Vachss protects abused children with fact, fiction

April 28, 1994|By Kelly A. J. Powers | Kelly A. J. Powers,Special to The Sun

With his black eye patch, leather jacket and a voice deeper than midnight, Andrew Vachss is no average lawyer. He rarely smiles, and when he speaks you feel a sense of barely contained rage.

But considering his specialty, there is little for him to smile about.

Mr. Vachss is among the country's best-known advocates working to protect children from abuse. He will be in Baltimore today as the keynote speaker for the Governor's Conference on Child Abuse & Neglect at the Convention Center. (Due to heavy demand, tickets are no longer available.)

A 51-year-old New Yorker, Mr. Vachss has worked more than 20 years with abused children. His private practice represents abused children in civil and criminal cases. He has written articles in Parade magazine, counseled on Oprah Winfrey's television show and appeared on "Nightline."

Equally motivational, perhaps, are Mr. Vachss' eight novels. Each is an exercise in unrelenting horror; not quite mysteries and not quite thrillers, they defy easy categorization. What can be said is that they are popular -- selling more than half a million copies to date and being published in several languages.

The series' protagonist is Burke, an angry private detective whose mission is to hunt child molesters and deliver them to their violent punishment. Like Mr. Vachss, Burke works on the streets and has the same taste in music (blues) and women (strong). The content is intensely graphic.

Mr. Vachss does not apologize for the books' violence, the details of abuse or the misery depicted. He wants readers to feel the horror.

"There's nothing about these scenes that are not true," he says in a telephone interview. "I'll tell you what's disgusting: the people who glamorize rape, eroticize it as a high-speed seduction."

Nor does he think that Burke is his alter ego. "Burke is typical of an abused child: He's bitter, hurt and acts on his anger. But the idea that I'm a frustrated academic who wants to shoot people is silly."

Although soft-spoken, Mr. Vachss does not take ignorance or blindness to child abuse lightly. Almost prideful of his anger, he considers it an essential tool in his work.

"It was a choice -- to take my anger and burn up like a stick of dynamite, or integrate my anger," he says. "So every time I get depressed, the anger comes to the rescue. Every time I get afraid, the anger is there to help."

For all the media attention now being given to child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, one might think Mr. Vachss could take it easy, that there'd be more support for his work.

Not so: "There's still an enormous amount of support for sex offenders in courts."

For every advance in the laws protecting children, he says, there remains the pervasive mythology that children make things up and can't be believed.

"Take satanic rituals, for example," Mr. Vachss says. "These are used by predatory pedophiles. They do it for two reasons. One, when they cut the puppy's throat, it terrorizes the child. Two, if XTC that child does disclose, he or they do sound crazy. No one will believe them.

"But listen, you'll never hear me talk about ritual abuse in a trial. I don't want the burden to prove the adjective. Rape, sodomy are the facts. I want to prove acts in a court of law. People who feel they have to prove satanic rituals are unfair to the child."

In fact, the attention generated by high-profile sex abuse cases focuses attention away from where most of the child sexual abuse occurs -- in the family, says Mr. Vachss.

Mr. Vachss is also working on a program to train professionals -- doctors, lawyers, social workers, police officers -- how to treat abused children more effectively. The Civitas Initiative is a year-old foundation that funds fellowships at the Loyola School of Law in Chicago and the Baylor School of Medicine in Houston.

"Andrew did not have a course like this when he was in law school," says Jeffrey Jacobs, president of Ms. Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment Group, which works with Mr. Vachss on the Civitas Initiative. "I want to turn out hundreds of Andrews to represent abused and neglected children."

Mr. Jacobs describes Mr. Vachss as "focused, brilliant and dedicated."

"Focused" is an understatement for a man who has dedicated so much personal time and attention to exploring such a devastating phenomenon. And his efforts are not intended as cathartic; his parents never raised a hand to their son. (When Mr. Vachss was 7 years old, a teen-ager hit him in the face with a chain; hence the eye patch.)

Mr. Vachss is particularly admiring of his father, who was, in fact, beaten as a child. Mr. Vachss says he considers his father a hero for breaking the infamous chain of violence.

"I once heard a woman on Oprah's show ask me: 'If you were not abused as a child, how could you do this work?' " he says. "My reply is, 'How could you not?' "

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