Wednesday, December 24, 2008

December 24, 2008: More on Vachss and his novel, "False Allegations."

Introduction from December 24, 2008. I just pulled this off of the "Way back machine," the internet archive site at It dates from 1996. One problem with being a writer, is that if people read something one wrote in 2008 or 2009, they often assume it is what one currently believes, even if one wrote it in 1996, twelve quick years ago.

Therefore, in all fairness, it should be stated that just as my views on things have changed since 1996, there is no guarantee that Vachss' views on things have not changed in twelve years either. Nevertheless, some of his fans insist that Vachss does not believe in repressed memories and cite this book as evidence that he has dealt with this issue in a balanced way.

For those who are interested, one can purchase a second hand copy of Vachss' novel today on for less than a dollar.


(This was written in 1996. The only changes made have been to correct some spelling errors. As I read it today, I feel, for instance, that it contains way too many adjectives, but I have left it alone instead treating it as a historical document.)

INTRODUCTION: This, like many things on this site, is another "almost published" piece. Sometime ago, I sent it to the Newsletter of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization that works to educate the public on the problem of False Memory Syndrome and to help people who have been falsely accused of abuse through allegations arising during bad therapy. It was scheduled to be run, but then apparently cut due to a need to report on a precedent setting legal case. I used to be a big fan of Vachss' mystery novels. I think this should give some idea of why I use the past tense.

What's even worse is that, as a child advocate, Vachss' is doing no one any good by mislabeling so-called critics of the system. Word is getting out on what's going on. And, as an author, he missed out on a great opportunity to tell a really dramatic story by reducing his critics to cardboard caricatures. (Warning: This review contains spoilers, but who cares? This is easily the worst of Vachss' books. Read a different one instead.)

A review of Andrew Vachss' mystery novel, False Allegations 1996, Knopf Publishing.

Many have heard the name Andrew Vachss. Vachss is an attorney who specializes in child advocacy, as well as the author of a successful series of noiresque mystery novels, of which False Allegations is the latest. These novels are marked by two characteristics. The first is their grim, detailed depiction of sub-inner city life -"deep streets", as one reviewer described them. Vachss's descriptions of the pits of New York City and the people who reside there, the human predators and their human prey, are probably unique among modern mystery novelists. (In fact, the only place I've ever heard any stories like them was from an acquaintance in recovery who once sold crack on forty second street.) The second is the series' constant focus on sexual predators, sexual exploitation, and child abuse and child prostitution of all sorts. Of course, this is where Vachss specializes, and one of his motivations in writing is to publicize these problems. Its a grim subject, but Vachss's work has earned its reputation as some of the darkest, grittiest, most gripping thrillers on the market today.

Yet critics, such as myself, have to point out that as dedicated as Vachss is to his causes, and as terrible as much of it may be, not everything he fights against exists. (i.e. Satanic Ritual Abuse and claims based on Recovered Memories). Child advocates are losing a great deal of respect for this very reason. Vachss himself has written of the problem of the growing "backlash" (people like me) in a recent Parade magazine article. Although I did not agree with his entire point of view, I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of his concrete suggestions for improvement paralleled my own. Here, I thought, is a man we, critics of the system, can work with. For that reason, when his latest novel, False Allegations, came out, and the plot dealt with the "backlash" I was quite anxious to see the end result. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Burke, the hero, is an investigator, an ex-con, petty criminal, who was raised in a series of foster homes. Like many of the characters in the series, he is an abase survivor, as well as a self taught expert on sexual predators and deranged sadists of all sorts. The novel begins when, through a round-about means, Burke is contacted by a man named Kite. Kite is a defense attorney specializing in defending those accused of child abuse and sex abuse. Kite frequently speaks of the "modern day witch hunt" which false allegations pose.

So far, it sounds interesting. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, I found myself more and more disappointed. (Warning to those who wish to read this -from here on in, I'm going to include several spoilers including the unforgivable sin of the ending to a mystery novel.)

First of all, although at times Kite sounds like a critic of the system, his opinions are not indicative of the real critics of the system. For instance, Kite believes in repression. In fact, everyone in this novel believes in repression.

For instance, we have this scene (p. 143), a discussion between Kite and Burke, told from Burke's point of view:

"It bothers me too," he said. "The whole hypnosis thing. You know about the so-called 'false memory' controversy?"

"I heard about it," I said, neutral.

"The water is very murky. There is no question but that the recovery of repressed memory is documented, scientific fact. Repression of course it exists."

I listened to him. Wishing some of my memories were repressed...

Unfortunately, repression is not a scientifically confirmed fact. And, and this is what really bothers me, even if Vachss believes in repression, he is surely an intelligent enough man to know that his critics do not believe this phenomena occurs or is a scientifically confirmed fact. Which means that he is knowingly distorting the controversy.

Kite, the so-called critic of the system, consistently refers to the debate over false memories as one between people who believe in abuse and people who don't believe in abuse, as does Burke. This is absurd. I have met no one involved in the False Memory Syndrome Foundation who has ever denied that abuse occurs. It may be argued that some, and only some, within the FMS Foundation do not pay proper attention to actual abuse, but if this is the case the organization is no worse than any other body of people chosen from the public at large.

In fact, the problem with abuse is quite simply that people do not forget actual abuse. Instead, it scars a person, often for life. Intrusive memories of the abuse often interfere in one's daily functioning. In fact, Vachss's novels emphasize this very fact, again and again. Furthermore, as critics charge, if repression is so common among abuse victims, how come nobody completely forgets that they were a holocaust or war survivor?

Kite has a client who has recently recovered memories. Kite believes she is an actual survivor of abuse, but he wishes for Burke to investigate and confirm that she is, in fact, remembering actual events. (The author's belief being that some recovered memories are true and some are false.) Burke investigates and discovers that the memories are, naturally, true.

In the process, he interviews a few people concerned with the issues of false allegations of various sorts. The bulk of these interviews occur on pages 161-169. Some of these give a good indication that Vachss understands where his critics are coming from, yet there's always some distortion that makes one wonder. For instance, there's a well done scene where a father tells Burke of how his son accused him of molestation on the basis of recovered memories. The emotions are right, but the details are a little bit off. For instance, the son wishes to speak to the father, after accusing him, but the father refuses to speak to the son on the advice of his attorney. Although this occurs, often it's just the opposite. More commonly, the child makes the accusation, then blocks communication. Similarly, the therapist in this case is painted as a knowing extortionist. Thus Vachss bypasses the entire issue of poorly trained, well meaning therapists who inadvertently destroy families.

Other critics of the system are painted as naive or seeking fame, although these same individuals do give some accurate criticisms of what's wrong with the child protective or mental health systems today.

Yet these criticisms are only accessories to the plot. For most of the book, in standard Andrew Vachss' style, Burke tracks down a child molester, in this case the man who molested the woman who is recovering memories. This is well done. Vachss has never been accused of not understanding the behavior of actual child molesters, just the opposite. In fact, such details are what often makes the books work. Yet it might have been more interesting, after eight books where Burke and his companions hunt child molesters, to see what they would actually do if confronted with a false accusation. Yet Vachss sidetracks this possibility and gives us more of the same.

Finally, and I hate to give away the very last scene, it turns out that Kite is not interested in the problem of false allegations at all. He is only debunking sex abuse claims because he is secretly being paid to do so by Mafia child pornographers. Apparently, Vachss suspects the Mafia wants to bring child advocates under fire, in order to more freely exploit children to make kiddie porn. In the end, it seems Vachss cannot face up to the possibility that his critics might have valid points and good intentions.

This is a cop out. First of all, if so called child advocates would stop chasing their own shadows and clumsily creating false claims of abuse, they could better allocate resources to protect children who are actually being abused. Secondly, one of the most frustrating things about working for change within the system is the way in which so-called child advocates and quack therapists dismiss their critics out of hand. The fact is that if they cannot police themselves then sooner or later, somebody else will have to police them. In the meantime, Vachss seems to have reconfirmed the stereotype that so-called child advocates refuse to listen to their critics. Many, including Vachss it seems, would rather make the same mistakes again and again, destroying innocent lives in the process, rather than face up to their own errors.

Perhaps it is significant that in the end, Kite, having discredited Burke's report proclaims, (p.223)

"This is a chess game," ... "An intellectual problem. The real weapon in this war is propaganda..."

One wonders, is this the fictional character Kite talking or is it Vachss himself? In either event, the picture of the critics is far from accurate and one must question Vachss's motivations.

All in all, False Allegations, is a cop out. It promises a dramatic confrontation between the system and its critics. This is a confrontation that is much needed and I'd thought that Vachss was a man with the courage and the commitment to children to do it well, even in fictional form. In the end, it provides none of these things. Even the title, False Allegations, is a cop out as the only allegations in the book turn out to be true in the end.

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