Mary Jayne Davis
March 02, 2000
This is about as personable as lawyer Andrew Vachss wants to get with anyone. Everything he does pertains to his holy warmaking life a safe place for children. He has spent his entire life watching and listening, receiving his facts directly from whence they camethe abusers and the abused. The result, "I have paid the price for what I know," (Vachss) the obsession that dictates his behavior.
Vachss grew up in New York learning about turfs, violence and cruelty. He was not abused as a child, but saw the effects in his friends. By high school the rage had begun. After graduating from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he got a job with the U.S. Public Health Service. His position was to track the spread of syphilis for the purpose of eradication. It was here he came face to face with evilan infant, broken and raped.
"Social workers say no, evil people don’t exist. They come up with reasons to explain their behavior." (Shulins). But Vachss believes that they are evil, and they made a choice.
Through his other career choices he continued learning the social dysfunctions of society. In 1972 he became the director of ANDROSS II, a poorly run maximum security institution for violent youth. Here he used his tough as nails nature, and his knowledge of the streets to stabilize the facility. His interaction with the incarcerated youth taught him the reasons why they were there. But changing these kids was nearly impossible. He decided an earlier intervention would be necessary to prevent more crops of kids from becoming "bad". An uninhibited way to do so is through powerful legal action. In June of 1975 he graduated from the New England School of Law in Boston, magna cum laude.
Vachss began practicing law like a prizefighter in the ring, tearing down his opponents. He exclusively represents children.
"I might spend weeks straight on trial, and when I wasn’t in court, I’d be reviewing what had already happened and preparing for what was about to happen in that particular battle." (Vachss).
Most of his time was occupied with his active caseload. Solely representing children is an honorable cause, but unfortunately one that is not economical. This brought about the extension of Vachss’s courtroom worknovels. Through his writing he has not only educated us with the dark side of this world’s harsh reality, but he has financed his law practice. Every day he wakes up with the mission in mind, and a drive iced full of rage. A drive that has enabled him to sit next to "the worst humans on this earth," (Vachss) and stay calm so that they would keep on talking.
Effectively he has attacked and vanquished foe after foe. But he didn’t stop there. He, with the aid of Oprah Winfrey, helped pass the Oprah bill. This demands a database with the names of those who have committed crimes against children, and prohibits them from planting themselves in an occupation working with kids. Currently he is working on another piece of legislation called the C.A.R.E. Act. This will eliminate incest exception laws. He has also taken his battle internationally with his Don’t! Buy! Thai! campaign. This is aimed at the destruction of the child sex tourism industry in Thailand.
Over the years Vachss has not tired in his work. He has developed many friendships, strong opinions, and unfortunately many enemies. This has resulted in elaborate security and an almost paranoid lifestyle.
He feels that those who ignore the cause are collaborators. He sees perpetrators as "rogue elephants" (Vachss) and believes they should be permanently separated from society. In order to change, Vachss says we need to focus. We need to identify and define what is really going on. Only then can we stop or reverse the violence. It is obvious how society currently views the problem.
"We pay people who pick up garbage far higher salaries than we pay people to protect children." (Child Welfare League of America).
But things have progressed over the years. Vachss feels that there have been substantial improvements for children in this country. And he isn’t going to disappear any time soon. There is still a war that needs to be won, and you can bet Andrew Vachss is on the front line of the battlefield.
Throughout the trial attorney Andrew Vachss was determined to find the truth. He wanted to set his client free from the guilt she felt. He wanted to prove to her that none of this was her fault. His client was an eight-year-old girl. Her stepfather had sexually abused her when she was four years old. For the last six months, Andrew had done everything in his power to punish her stepfather. Today was set for closing arguments. The courtroom was overflowing with reporters, each waiting to get their quote for the five o’clock news. Every day the jurors walked into the courtroom, disgust carved into their faces. The jury had been sequestered for the past two weeks. Clearly they hoped today they could deliver their verdict, and go home. Andrew walked to the front of the jury box. He asked for their complete attention while he replayed the facts in the case for them. He verbally detailed each and every sorted event until there was not a dry eye in the courtroom. To emphasize his point, Andrew slammed his fist into the wall. He wanted to show them how much force it took for the defendant to break this little girls pelvis.
Andrew broke his wrist in the demonstration. Yonkers Family court reporter Bruce Winkleman wrote, "I saw him a few days later with his hand all bandaged up. But at the time, he never flinched." (Shulins).
While Andrew was tracking the spread of Syphilis for the U.S. Public Health Service, he discovered the "beast" (child abuse). As reported in the Willamette Week by Zach Dundas, "In the course of one investigation, Vachss ran across a man with a lacerated penis. He’d injured himself while molesting his own infant child. You could say that this discovery was an epiphany for Vachss, but that word doesn’t seem quite strong enough." (Dundas)
In 1976 after this discovery, Andrew decided to attend law school. He had little money at the time, only enough for one year of law school. He finished at the top of his class his first year, and continued on scholarships.
After graduating, from law school, Andrew opened up his practice at a Chinese restaurant. At first he handled some criminal cases to pay the rent. But, later as his writing career took off he began to devote most of his time to protecting children.
When asked how he came into contact with the people he chooses to represent, he replied:
"I get my clients in one of three basic ways; A) Direct appointment by a court to represent a child… be it an abuse/neglect case, a child accused of a crime, a custody-visitation dispute. B) Retained by the parents of guardians of a child when the child has been abused or injured by an individual, institution, or agency "outside" the family. C) Contacted by the child (always teenagers, and generally because of a book they read or a TV show they saw." (Vachss)
He will not however, allow a parent to hire him in a case against the other parent.
Andrew Vachss is not only a lawyer, but also a legislative activist. He has worked on several key bills for the protection of our children; The National Child Protection Act, The C.A.R.E. Act, and a boycott called Don’t! Buy! Thai!
The National Child Protection Act, also known as the Oprah bill, was developed to establish a national database for child abusers. Although many felt this would be an invasion of privacy, the bill states; "that reports may only be released on applicants who provide written permission for a background check to be made, and allows for background checks to be appealed." This bill also gives parents some assurance that their children are not cared for by criminals.
The C.A.R.E. Act (short for child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act) is a bill before congress that will equalize sentencing requirements for interfamilial (abused by a family member) and extrafamilial (abused by a non-relative) child sexual abuse. In most states if a relative is guilty of abusing a child, their punishment is limited. However if a non-relative is found guilty of abusing a child, they face much tougher laws, with harsher penalties. The introduction to the bill written by Andrew Vachss states, "New York is a prime example of a state with a so-called "incest exception," one which, literally, rewards perpetrators for growing their own victims." (Vachss)
The Don’t! Buy! Thai! Campaign was originally started specifically to put an end to child exploitation in Thailand. It asks Americans to boycott anything made, or manufactured in Thailand. The warfare Andrew has launched against Thailand has been so successful that Indonesian leaders personally called him to ask him to reconsider his protest.
ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, child Pornography, and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Exploitation) has put together some statistics regarding children involved in the sex industry. 500,000 children in Brazil, 400,000 children in India, and 200,000-850,000 children in Thailand. They estimate that between 1993-1995 the world-sex industry generated an estimated 20-23 billion in income.
"In days gone by, and possibly even today in many instances, the view has prevailed that children should be seen and not heard. The time has come for our children to be seen, and to be very clearly heard. The cries of our abused and exploited children must no longer fall on deaf ears or closed minds." (Mandela)
One day, Vachss says, he may "retire" form his law practice to track child abusers on the Internet. But not yet.
The war isn’t over; not by a long shot. The Beast is still out there. Children still die.
To a warrior, the future looks much like the past.
"You punch the wall. You punch the wall. You punch the wall."
And if you break your wrist in the process, what then?
"Then you kick it." (Shulins)
Arguably, the most public facet of Andrew Vachss’ life is his literary work. His writing ranges from best-selling crime fiction to graphic novels. Vachss started writing in the early 1980’s, originally to "…supplement his meager income as a lawyer" (Abrahams). His initial attempt was less than spectacular, but with perseverance and luck, his writing career has become quite successful. Vachss himself downplays his role in the literary world; "I don’t fancy myself a writer," (Abrahams). Rather, he incorporates real circumstances that he has come across in his work into a fictional landscape, working issues that are important into his storylines. The characters and plots of Vachss’ fiction carry with them the same values that Vachss himself carries, and much the same disposition. In Andrew Vachss’ eyes, the main benefit of his success as an author is the chance to spread the word about his mission. In her article "A Man Who Will Die Trying", Vachss told Paula Guran, "I wanted to reach a bigger jury than I could ever find in a courthouse…(fiction) is the only Trojan Horse available to someone of my resources." (Guran). His audience has expanded, and therefore the word of Vachss’ work has reached corners of society that previously went unaware. That is where he finds his rewards.
The first attempt that Andrew Vachss made at writing fiction did not go well. The manuscript was never published, and the rejection notes, including "This book made me throw up." and "If he ever writes a book human beings can read, send it to me" were less than encouraging (Dudar). He kept writing, however, and with a few right moves by the right people, his first book, Flood, was published in 1985. Since then Vachss has published a multitude of novels, a couple of short story collections, and several series of graphic novels. The reviews are no longer bad, rather Vachss’ work is thought by some to have taken crime fiction to a new level. David Morrell in the Washington Post wrote of Vachss’ second novel in the Burke series, "The words leap off the page, the principal character is original, and the style is as clean as a Haiku," (Abrahams). Other praise speaks of Vachss’ style: "His prose is mink soft and Doberman violent" (Holyoak). Still, the man himself is adamant about this side of himself: "I am not a writer." (Holyoak).
The themes in Vachss’ stories mirror those in his own life, as do the people that populate them. "The truth that is the essence of his dark fiction and his mission comes from front-line service" (Guran). Most of Vachss’ novels center around the character of Burke, an anti-hero who is more comfortable operating outside the law than within its boundaries. Guran states "They have more than a little in common, the criminal and his creator". She states also, "Vachss and Burke deal with horrors that some… have initially called unimaginable." Vachss admits that in his life he has seen many of the atrocities that his characters have likewise faced. When asked how he can so authentically describe the machinations of the darker side of our society, he replied:
"I come by my knowledge through direct experience. When you consider I have been an investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a field caseworker for the infamous NYC Department of "Welfare", on the ground during that genocidal insanity of a war in Biafra…. A labor organizer, ran an advocacy service agency for urban migrants in Chicago’s notorious "Uptown" district, a re-entry center for ex-convicts, and a maximum security prison for violent youth… all before I entered law school, after which I have been representing victimized and violent children for decades…and you throw in my childhood experiences, it’s not difficult to understand why I know what I know." (Vachss)
Vachss takes these life experiences and puts them into the way of characters like Burke, who aren’t required to stay on the side of the law, as Andrew is. It is true that "Vachss has taken his own anger and turned the flame up higher to create Burke" (Abrahams). Vachss says of Burke, "He’s not a hit man. He doesn’t strap on a piece and go out in the street and say, ‘well, let me go kill a few child molesters today for justice.’ But, he shares the same religion I do, which is revenge." (Guran).
By confronting his characters with situations that Vachss has himself encountered, situations that seem too evil to be true, the author uses his tales of crime and justice to expose readers to a world they would rather not believe exists. Nancy Shulins of Associated Press wrote, "Vachss’ fiction is also thinly disguised propaganda, another chance to say in 20 languages what he has been saying in plain English for much of his life." (Shulins). Helen Dudar, in the Wall Street Journal, writes that Vachss "was in search of a general audience for the subject of his life’s work and his obsession: helpless child victims of sexual abuse." (Dudar). Vachss agrees, "How else do you reach people in China?" (Shulins). His success as an author, then, isn’t a source of pride, but instead a means to further his purpose. "Every single piece counts toward the end result. Comics, short stories, speeches, haiku,…all of that and more." (Guran). While the word hasn’t reached everyone, it has come a long way, "The books have reached a wider audience than I could have fantasized," (Guran). The success of his books has enabled Vachss to limit his legal practice to exclusive representation of children, and he passes up no opportunity to further his cause.
Even though Vachss does not view himself as a writer, he has achieved much success in the industry. His body of work has established him as a credible author of crime fiction. His books contain events that stem from real life, and the ideals represented by his characters are essentially his own. Most importantly, Vachss’ writing has enabled him to reach an audience that had never before heard of Andrew Vachss and what he stands for. This exposure is paramount in helping him spread the word of his mission: stopping the cycle of abuse that threatens every generation of children. That all of his stories include messages about child abuse is not surprising, for as he says himself, "I’ve only got but one story to tell". (Abrahams).
Containing 20 of the illustrated
from the series
written by Andrew Vachss.
240 pgs - $17.95 U.S.
A n d r e w
V A C H S S
a childrens book
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