Tuesday, December 28, 2021

RIP Andrew Vachss, A Warrior Protecting Children

This morning I received extremely sad news: Andrew Vachss, a lawyer and novelist who dedicated his life to protecting children, is gone.

About ten years ago, International Thriller Writers asked a collection of novelists to contribute to a forthcoming book: Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. My entry was about Vachss, who I didn’t know at the time other than by his reputation and through his novels, which I’d been devouring since first discovering them through the work of another writer, violence expert Marc MacYoung, in 1989. Sometime after Thrillers was published, Vachss got in touch and we became friends. We never met, though we would talk on the phone every few months. Those conversations were long and involved, and my wife Laura could always tell when I was talking to Vachss—everything about my expression and posture revealed how closely I was listening.

Vachss had an unusual and insightful take on everything: politics, writing, publishing, and most of all, human nature. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of crime, and his website will remain an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to learn more about human predators and how to combat them (as well as for thriller and mystery novelists who aspire to greater realism).

You might think someone who had seen the things Vachss had seen would be consumed by pessimism about our species. But a pessimist wouldn’t fight as hard or as long as Vachss did. I once asked him how he managed not to despair. He said, “Barry, why do you think I always ask about Emma [my daughter]?” I understood then. His calling was a battle with poisonous evil. The antidote was hearing about love. I told Em as much about Andrew as I told Andrew about Em, and I know the hug I got when I shared with Em the news about Andrew’s death would have meant a lot to him.

Vachss had a way of summing up concepts with deadly accuracy and memorable brevity. Love is a behavior, not an emotion. Behavior is the truth. Blood makes you related—love makes you family. He had no patience with platitudes like “to heal, you have to forgive.” He knew that forgiveness is a choice, not an obligation. As he put it, justice was his vehicle, but hate was the fuel it ran on. I borrowed that concept for my character Livia Lone because it suited her so perfectly, and dedicated my book The Killer Collective to Andrew and his wife Alice Vachss, a former sex crimes prosecutor and herself a warrior against human predation. I don’t think any novelist has had as big an impact on my writing as Andrew, and without Alice’s book Sex Crimes: My Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators, Livia and her world would be far less real and compelling.

Andrew, who suffered from (though never complained about) various severe health problems, had no illusions about his own mortality. He often said that if he could go out carrying a bomb into a room filled with every child abuser on earth, he would do it gladly. Such a thing wasn’t possible, of course, at least not literally—but Andrew did give, he did dedicate, his life to the protection of children. If you want to honor his memory and his work, I’d suggest contributing to the Legislative Drafting Institute for Child Protection, an organization he founded and which even in his absence will continue to wage what Vachss called the only holy war worthy of the name.

If ever there was someone whose spirit will outlast him, it was Vachss. The world was made better by what he did with his time in it. And through all the children he saved, all the work he inspired, and all the battered souls he touched by speaking truth and abhorring bullshit, it will remain better even now that he’s gone.


One more thought, about something I should have included in that last paragraph. Andrew liked to point out that child protection is crime prevention. So among the ways he made the world more positive is in a sense via a negative—crimes that would have happened, trauma that would have been inflicted, but didn’t because of Andrew’s work. Any of us might owe to Andrew the absence of some horror, and though we can’t measure such a thing, all of us are in his debt for it.


Praveen Tummalapall said...

Horrible news. My condolences on the loss of your friend.

jmseryak said...

I considered Andrew a mentor and friend. From the first time he picked up his phone on a Sunday morning to periodic 20+ years of correspondence his advice and support in my journey of being a supporter to my wife, a survivor of child sexual abuse, was deeply appreciated and cherished. A man who will be missed but never forgotten.

Rob Erman said...

Amazing tribute, Barry. Thank you. I only choked up twice while reading it aloud to my wife.

Rich said...

Barry -- I've read all of the Burke books. I have a first edition hardback of "Flood," which I devoured when it came out. That's why I was so gratified by "Livia Lone." It was a brilliant distillation and evolution of Vachss's work. Good work. Thanks for this loving tribute