 25 years in prison, regardless of whether any force is used. The age is what raises it to that level. However, if that nine-year-old is his own child, the DA, at his sole discretion, can charge the perpetrator with incest, which is punishable by a maximum of four years and is automatically probation-eligible. So what that means is we have a criminal justice system that gives you bonus points for growing your own victim."

According to Mr. Vachss' website, the incest exception is still in place in 37 states. Why that is, he said, is "atypical of historical artifact. The North Carolina law, for example, that was just overturned was written in 1879. It has no concept of children being sexual abuse victims. The incest laws were written to prevent first cousins from having babies. They wanted to stop first cousins from mating. Essentially it's a Biblical admonition—if you're too close in blood, you can't marry. They got that information from looking at horses and cows and sheep and seeing how that turned out. We're in a culture where—oh, God, it's certainly been the last, maybe 30 years that there's been any acknowledgment that children are sexually abused. It certainly wasn't contemplated 125 years ago."

"But," I said, "certainly children were being sexually abused 125 years ago."

"Of course, but there was no press coverage. You know, journalism is the first to cause social change. And if you get journalism out of the mix, nothing happens. When I've given speeches, one of the most scary things I tell people is if I were an alien, and I came to this country to study it and report back, and it was, say, 1956, and I read every newspaper in America for one year, I listened to every radio program, watched every TV show, when I reported back, what I would say is, 'I've monitored everything. There is no child abuse in America.' And that would be true. So, you know, legislation is reactive; it's not proactive."

Mr. Vachss sometimes speaks of his books as being "Trojan horses." As he explained to an Arkansas interviewer, "My novels are Trojan horses, an extension of my law practice, my way of reaching a bigger jury than I could ever find in a courtroom." Mr. Vachss' last novel, Pain Management, dealt with the problems that many people have in obtaining proper and sufficient medication for chronic, severe, intractable pain. I asked what the response was to this book.

"I got a ton of mail, but almost all of it was people saying, 'I can't believe you've written about what I'm living.' It wasn't mail saying, 'I'm going to change my mind as a result....' So it takes longer than that. When I wrote about modem trafficking in kiddie porn in 1987 [in Strega], all I got from book reviewers is what a sick mind I have.

"Well, okay, [in the case of Pain Management], there's been some change. But change requires some public recognition. I did an interview with a station in Chicago and they said, 'We've read the book and we're angry so why aren't people angry?' And I said, 'Well, the constituency dies.' Literally.

"The book [Pain Management] actually got reviewed on the biggest pain website— It spoke right to them. And certainly my views about medical marijuana are no secret. But until this country shifts on its axis, you can have states like California pass enlightened laws, and then the feds overturn them. It's psychotic. As far as I'm concerned, you prove to me somebody has a medical condition producing intractable pain, I would give them a pass to the heroin pharmacy. I don't understand what the issue is. I really don't."

Only Child is Andrew Vachss' fourteenth novel narrated by Burke. This dark story has some bright spots. One of the brightest is lit by ten-year-old Hugh, who lives alone with his mother in a modest and worn Long Island tract house. Hugh has a "short, blunt-bodied, mostly black" dog he's named Brains of the Outfit. When Burke first meets Hugh and the dog, the two are sitting in their back yard beneath "one wiry little tree" that grows out from "a few patches of burnt grass." I said to Mr. Vachss on the afternoon that we talked how much I liked Hugh, his dog, and that tree.

"That's a true story. I admired Hugh. He was tough. And he was going to make it. You've never seen houses like those in Levittown, have you?" (I hadn't, but I learned, later, that Arthur Levitt, after World War II, built the first Levittown on Long Island. By 1951, some 50,000 people were living in 15,000 identical 800-square foot $8,000 Levittown homes.)

Mr. Vachss explained, "These were the houses that Levitt built after the war. If you got a tree to actually grow in that yard, it was an act of God. No amount of horticulture would do it, because the soil was typical of what you'd find in the Sahara. And the sun was either relentless or non-existent. But places like Levittown were a brilliant concept. A man like my father could get his children out of the city for 49 bucks a month—on the GI Bill, of course. I think that was an all-veteran community. Occasionally you would see somebody that wasn't a veteran, but it was very rare."

Hugh is a fan of old gangster movies. Hugh's dead father is one of Hugh's heroes. The ten-year-old, however, is convinced his dad's not dead, that he is one of the Edgar G. Robinson-type old-fashioned noble thugs. Hugh's sure that any day, his father will return. I said to Mr. Vachss that Hugh was such a great kid.

Mr. Vachss agreed. "And the kid was entitled to his delusion that his dad was going to come for him."

Hugh's mother has a boyfriend. Hugh doesn't like the boyfriend. Mr. Vachss said, "The whole point of that [Hugh] sequence was the diagnosis of what a man has to do, if he wants to be with a woman, because that woman had a man who loved her, but he was never going to be successful with her because he hadn't figured it out. He was a good guy in every way, but he hadn't figured out that unless he could connect with that boy it wasn't going to happen. And there is a way. If you look for it."

Burke, I said, is typically portrayed by reviewers as cold. Yet, he, unlike Hugh's mother's boyfriend, makes a strong connection with young Hugh and his dog. This connection seems to give Burke pleasure.

"Right. And Hugh's not an abused kid. What I do is I just cobble the pieces from life. That scene where you drive up in the driveway and the damn dog charges right up the hood. That happened to me."

I mentioned the recent arrests of four men—three of them Las Vegas residents and one a longtime La Mesa resident. The four were charged by the San Diego DA's office with soliciting a violent act. The men are accused of making a tape titled Bum Fights: A Cause for Concern that allegedly was sold through an Internet site. Among scenes shown on this tape are those that show homeless men fighting one another. I asked Mr. Vachss when he first became aware of this kind of "reality" filmmaking.

"Quite a number of years ago. There's always been a market for so-called 'rape tapes.' That's why I had that scene with this guy saying, 'There's a market for this, there's a market for that.' But for a long time certain kinds of porn have been marketed as 'the real thing.' And this porn sells for much more." Mr. Vachss added, then, "I met a person—I don't know if you want to say he's crazy or just psychopathic—but he told me this whole story about these crime-scene tapes that you get in the 7-Eleven. From the security cameras. [He talked about] how if you could only 'direct that scene.'"

I mentioned a story about dog fighting that recently had appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I asked Mr. Vachss if he had seen that story.

He had. "And it's amazing how many people sent me letters saying, 'Are you ever going to write about this?' I say, 'Well, you know, I did. I wrote a story called "Dead Game" many years ago that lays it all out. Every single piece of it.' It isn't life imitating art. The timing alone will tell you that.

"When I first sent the manuscript in—nobody ever argues with me anymore—but they said, 'Are you saying people actually would tape one of these things [a dog fight]?' So now the article comes out in the sacred New York Times, now they know it's true. And any of those S&M tapes, any variance on them, if you can convince the buyer that it's the real thing, the camera poked through a wall, they're worth a ton. Whereas if it's acting, it's, you know, $5.95."

"What is the Trojan horse in your newest novel?"

"If I did it right there's really more than one because I'm telling you that there are cases in which crimes have been orchestrated so they can be filmed. And I'm also telling you the public has no clue that that's actually happening. But the real one to me is the extent to which everyone is saying, 'Oh, children are so vulnerable to the Internet.' But where they're really vulnerable is movies. I could, with no more of a costume than a T-shirt, go into any big city, and I could have thirteen-year-olds taking off their clothes in an hour. As long as I had a camera and said I was making a movie. And I'm not talking about wannabe Rita Hayworths. I'm talking about, you tell teenagers, 'This is going to be a slasher movie, okay, and your role is you're going to get to be raped and then stabbed to death.' And some of these teenagers might answer you, 'Cool.'

"The second Trojan horse in the book is this whole 'up-skirt' crap [surreptitiously made films that "look" up women's skirts]. You'll notice that there are specific statements about 'the law.' So it's not against 'the law' to do that as long as you don't have a soundtrack. So that's also what I'm planting in there."

Many Internet sites offer to sell films that peer up past a woman's skirt hem. I asked Mr. Vachss why anyone would want to watch something like the "up-skirt" films.

"Why do people want to do that? You're asking me why people watch these insane shows on television where a bunch of worthless human beings sit around the house for six months."

I said that in the matter of violent porno I was always amazed that people would pay to watch people beat each other half to death.

"Not only watch but participate." Mr. Vachss mentioned two characters in his new book, the lesbian "power exchangers." "I know those girls, and they have such a business. And basically if you're a subscriber, you can pay them to do this or do that. It's a booming damn business. I mean, they're doing really well. The only people who have made a success out of selling content on the Web are people like that. We are the culture where people will pay more to be on a sex phone line than it would cost them to call up an escort service and have them send over the real thing."

Why did Mr. Vachss think this was so?

"Do I have an insight into that? There are people that just are not comfortable within the realities that can force conduct from them. If they can observe it and in some cases control it, that's when they're most comfortable."

"Only Child," I said, "quickly gets to be a pretty scary book."

"It's supposed to be a scary book," said Mr. Vachss. "And I hope it does scare some people."

© 2002 Judith Moore. All rights reserved.

Judith Moore is the author of Never Eat Your Heart Out
(Farrar Straus & Giroux).


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