Andrew Vachss, champion of children in court and novels, dies at 79


“We often hear about people who are said to be ‘laser focused,'” he said via email. “It has become a cliché. But even if it wasn’t, it’s too lukewarm to describe Andrew Vachss. He wasn’t a professor pointing a beam at a whiteboard. Its light was more like that of a flamethrower. He had a white-hot intensity and a perseverance that never stopped.

Andrew Henry Vachss was born on October 19, 1942 to Bernard and Geraldine Vachss. His wife said she believed he was born in New York, although he was guarded about his childhood and other details of his personal life. (Ms Vachss, a former prosecutor who often dealt with sex crimes and crimes against children, remains in custody today; she declined to specify where the couple lived in the northwest, citing security concerns.) He grew up in a tough neighborhood in 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 Mr. Vachss told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996 that this aspect of the character was not autobiographical.

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

Instead, Mr. Vachss’ fury over child sexual 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 in a syphilis task force. Some of the cases he encountered while tracing the course of the disease shocked him, he said, particularly one involving a man who raped his 5-year-old daughter.

“I just wanted to grab this man and wring his neck until I heard him snap,” he told The Post-Dispatch. “I thought I was looking at the Devil. Then I started to discover that there were many more like him.

After several 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, where he graduated his degree in 1975. The following year, he set up his own practice in New York.

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