Lost in the Cause

In the early 1960s, Eldrewey Stearns was a powerful force for integration in a segregated society. Then he forgot his way, and history forgot him. Until, that is, he met writer Thomas R. Cole.

Stearns looked at Cole with all the haughtiness knowing your place in history can bring. "Son," he said, "you don't have the purview I have. You have been inside writing all this time, and I've been outside, thinking."

In 1984, when he first met Eldrewey Stearns, Thomas Cole had been teaching in the medical humanities department of UTMB for two years. A graduate of Yale and the University of Rochester, Cole considered himself the classic "guilty Northern liberal." He was revising his doctoral thesis on the cultural history of aging in America, a broad, densely annotated survey of American attitudes that would eventually be published in 1992 by Cambridge University Press. He thought his next book should be about autobiography and aging, and when he encountered Stearns in a class that introduced medical students to major psychiatric illness, he believed he had found his subject matter.

Stearns, who had been brought to the hospital by the police, had been found in an alcoholic stupor on a Galveston beach. He had what was diagnosed as a classic case of manic-depressive illness; before he showed up at UTMB, he had already been treated for the disorder at hospitals in Austin, Washington, D.C., and Galveston. Doctors had given him prescriptions for lithium, but Stearns said he preferred booze. A psychiatric resident in the UTMB class recalled having seen Stearns before at the hospital's crisis clinic, once for having tried to circumcise himself with a razor. Stearns was proud of what he had attempted, for he claimed to be the great grandson of Adolphus Sterne, the Jewish-German merchant who had helped fund the Texas revolution. It was a claim, Cole would discover, that's probably true -- and a claim that ended up helping create a bond between the Jewish historian and the part Jewish mental patient. Other claims followed: that Stearns had graduated from Michigan State University and received a law degree from TSU and that he was "the original integration leader in Texas."

As these assertions tumbled out of Stearns's mouth, Cole could feel the doubt and suspicion in the room. What the medical students knew for a hard fact was that this was a man who slept on his mother's couch in a tiny wooden house north of Broadway. And delusions of greatness are one of the characteristics of manic depression. For most of those observing him, Eldrewey Stearns was simply a collection of symptoms. But something about Stearns resonated with Cole. His talk was often incoherent, but it was just as often eloquent, even dazzling and seductive at times. Cole suspected there might be something to Stearns's claims, and asked permission to check him out. What he found was confirmation of at least part of Stearns's story: Newspaper clippings that Stearns had at his mother's house confirmed that he had indeed been a leader of student sit-ins.

Stearns had long aspired to write his autobiography and had even made a few abortive attempts at the project, giving his work titles ranging from The Playboy Messiah to No Color Is My Kind, the latter of which had come to him in a vision when he lived in the relatively colorblind society of Belize. Stearns knew exactly what kind of book he wanted to write, or have written for him. He had been inspired by the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor who dictated an episodic account of his triumphs and disasters with dukes, duchesses, popes, rival craftsmen and artists. On every other page Cellini seemed to have his hand on his sword hilt as some new character, usually described as a brute and villain, tried to cheat him out of what was rightfully his. When Cellini was down and out, he wrote poems, as did Stearns. Cellini's work was a work of pure egotism, and in him Stearns saw a kindred soul. Now all he had to do was find someone who could let his own soul out. When he met Cole, he felt his search was over.

Shortly after their initial meeting, Cole opened his office to Stearns for weekly and sometimes twice-weekly taping sessions. Cole thought it might take him a year to piece Stearns's story together sufficiently to edit it into a book. Three years later, he had 150 hours of confused audiotape and was in despair. Stearns had tested the limits of his patience and that of Cole's colleagues, his friends and his wife.

Though Cole is a historian, not a psychologist, his relationship with Stearns quickly evolved into something like that of therapist and patient. When he was deep in his psychosis, Stearns was sexually obsessive and made crude comments, not only to Cole and his wife, then a psychiatrist at UTMB, but also to female staff at the university, who eventually protested his visits and insisted that Cole meet with Stearns elsewhere.

Early on, Cole had convinced a Galveston philanthropist to help support Stearns while the book was being written, but the largess didn't make Stearns any easier to deal with. Cole began to realize that Stearns wasn't really interested in putting together a coherent narrative, and it exhausted his patience.

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