Mr. Vachss, far right, at a 1990 panel discussion on writing about crime with, from left, Bob Leuci, P. D. James, Jerome Charyn and Joyce Carol Oates. Credit G. Paul Burnett / The New York Times

Andrew Vachss, Children’s Champion in Court and Novels, Dies at 79

New York Times [New York NY]

January 16, 2022

By Neil Genzlinger

[Photo above: Mr. Vachss, far right, at a 1990 panel discussion on writing about crime with, from left, Bob Leuci, P. D. James, Jerome Charyn and Joyce Carol Oates. Credit G. Paul Burnett / The New York Times]

Andrew Vachss, who crusaded against the abuse of children both in his real-life work as a lawyer and in vivid crime novels, died on Nov. 23 at his home in the Pacific Northwest. He was 79.

His wife, Alice Susan Vachss, said the cause was coronary artery disease. His death had not been widely reported previously.

Mr. Vachss was known to crime fiction fans for his novels, which were frequently described with terms like “hard-boiled” and which just as frequently centered on child pornography, pedophilia, incest and other abuse involving children. Eighteen of them featured a tough character named Burke, an ex-con turned unlicensed private investigator who breaks more than a few rules as he goes after those who prey on children.

The novels, whether set in New York or elsewhere, delved into society’s dark side, where repellent characters prowled the night doing repellent things.

“If I had a wish,” Mr. Vachss told the CBS program “The Early Show” in 2000, “it would be that what I write about was fiction.”

But, he maintained, the crimes against children and the other ugly things he described were based on the real world, and he was in a position to know: In his day job, he was a lawyer who specialized in abuse and neglect cases, custody disputes and other matters involving children. He often commented on or wrote about public policy matters that related to such cases, and a suggestion he made as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s television program in the early 1990s set in motion the legislative initiative that led to the National Child Protection Act of 1993.

That measure, often called the “Oprah Bill” because of Ms. Winfrey’s advocacy of it, established a national registry of convicted child abusers that could be checked by employers hiring people for jobs that deal with children. At the bill-signing ceremony in late 1993, Mr. Vachss (pronounced vax) sat next to Ms. Winfrey as President Bill Clinton singled each of them out.

Mr. Vachss, who wore an eye patch as a result of a childhood injury — a teenager struck him with a chain, he said in some accounts; others describe the injury as being from an accident — cut a striking figure, and his no-nonsense way of speaking and writing was just as distinctive.

“As usual, the public gets the facts about a recently released sexual predator about the same time the autopsy is performed on his victim,” he wrote in 1994 in The Daily News, in an opinion article assessing a New Jersey case in which a 7-year-old named Megan Kanka was murdered by a neighbor with a history of sex crimes against young girls. “Yes, child molesters were in the neighborhood — not just passing through as they stalked their prey, but living there, openly. Another predator released on an unsuspecting society. Another dead child.”

He often described his novels as “Trojan horses,” a way of raising awareness about the prevalence of child sex abuse and getting his ideas about the subject into popular culture.

Those ideas could be polarizing. He did not, for instance, have much faith in the idea of rehabilitating sexual predators, as he wrote in a 1993 essay in The New York Times pegged to the execution that year of Westley Allan Dodd, who had sexually assaulted and murdered three boys.

“Some predatory sociopaths can be deterred,” Mr. Vachss wrote. “None can be rehabilitated, since they cannot return to a state that never existed. The concept of coercive therapy is a contradiction; successful psychiatric treatment requires participants, not mere recipients. What makes sexual predators so intractable and dangerous is that, as Mr. Dodd candidly acknowledged, they like what they do and intend to keep doing it.”

Among Mr. Vachss’s admirers was a fellow writer, Joe R. Lansdale, whose books include the “Hap and Leonard” series.

“He was not only a great crime novelist,” Mr. Lansdale said by email, “he was someone who changed the world, literally. Child abuse is no longer in the dark, due to Andrew shining a bright spotlight on it, and on the impact it had on into adulthood.”

David Hechler, whose writings about crimes against children include the 1989 book “The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War,” has followed Mr. Vachss’s work for almost 40 years.

“We often hear about people who are said to be ‘laser focused,’” he said by email. “It’s become a cliché. But even if it weren’t, it’s too tepid to describe Andrew Vachss. He wasn’t a professor pointing a beam at a whiteboard. His light was more like a flamethrower’s. He had a white-hot intensity and a persistence that never quit.”

Andrew Henry Vachss was born on Oct. 19, 1942, to Bernard and Geraldine Vachss. His wife said she believed he was born in New York City, though he was guarded about his childhood and other details of his personal life. (Ms. Vachss, a former prosecutor who often handled sex crimes and crimes against children, remains guarded today; she declined to specify where in the Northwest the couple lived, citing safety concerns.) He grew up in a tough part of Lower Manhattan.

His signature fictional character, Burke, shared some similarities with Mr. Vachss himself, as he often acknowledged, but his upbringing was not one of them. Burke was abused as a child, but that aspect of the character was not autobiographical, Mr. Vachss told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996.

“As a child, the only place I knew I was safe was inside my own home,” he was quoted as saying. “And a lot of children can’t say that.”

His fury about child sex abuse came from a job he landed after graduating from Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1965. He worked for the United States Public Health Service as a field investigator on a task force on syphilis. Some of the cases he encountered in tracing the course of that disease shocked him, he said, especially one involving a man who had raped his 5-year-old daughter.

“I just wanted to grab this man and twist his neck until I heard it snap,” he told The Post-Dispatch. “I thought that I was looking at the Devil. Then I began finding out that there were many others just like him.”

After working other jobs, including a stint in war-torn Biafra and a year supervising a juvenile prison in Massachusetts, Mr. Vachss went to the New England School of Law, graduating in 1975. The next year he set up his own practice in New York.

At first he took a variety of cases, but eventually, especially after his books began to generate revenue (the first Burke novel, “Flood,” appeared in 1985), he focused exclusively on cases involving children, which tend not to be particularly lucrative.

Mr. Hechler said these weren’t the types of cases where the child’s parents had hired him; rather, Mr. Vachss was often a court-appointed guardian of a child’s interests. Sometimes it was the parents he was protecting a child from, as in a case in the mid-1980s, when he represented a young boy who was being abused by his parents. After a four-year legal odyssey, he arranged to have the child adopted.

He brought three cases in the 1980s against the Fresh Air Fund, which arranges for experiences in the country for urban children, on behalf of children who were abused while in its programs.

Mr. Hechler, who wrote about those cases, said the Fund ultimately acknowledged that it needed better screening procedures. Stephen Heard, a director of the charity, praised Mr. Vachss in a 1987 interview with Newsday. “He can be a hysterical guy on this subject and there was some real animosity when we started,” he said.

“But he was more right than we were,” Mr. Heard added. “He helped us.”

Mr. Vachss’s literary alter ego, Burke, is a classic antihero, and that was necessary given his goal with those books, Mr. Vachss said.

“I wanted to show people what hell looked like,” he told “The Early Show,” “and I didn’t think an angel would be the right guide.”

Mr. Vachss also wrote stand-alone novels, comic books, even poetry. In the real world, his wife said, his recent passion had been the Legislative Drafting Institute for Child Protection, which, its website says, works “for clearer, better researched, and more easily implementable laws in the area of child protection.”

He had been married twice before his marriage to Ms. Vachss in 1978. She listed no other survivors.

Mr. Vachss was more interested in battling child sexual abuse than he was in having a full wallet.

“If you want to fight child abuse,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1990, “don’t buy one of my books. I get maybe a buck and a half in royalties. Give the $18 to some agency.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic. @genznyt