Monday, April 5, 2010

Review: Andrew Vachss' "Another Life."

Quick review. I just finished reading Andrew Vachss's latest novel, "Another Life." This gritty crime novel is presented as the end of the Burke series, a series that I have read in its entirety but that I also feel wore thin some time ago.

In "real life" Vachss is an attorney who focuses on child abuse and child protection. His novels deal with child abuse and sex crimes, and do so in a dark, unrelenting, very informed (at times some would say overly informed) manner. This one is no exception.

The plot is a good vehicle for us to see Burke, the hero of the series, in action doing what he does best, trying to get track down someone who has done something seemingly incomprehensible to a normal person, something evil and something involving a child. [Warning: the plot is not pleasant and neither is this review.] The baby of a Saudi sultan has been kidnapped out of his car after the sultan was drugged. No one knows who did it, but the method clearly shows a well-drilled, well-trained team. The Sultan had a disturbing fetish involving this infant. He would hire women to perform sexual acts on him while the infant watched, then dismiss the ladies calling them "Holes." A shadowy government figure, Pryce, who has appeared intermittently in previous books, approaches Burke for assistance in solving the crime. After all, Burke is the man who is known for his ability to understand and track down and punish "freaks." As one of Burke's loved ones, a member of his adoptive family is in need of serious hospitalization after being shot in the previous book in the series, and this is not easy considering that the person has warrants out for his arrest and thus should not be placed in a regular hospital, Burke readily agrees to take on the case. In classic Burke fashion, although he starts out interested primarily in the money he continues obsessively seeking to destroy whoever would do such a thing.

I liked this book much better than the last one. The author seems much more focused on his work. The plot is a much better vehicle for Burke. In the absence of strong clues, we see Burke seek out the criminals through seeking out the places where someone who might kidnap a baby could be found. It's a strange, unpleasant Burke-like journey as he visits fetishists, purveyors of hard-core pornography, dominatrixes, serial killer enthusiasts and therapists seeking clues. As in the previous book in the series, there were points in the plot where I was very confused as to why Burke was going to different places and why exactly he was seeking out the people he was seeking out. (And, yes, I do blame the author for this confusion, although I know fully well some might prefer to blame me.) However, it was not nearly as confusing as the last book and even when I did confused I could follow along just for the dramatic effect (minor spoilers: Burke, a discarded infant now grown, needs to look into his own past, something he avoids doing, in order to gain insight into what has happened to this kidnapped infant.)

As always Vachss includes his unique asides and uses his characters to voice his own opinions on multiple subjects, including, for instance, blues music, a subject Vachss loves and his characters discuss endlessly (but to fans approval. At one point, Vachss released a blues compilation album to go with one of his novels and it's not a bad album at all. One particularly interesting aside was when a character expressed approval of Marc MacYoung's self defense books. This seemed to come from no where and took me out of the story for a moment, but then again MacYoung's books are well worth reading (I've read pretty much all of them too) and when I thought it through I realized that it was MacYoung, back in the day, who threw in a recommendation to read the Burke series in one of his books and set me down this long strange path of reading Vachss.

In the past I've criticized Vachss for representing forms of child abuse in his book that are controversial or disproven as well as distorting and misrepresenting the motives and beliefs of people who defend those who defend people who are falsely accused of child abuse of various kinds. (Child abuse is a horrible thing. Unfortunately it is also a crime that is surprisingly easy to be falsely accused of.) I did not find these tendencies to be as strong in this work as in some of his others. (Ironically, the worst offender in this category is the novel "False Accusations," where Vachss pledged and then reneged to address this issue head on, instead using this novel to attack and distort the views of his critics.)

In conclusion, "Another Life" was an interesting book, not perfect, but interesting and I enjoyed reading it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

I get Pepper Sprayed --

Here's a newspaper story I wrote back in the year 2000. I volunteered to experience pepper spraying as part of getting a news story. It was an interesting experience. The photos seem to be gone, lost to history perhaps.


Pepper spray: A little dab'll do 'ya

Mitch Wojnarowicz/The Recorder

Corrections officer Phil Spencer Jr. helps Recorder reporter Peter Huston after he experienced a shot of pepper spray.

Mitch Wojnarowicz/The Recorder

Montgomery County Corrections officer Don Gardner explains the different types of pepper spray and spray neutralizers.


Recorder News Staff

TOWN OF GLEN - It's been less than an hour and the details of my pepper spraying are already starting to fade and blur.

We stand in a garage at the Montgomery County Jail. Three corrections officers, a nurse, Mitch Wojnarowicz, The Recorder photographer, and myself.

I do as instructed, stand in the middle of the garage. Don Gardner, a state certified pepper spray instructor and Montgomery County Corrections Officer, pulls out a spray canister of the debilitating gas. He points it at my face from about 12 feet away.

I try to do as told and he begins to count to three.


I do nothing.


I try to hold my breath. Nervous, I begin to wonder if I'm really holding my breath or not.


He sprays and I close my eyes involuntarily despite being told it will do no good.

It hits me, the spray, ending my confusion. A pain washes over me, becoming all encompassing, but doesn't quite hurt. At least there's not a feeling of pain. That comes later, and in large doses. Instead, there's more of an involuntary freezing up as your body struggles to adjust to this sudden sensory overload.

My eyes shut tightly and the burning begins. I feel hands on my arms and realize that the corrections officers are guiding me over to the eyewash station. I let them. Trying to find my bearings, never quite doing so. I'm starting to hurt.

My eyes are burning and my chest is starting to hurt.

I'm being led like a baby. I need their help to find the eye wash station. I am in pain, burning eyes, burning flushed skin, respiratory problems.

If this was a real struggle, if I were fighting these people instead of being helped by them, they'd win easily. Perhaps I could thrash around, but not effectively, and I can't see. And I'm dependent on them to get to the eyewash station.

If this were a real struggle, if I were the subject of a law enforcement pepper spraying, there would be no nearby eyewash station.

There would also have been two bursts of spray to the eyes, not one.

One is the normal amount for guard training.

Instead I would soon find myself rolling on the ground, perhaps handcuffed, perhaps thrown in the back of a police car. Wondering when the pain would go away and if there would be permanent effects.

They tell me to step up.

I find myself at the eye station. I open my eyes and begin rinsing. The pain has grown worse however.

My chest gets tight. I struggle to breath. I wheeze. I wonder if I will continue to breath. Will I stop breathing? If I do will I become resuscitated? Will I die?

I struggle for breath.

The breathing becomes easier.

Okay, I'll live.

The pain in my eyes has become worse.

I rinse.

It becomes better.

I feel flushed burning pain on my forehead and my neck. Fortunately, I'd skipped shaving that morning. They said if I had the pain would be worse as the hot pepper juice soaked into my pores.

We wash my eyes in the eye wash station. I love the eye wash station. It is a wonderful thing.

Periodically, I try to get up and leave the eye wash station. When I do, the pain returns, coming back, burning worse, I wash my eyes, my chin, my forehead, trying to get the juice off of my body. I don't like the way it's burning me. I cannot control myself.

I keep having to return to the eye wash station.

I blow my nose several times into a paper towel. I wipe myself several times with a towel.

One question they ask people in pepper spray training is to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I don't think it hurts that much. The problem is it doesn't go away.

I wash in the eye wash station. It reduces. The pain becomes a three. I feel better. I try to walk around the garage so that people will see I am in control of myself. So that I will see I am in control of myself.

It doesn't work. The pain, once a three, soon becomes a four, then a five. I return to the friendly eyewash station because I don't want to experience a six.

The pattern repeats. I burn. I hurt. I hold my eyelids open and put my precious eyes into the stream of lovely flowing easing water.

I am happy and feel better.

The pain is now a three. Then it starts to climb back up.

I wash my eyes again, feeling lucky that I was pepper sprayed in a garage and not a jail cell or street corner.

Officers Eric Schnackenberg, Don Gardner, and Phil Spencer attended my pain, assisting me as necessary. They, like most corrections officers, have experienced the same pain, the same loss of control, the same fear and uncertainty about one's future that I have.

Gardner, the instructor, said he's been sprayed four times.

This is the world of pepper sprays and modern law enforcement.

According to the book, "Pepper Sprays -Practical Self Defense for Anyone, Anywhere," by Doug Lamb (1994, Paladin Press, Boulder CO), although pepper spray weapons have been in existence for over 35 years, their common deployment and usage has only happened in the last 15 to 20 years. The work says that the reason behind the rapid rise in usage, both among law enforcement and civilians, is due to the widespread need to have a non-lethal method of self defense that works regardless of any differences in strength or fighting ability between two combatants.

Compared to such lethal or potentially lethal devices as firearms or batons, the advantage to pepper spray is obvious.

Unlike tear gas, the sprays are directed and do not blow around unnecessarily

Montgomery County Sheriff Michael Amato said that his department began using pepper spray for jail guards in 1996 and within a year was using it for the road patrol deputies. He said he has never been pepper sprayed himself.

"If I buy a new gun do I need to shoot myself?" he explained, laughing.

Pepper sprays, as the name implies, are made to spray gas made by hot peppers. The intensity of hot peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU's), named after Wilbur Scoville who invented the scale in 1902.

For comparisons, Bell Peppers have a Scoville rating of 0.0, Jalapenos have a 2.5 to a 5.0 thousand , Cayenne's have a 30 to 50 thousand, and Habanero's have a rating of 100-300 thousand SHU's. Most defensive sprays contain a liquid that contains a 5 or 10 percent concentrate of a liquid that is measured at 2 million SHU's. Sometimes the liquid is in the form of a foam. According to Lamb, one manufacturer considered manufacturing a spray with a strength of 3 million SHU's but was advised not to as such a strength could cause tissue damage.

Nevertheless, the sprays do have critics. According to the spring 1996 issue of Covert Action Quarterly, a magazine that frequently criticizes law enforcement practices, the sprays have been involved in 60 deaths since 1990.

Although proponents of the sprays argue that such cases either involved using the sprays on persons who were on stimulants, such as cocaine or amphetamines, the article charges that their use is unsafe on persons who have asthma or other severe respiratory conditions.

In the correctional facility, where medical records on inmates are known, it is not permitted to pepper spray asthmatic or other inmates with respiratory problems under any circumstances, according to Eric Schnackenberg.

The same article charges that in some cases of police brutality the sprays have been used to inflict pain for its own sake on prisoners, including hand cuffed prisoners. According to the article, some citizens groups an the American Civil Liberties Union have questioned the use of the sprays.

For these reasons it is common practice to recommend to law enforcement personnel being trained in the use of pepper spray techniques and tactics that they actually experience its use first hand.

Amato said that he has not heard of any problems with the use of the sprays and that he expects the department to keep using them for some time.