Literary Larceny

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

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."

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.

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."

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