Clayton was used to feeling like the roof was about to cave in on him. But this time, logic couldn't argue.
Slowly he reached to the back of the desk drawer, where he'd hidden the master key to St. Louis University's main library. He'd stolen it the year before on a lark, nosing through the big partitioned key box in the public-safety office, where he worked part-time. At the time, he'd laughed about it with his roommate. But now he was remembering those two crumbling leather-bound books he'd sold to the Hirschfeld Galleries when he first started racking up debt. Hirschfeld had given him a couple hundred dollars for the books -- histories of Spanish California in the 1700s -- and he'd later read about an auction at which a similar book sold for $7,000. People like him, people who loved art and poetry and ideas, paid inordinate sums of money for rare books.
And the master key opened the university's rare-book room.
Clayton (not his real name) grew up on an Arabian-horse farm in the woods outside Houston, surrounded by straight tall formless pine trees and endless quiet. His mother was an artist who "drew horses the way Michelangelo did," fell into dark moods and saw the world's flaws with uncompromising clarity. His father was the steady one, quiet as the land, retreating to solitude whenever Clayton's mom had to discipline him. That happened often. He couldn't sit still, and his agile mind raced ahead of his body, goading him toward excitement, attention, relief. His impulses turned even accidents into disasters: In junior high, he says, he and a friend laid claim to an abandoned cabin in the woods as their hideaway -- then cleaned out the garbage, made a bonfire, poured water on the smoldering ashes and went home. Two hours later, he heard, from his bedroom window, the furious spark and crackle of the cabin burning to the ground.
Clayton's high-school grades were indifferent, but his SAT scores were so high he had schools all over the country sending him admission materials. He applied to only one, St. Louis University, mainly because he'd seen The Mission and marked "the Jesuits' devotion, their intense desire for the natives' dignity. I don't know how much of that was true, but what was portrayed really spoke to me -- that, and their interest in education."
Clayton's choice infuriated his Southern Baptist parents, who told him they wouldn't pay one red cent for tuition. He took out loans instead, and when he moved into the dorm in the fall of 1993, he felt "immense, sudden freedom." Dizzied by the street life, he'd walk up and down Grand Boulevard late at night, stopping every few yards to stare up at the floodlit gothic arches of St. Francis Xavier College Church.
He got all C's and D's that year and wound up on academic probation. Jolted to attention sophomore year, he earned mainly A's and B's, focusing on drawing, poetry, music and languages. That summer, he lived at the Franciscan priory on Washington Avenue and started reading about Catholic mysticism. The next fall he converted to Roman Catholicism, keeping his conversion secret from his family.
Around the same time, he made an appointment with a psychologist in SLU's counseling office, complaining of "overwhelming loneliness." Since the age of 14, he'd broken into a sweat in any social situation, the salty rank fluid drenching his shirt until it stuck to his skin and he had to make some excuse and leave. He'd always had trouble connecting, feeling the ease and belonging that came so naturally to everybody else. Now, week after week, he rehashed what he was learning to call his "social anxiety."
Along the way, he fell in love -- with a studious, flawlessly organized young woman he announced was his "mirror image." He composed a piano sonata for her. And then, a few weeks after her father died, she broke up with him. "Being apart from her, the best I could do was try to identify myself with her," he says. "So I imitated her, and my grades went up again. But I couldn't keep up the façade, I guess." By the spring of 1997, he was failing even pre-Colombian art, which ordinarily would have been a breeze for him, and spending money he didn't have.
He made his first trip on a humid summer weekend, choosing a time when the library was open but the St. Louis Room, repository of the university archives and special collections, was closed. Backpack slung casually, baseball cap backward, he climbed the white zigzag stairs in the library's glassed-in entrance, reached the third floor, walked past rows of business books, looked over his shoulder and slid the master key into the locked door of the St. Louis Room. He opened one of its cabinets and slid book after book into his backpack. In less than a minute it was full, the books' corners jutting at odd angles, poking at the black nylon.
As soon as he was safely back in his dorm room, he erased the penciled call numbers and painstakingly removed the bookplates. It felt ... demonic, he says, remembering a sophomore-year theology class on evil. But there was a rush, too, that came with tasting the forbidden.
He went back several times.
Sometimes he chose well, selecting astronomy and physics texts from the 1700s and carefully avoiding the Jesuit theology that could have come from nowhere else. Other times, drawn by mellow leather and faded gold ornament, he stole too impulsively, picking, say, a single volume of a multivolume set.
When he'd filled his car's trunk with books, he opened the Yellow Pages to "Book Dealers -- Used and Rare." Afraid to return to the Hirschfeld Gallery, he picked Hughes Antiquarian Bookstore, 927 DeMun Ave.
The place felt right, musty and book-lined, guarded by an eccentric British-sounding dealer who talked passionately about "bringing books back from the dead." Clayton introduced himself as a SLU student from Texas, then folded in the necessary fiction: These were books he'd inherited from his uncle. He watched proprietor Eugene Hughes closely, wondering whether he believed the story. Hughes seemed impressed by the books and bought them readily, saying, "If you ever come across any more, let me know."
At Hughes' shop, Clayton also found a directory of booksellers, and he made a few more forays into their tight, idiosyncratic world, visiting, listening, watching. It was a world where some stroked the yellowed vellum the way a lover strokes skin yet others, jaded as Shylock, sold culture to the highest bidder. And in this world, his own haul was trivial: A single page from Leonardo da Vinci would have brought $30.8 million.
The da Vinci auction and a million other literary obsessions and crimes were neatly chronicled in a recent social history -- A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books -- sitting on a shelf two flights above the scene of his crime. It was seldom even checked out, let alone stolen.
Clayton did sell more books to Hughes, a few each time, and nobody came banging on the door to arrest him. By mid-autumn, the feather-tickle of conscience weighed a hundred stone. He wanted to return the rest of the books to the archives, he says, but was now afraid of getting caught. He withdrew from one of his fall classes barely in time, missed the deadline to withdraw from two others and failed the fourth. He started having "nightmare terrors," waking up clammy and shaking, convinced his life was going nowhere and he'd be alone forever.
In January 1998, his counselor referred him for a psychological assessment, and the battery of tests showed "a superior range of intellectual functioning" with a full-scale IQ score of 135, in the 99th percentile. The textbook "underachiever," he alternated assurance with naïveté and impulse with inhibition. "He tends to ruminate on negative aspects of himself and his life," the tester noted, "and often has feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, and hopelessness." The diagnosis identified a "mathematics disorder," anxiety and depression.
None of that was an excuse, and Clayton knew it. That spring, he pulled off one C-plus and either failed or withdrew from everything else. Then, on a Friday in early May, he says, he "just woke up with this strange feeling that something was wrong. I can't explain it -- I hadn't been back to the book dealer in weeks. I went back, just to confirm my suspicion, and he was really different. He stood at the door and didn't let me in, and he said, 'Here you are, this mystery person. What is your real name?'"
Clayton sweated out the weekend. His grandmother, a still-life painter he'd spent a lot of time with as a child, had just died, and another girlfriend had broken up with him. "If I'm going to hit rock bottom," he told himself, "I might as well hit it all the way." At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, he walked into the campus security office and said, "Look, I don't know if you guys know, but let's get this over with."
As it turned out, Hughes had gone to the University's public-safety office the week before, bringing the 20 or so stolen books still in his possession, copies of the checks he'd written and a list of the items he'd bought. "Messes have to be cleaned up," he says, "for karmic reasons, if nothing else." He'd wondered about Clayton all along, but "naturally there are degrees of suspicion. I'd set some of the books aside for restoration, and I kept trying to put two and two together. He'd mentioned he was a student at St. Louis University, so finally I went to the card catalog there. This title, that title, every single damned one of them was a match. The catalog also had little notations about things written on the endsheets, the sheets across from the paste-down on the inside of the back cover where people would put a bookplate, or write names of ownership."
Not all book dealers are so forthcoming, but Hughes disclaims any suggestion of noblesse. "I have no particular fondness for the university," he says crisply. "I was keeping my own nose clean. It's extremely untidy." He allows himself a brief rant on the damage done by peanut butter and jelly, stupid heirs, even libraries themselves, for marking books up or allowing them to be stolen. "Human beings last about 100 years," he says, "but a book should last a couple thousand."
The minute Clayton showed up in their chief's office, university security officers called the police. He spent a few nights at the City Workhouse before he broke down and called his parents. Appalled, they found him a lawyer. By June he'd been charged with felony theft, dismissed from the university and banned from campus.
The next school year, Clayton slept on friends' couches, did some volunteer work with migrant families, lived aimlessly and -- more karma -- lost his personal collection of antique books (Victorian poets and Edgar Allan Poe) in one of his many moves. Little by little, the shards of his life dropped into a new configuration. The Rev. Lawrence Nickels, a Franciscan counselor at Catholic Family Services, helped him see the world from more perspectives than his own, modulate some of the emotion that walled him off from other people. "Your intensity is good," Nickels told him gently, "but save it for your music."
In the fall of 1999, Clayton enrolled at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, where he took courses in abnormal psychology, child psychology and human growth and development, all in a single semester, and aced every one. Then he applied to Fontbonne College, figuring at least it was Catholic and might count for redemption if SLU continued to refuse readmission. ("Significant progress in therapy must be demonstrated before application for readmission will be considered," the university's judicial officer had written.) Fontbonne rejected his application "after a careful examination of your academic credentials and your disciplinary dismissal from St. Louis University.... The college looks for those students who show evidence of successful completion of prior academic work, self-motivation, integrity and character."
In January, Clayton made an appointment with a private psychologist, Karen Hampton, who pointed out a longstanding pattern of inattention/distraction, impulsivity and underachievement/disorganization -- in other words, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or, as Clayton put it dryly to a friend, "a little something we've all heard too much about." She also diagnosed dysthmia (an underlying depressive state), anxiety and avoidant-personality disorder. "With appropriate treatment of ADHD and co-existing anxiety and mood problems, (his) level of risk for recurrent behavioral problems is likely to be reduced greatly," she wrote, recommending him for readmission to the university on probationary status.
Meanwhile, Clayton took her advice, consulted a psychiatrist and began taking medication -- clonazepam -- for the anxiety. "The sweating stops," he reports with relief, "and whenever problems happen, I keep them in proportion. I'm more talkative. I'll even talk to strangers. I wouldn't do that before; I was afraid of ... God knows what."
At Forest Park this spring, Clayton made the dean's list, but he's still eager to return to SLU. One of his Jesuit professors wrote him a letter of recommendation. Encouraged, Clayton wrote three letters himself -- to the head of public safety, to the SLU psychologist who treated him back in 1997 and to the vice president for student development -- promising to stay away from campus except for classes, see a counselor weekly, meet whatever conditions they set. He still loves the university, he wrote, adding wryly, "I guess I made a poor display of that affection. I want to pay back the community ... and earn back its respect and trust.
"The prodigal son wants to come home."