Literary Larceny

Andrew Clayton stole rare books from the Jesuits. Now he's hoping they'll forgive him.

Andrew Clayton sat at his dorm-room desk, staring into the blank plaster eyes of Poseidon and ignoring the letter he'd slid beneath the bust's base. Yet another warning from the credit-card company he now owed $2,500. Behind him, piano music crashed from the stereo speakers like a movie theme. Bee-thoven's "Apassionata." He'd been buying a lot of Beethoven CDs lately. He'd been throwing a lot of parties, too, paying for most of the liquor himself, trying, as he told his counselor, "to develop friends." His grades had plummeted again.

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.

Andrew Clayton's theft of rare books from SLU made him feel "demonic" -- but there was a rush, too, that came with tasting the forbidden.
Anna Bouffard
Andrew Clayton's theft of rare books from SLU made him feel "demonic" -- but there was a rush, too, that came with tasting the forbidden.

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.

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