Sunday, December 21, 2008

December 21, 2008: Thoughts on Andrew Vachss' "Terminal."

Last week I read Andrew Vachss' latest novel, "Terminal," this is by my count his 20th novel, and the 17th in the Burke series.

I'm not really up to writing a full review but here's just a few thoughts on the book.

Andrew Vachss is a very skilled writer who has a talent for gritty crime fiction. He has an ability to describe darkness and crime in a manner that few do. The reader is left with the feeling that he has spent time with a man who has been there, done that, and traveled mentally and physically in places where they themselves probably have dared not.

His novels have a dark, transgressional quality to them, as the author seeks to push the reader outside of their comfort zone and leave them outraged and intent on working to correct Vachss' causes, most of which center around child abuse or mistreatment in various forms. The books are designed to push people's buttons and provoke a response.

Therefore the first few books in the Burke series hit the world like a hammer. Few people had ever read anything like them in their power, darkness, emotional intensity, lightened by interesting characters who traveled in a surreal vision of inner-city New York and its environs. (For most of us in this society, the deepest parts of the inner-cities are places we dare not travel and therefore they take on a mythic nature at times. Vachss and, at times, Frank Miller, the comic author, both toy with this in a very skilled manner.)

The first half dozen or so in the series had a major impact on me and many other readers.

However, in my opinion, about that time the series lost steam. Although one could see that the characters in the first few books had been designed in such a way that they intertwined, establishing depth and verisimilitude while leaving threads hanging to be tied up in future novels, eventually there were no more integral plot threads waiting to be resolved and instead the author seemed to pull plots out of the air and tack things on willy-nilly and returning to things and characters that should best have been left alone, weakening them in the process.

"Shella," a non-Burke novel, came along. To borrow terms from another genre, this was set in the same "universe" as the Burke novels, written with the same intent, feel and style, but involved all new characters. But the readers demanded more of Burke and the author returned to writing that series. Vachss' day job and passion is working as a lawyer who defends children. He has stated that since his clients do not have much money, it is important that his novels bring in money to help the law firm. (He also stated this was not a realistic business plan for others to follow. It simply worked out for him that way.) Therefore to some extent he is trapped in writing the Burke novels, although he has experimented with writing other novels including "The Getaway Driver." I enjoyed "The Getaway Driver." This had a different feel than his previous novels, being less surreal in my opinion.

"Terminal," in my opinion, seemed to have been written in the following manner. With short choppy segments, strung together to form a novel, one gets the feeling that Vachss probably writes a segment daily. However, many of these segments can only be described as rants, with Vachss interrupting his narrative in an undisciplined fashion to voice his opinion on things that upset him.

Some of these are quite understandable, such as extreme forms of child abuse, loss of privacy making life easier for stalkers and the internet fueling extreme forms of cruelty, are understandable. Such opinions are in keeping with his mission as a writer, although they do tire the reader at times. Many, such as the gentrification and changes in New York City, are in keeping with the characters and their world, although they too go on a bit too long. Yet others, such as the stupidity of "wasting your vote" by voting for the Greens, just seem a bit ranty and, for lack of a better term, childish.

Finally, the odd thing about Vachss' book is that he often rails against people who work on his causes but not in the way he wishes (i.e. he criticizes the sex offender registries and amber alerts) or on related causes instead of the ones he wants them to (people who work to publicize human trafficking of adults instead of child abuse). Now. for the record, although we've never met, I believe Vachss' heart is in the right place and his commitment to his causes unmistakeable. And having spent time working on and around child abuse issues from various sides, including at times the side of false accusations, these things do eat at a person. There is a concept floating around called "secondary traumatization," which refers to the way in which a person becomes traumatized by frequent exposure to working with people who have been traumatized or even frequent exposure to reports of trauma. Therefore it is understandable that Vachss will occasionally lash out.

However, let me go on record here. I do not agree that everything Vachss believes in or every sort of abuse he includes in his novels is true. I do not, for instance, believe in Satanic Ritual Abuse (neither does the FBI, by the way). I do not believe in repressed and later recovered memories (nor do competent psychologists these day) and I believe that when Multiple Personality Disorder does exist it exist due to the coaching of incompetent therapists. Therefore I see it as socially irresponsible the way in which Vachss encourages people to believe in things for which the evidence simply is not there and then to encourage people to act on these beliefs.

Of course, he is not alone in this, but by encouraging such behavior he is going to unleash pointless child abuse programs and waste resources that could be better spent on programs that work more directly to effectively prevent child abuse either directly or indirectly (Since there is a direct correlation between child abuse and neglect and poverty, programs to reduce poverty would reduce child abuse and neglect. This, however, is not mentioned in Vachss' books, where the issues are more simple and the primary cause of child abuse seems to be human evil.)

My thoughts, "Terminal" is far from Vachss' best work. I found the plot confusing and disjointed. The authors rants were irritating and distracting. Vachss, however, is a skilled writer. I admire his early work.

I should probably get out my copy of "Two Trains Running" (a non-Burke novel that unlike many of Vachss' books is written in third person, includes shifting points of view and actual chapters) and give it another try.


  1. Where can you show me that Andrew Vachss "believes in" satanic ritual abuse?" I can show you where he debunks the "satanic conspiracy" nonsense. Straight from "Sacrifice," which you claim to have read with the rest:

    Sacrifice, 204-205:

    "His…parents. They're devil–worshipers? The puppy was a sacrifice?"
    My turn. "They're not devil worshipers," I said to Wolfe. "They're terrorists. All child molesters are, you know that. Fear's always stronger than force—it stays with you even when you're alone. Even when you try to sleep, night terrors come. It's happening all over now. They frighten the child into silence, make the kid believe they have magical powers. Life and death. That's why they killed the puppy. It wasn't some bullshit sacrifice to Satan, it was them proving to the kid that they held all the cards. Telling him they could do anything they want. Anytime they want. Those maggots 're no more Satanists than you are. There's real ones—I mean, people who fucking worship the devil, okay? Some true believers, some charlatans. Just like Christians. Or Jews, or Muslims, or whatever.
    Sodomizing kids, making kiddie–porn films, it's got nothing to do with religion. Any religion. A priest molests an altar boy, you call it Catholic child abuse?"
    "Okay. I get it."
    "No, you don't get it. Not the whole thing. This Satanic child abuse thing, it's just a criminal conspiracy. Set up so they can't lose. The kid buys into the insanity, he grows up to become one of them. Recruits others. Puts on the hood himself, works the cameras, chops up the bodies if they make any. And if you guys find out, if the kid tells you the truth, he fucking sounds nuts, right? You want to take a victim before a jury, have him tell about some devil–worshiping cult? That's for Gerald, not the real world." I bit the inside of my cheek, tasting acid. "It's all a hustle—like kids committing suicide because they heard subliminal messages on heavy–metal music. Some lawyer's idea, right? Next thing you know, some fuck's gonna shoot up a bank, say he read the Bible backward, got a new message."
    "It's true," Teresa put in. "Almost like they know what they're doing. You can deliberately introduce dissociation. Splitting. All it takes is inescapable pressure. Stylized sadism. One shock to the psyche after another. Even in a concentration camp, the prisoner knows he's not alone. There's a reason for him to be there…even if it's an evil reason. But a child like Luke—he was all by himself until he split off."

    Can you square that with your claim to understand Vachss's "beliefs?"

    What is "socially irresponsible" is your claim that Andrew Vachss "encourages people to believe in things for which the evidence is simply not there". You may not "believe" that Multiple Personality Disorder (now more accurately termed Dissociative Identity Disorder) exists except when induced by the "coaching of incompetent therapists." The American Psychiatric Association does not share your "beliefs," as a quick glance at the DSM-IV will confirm.
    In the guise of a "book review," you recite the standard litany of the "false memory" crowd. You may not "believe in" repressed or recovered memories," and dismiss as incompetent all psychologists who have worked with such victims. But your statement as to Vachss's "beliefs" is again easily disproven by his actual writings. In "False Allegations," Vachss offers evidence from *both* sides of this controversy, as well as an explanation of traumatology shown through brain-wave patterns.
    You counter this with the standard "incompetent therapists cause all these problems" nonsense. You may “believe” that, but your authority to make such statements is as pathetically empty as your knowledge (or deliberate distortion) of the Burke books.

    Because you have such a transparent agenda, you lack the baseline qualification of any book reviewer: objectivity. You clearly have no idea what Vachss "believes in," and you attack experience-based knowledge on the basis of your credential-free beliefs. That's an op-ed piece, not a "book review." But, of course, as you are not qualified to write on the subject of child abuse, one supposes you must resort to calling your pieces "book reviews" to promote your views on the subject.

  2. Dear Sir or Madam,

    Thank you for your anonymous feedback. It's so nice to know that I have interested readers.

    Clearly you and I are not going agree on this anytime soon. Therefore please don't expect my replies to be as long as yours.

    However, you did make several points that I'm sure others would like to hear a response to. Therefore:

    1) "Sacrifice" is a work of fiction. It's a novel. The people in it do not exist, although they may have resemblances to real people with real problems. If Andrew Vachss uses Satanic Ritual Abuse in a novel, it does not prove it to be real, although it is my belief that in the passage you describe Vachss is describing reality either as he sees it or as he wishes other people to believe it.

    2) Rather than argue that Satanic Ritual Abuse does not exist, I will refer the reader to other sources. Among these are FBI Special Agent Kenneth Lanning's report on the subject. Although I received my copy from Lanning himself upon request, it has been reprinted here .

    There's a lot of other work out there on the subject including Satan's Silence, by Debbie Nathan and countless other works and magazine articles.

    I even touched on the subject more than once myself in such sources as the "Scams from the Great Beyond" book and "The Skeptical Inquirer."

    Also of interest is that I suggest people with a real interest in the subject might wish to read Norman Cohn's "Europe's Inner Demons." (1975, New American Library). This is a history of similar beliefs in medieval and early Europe and, interestingly, predates the peak of the Satanic Ritual Abuse claims in the 1980s.

    There's a lot out there for people who really wish to delve into the subject further.

    3) Many people do, however, agree with the reality of Satanic Ritual Abuse. However, unlike Vachss in this novel, they claim the perpetrators are actually Satanists. Here Vachss argues that Satanic Ritual Abuse is not committed by Satanists. Which seems to imply that Vachss does not completely believe them either. Make of that what you will.

    Furthermore, if I recall correctly, and it has been years since I read "Sacrifice," the child victim of Satanic Ritual Abuse has a well developed case of Multiple Personality Disorder because of the abuse. However, it is my understanding that if one accepts the claims surrounding the formation of multiple personality disorder, it takes years to develop and the child, therefore, if we accept the literature that advocates the belief in multiple personality disorder, would be too young to have this condition.

    It seems that in this novel, Vachss did not follow the literature on the subject too tightly and instead wrote an interesting novel, altering the publicized claims to fit his views and literary needs.

    Again, make of that what you will.

    4) I read "False Accusations" and considered it a cop-out.


    There are, incidentally, no false accusations in the novel "False Accusations." Everyone's guilty in that novel as claimed.

    I did have a review of it posted on my website years ago, back when it first came out. It was not very favorable.

    5) It is my understanding that the brain wave research Vachss cites in his novels is not widely accepted, although I do not claim to be an expert on it. In fact, I'm sure if it were widely accepted, I would no more about it.

    Please remember Vachss is a skilled attorney and crime novelist, as well as a very dedicated activist, but he is not a neurophysiologist.

    Might I suggest that whoever wishes to respond next with calling me names please include a link to the brain wave research studies Vachss includes in his novels. As I stated, they are not widely cited and I am not terribly familiar with them but wish to correct my deficiencies in that area.

    6) Yes, the DSM-IV does include Multiple Personality Disorder as a "real" disorder. I have not read the description it offers in a long-time. It is, however, my opinion, that regardless of what the DSM-IV says, that Multiple Personality Disorder is an iatrogenic condition caused by incompetent therapists.

    I admit I am not a therapist or a psychologist or neurophysiologist. I also admit this is not a universally held opinion, but it is a widely held opinion and not uncommon among therapists, psychologists and neurophysiologists.

    7) What exactly are the qualifications to write about child abuse? The ones I allegedly do not have?

    Last time I checked there were none. Andrew Vachss, you, I and many people, whether qualified or not, are all welcome to sound off our views on this important topic.

    And, yes, it is a book review, barely on at that. Just my thoughts as a writer on a novel I read by a novelist whose ability I respect even if I do not agree with all his views or beliefs.

    8) I did say that by promoting a belief in things for which evidence is lacking, he encourages people to act on those beliefs, often in poorly thought out ways.

    I'll let others read your response and my words and see if they think this may or may not be the case.

    Thanks for the feedback,

    Peter Huston