Alice Vachss: Public (and published) vengeance

July 19, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — Washington

You'd expect someone who was called one of America's toughest prosecutors to write one of 1993's toughest books. And Alice Vachss has done just that.

There's the title itself -- "Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators." Inside are such hard-edged passages as "We need to go to war. The enemy has already opened hostilities" and "What 'double jeopardy' has come to mean in American criminal justice is this: The victim only gets one chance."

It's a zeal -- a vengeance, really -- that comes from a decade of going up against sex criminals in Queens County, N.Y. There she was known as an uncompromising crusader for harsher penalties for rapists, (and was given the "toughest prosecutor" label by Parade magazine in 1989), though some experts have disagreed with her conclusions about sex criminals. She no longer works as a prosecutor -- she was fired in 1991 after repeated clashes with supervisors -- but Ms. Vachss continues to wage her single-minded battle.

On this day in Washington, she's already done an interview with the BBC and appeared on a radio talk show. "This is all so new to me," Ms. Vachss, 44, confesses in a voice that is surprisingly gentle and soft-spoken. "My husband [crime novelist Andrew Vachss] is used to this, doing book publicity, but I'm a little nervous, I can tell you that."

But not afraid -- there was never any question that Alice Vachss was afraid. When she was a VISTA volunteer in the early 1970s, coming from a middle-class upbringing in a Boston suburb, she worked with prisoners in Riker's Island and lived in the tough South Bronx section of New York. And when she turned to prosecuting in the early 1980s, she approached her career with a righteousness that quickly set her apart from her colleagues.

Take her attitude toward who she scornfully calls "collaborators" -- members of the judicial community who she feels abet a lax attitude toward sex crimes. "Collaboration is a hate crime," Ms. Vachss writes. "When a jury in Florida acquits because the victim was not wearing underpants, when a grand jury in Texas refuses to indict because an AIDS-fearing victim begged the rapist to use a condom, when a judge in Manhattan imposes a lenient sentence because the rape of a retarded, previously victimized teen-ager was not 'violent' . . . all that is collaboration, and it is antipathy toward victims so virulent that it subjects us all to risk.

"I call these people collaborators, because what they do is like collaborating with an occupying army," Ms. Vachss says with a shrug. "It's absolutely the same thing. Some people fought Hitler with every ounce of strength they had. And some people collaborated with the Nazis."

She is similarly pitiless toward sex criminals, writing, "A rapist is a single-minded, totally self-absorbed sociopathic beast . . . a beast that cannot be tamed with 'understanding.' "

As she takes a sip of iced tea, Ms. Vachss elaborates. "Society and the social scientists have never come up with a way to cure them [rapists]," she says earnestly. "The only alternative is to lock them away for as long as you can. . . .

Ms. Vachss frequently refers to rapists as "beasts" or "monsters," which had upset a few callers on the talk show earlier in the day. And although he stresses that he hasn't read Ms. Vachss' book, Dr. Fred S. Berlin, director of the Baltimore-based National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, says that treating sex criminals is more than just keeping them behind bars.

"It's more complicated than that," Dr. Berlin says. "There are many motivations for rape, and in some cases it's a question of whether the rapists are predisposed because of some preexisting psychiatric condition that could be treated.

"It's a fact that most of these people are going to be out in the community after a while, anyway. Warehousing these people in the criminal justice system isn't going to cure them. We have to ask if there's something more that can be done than just putting them away. It doesn't have to be an either-or situation; you can have treatment complementary with incarceration."

Ms. Vachss acknowledges that in her days as a prosecutor she kept a narrow focus. Asked whether sexual crimes are reflective of anger toward women, she shakes her head. "I've been hearing a lot about the basis for the violence against women, and how anger toward women might be a part of it," she says after a pause. "But I'm sort of more of a pragmatist. I do know there's a lot of misogyny in this society, and there might be a link. But I'm not a feminist rhetorician. 'This is the problem -- now let's solve it' is more my attitude."

First, though, there's the question of finding a job.

"I'd like to continue working in this area -- perhaps teaching, I don't know -- but I'm frankly perceived as a troublemaker, so I don't know who is going to hire me."

Not that the troublemaker label bothers her, though. She adds quickly, "No, I'm proud of it."

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