Stuart Clive Shorter is the first homeless man to have his life documented in a biography. While he and his story are extraordinary, the adversity and the evils he faced are disturbingly common.
Stuart is a violent, dangerous, thieving, schizophrenic, alcoholic drug addict with “a great pension for little bits of silver,” aka knives. He has served sentences in over 30 different prisons over the course of his 33 years. He has attempted suicide at least twice and has mutilated himself on multiple occasions. Yet every interaction with him, when he is lucid and not caught up in one of his “black mists,” is warm, happy, and thought provoking. Stuart, when he is truly himself is a joy to be around, which begs the question, what created the monster inside him, the one he is so desperate to eradicate through any means necessary?
The film, Stuart: A Life Backwards, centers on Stuart’s work on the Cambridge Two campaign in which he helped two chairty workers fight false accusations of “knowingly permitting” drug dealing at the shelter they were in charge of. Stuart did two things for the campaign: “he stuffed envelopes, and he shared his soul.” He tells his story in its entirety, starting with the horrific abuse he suffered as a child from his brother and then later from the doctors he was placed in the care of by the local government. He speaks about his lack luster education, his muscular dystrophy, his road to recovery and then his eventual downfall as his mental illnesses became too overwhelming for him to cope with on his own. Stuart receives help from the government, in the form of housing and a disability check. He sees a therapist weekly, but any time Stuart is in trouble, the situation is handled, but there is never an attempt to understand why it happened or to help Stuart realize that it does not need to happen again. He is only ever subdued, never helped. This is the norm for most who seek treatment for mental illness, especially for the homeless.
What is magnificent about Stuart, what makes him a hero even with all of his incredible flaws, is his capacity for compassion, and his desire to help despite the fact that no one has ever given him the help he needs or shown him any compassion. The hell he went through twisted and destroyed a part of him, but he had the strength to keep that part separate from his true self. His struggle lies in controlling that dark part of himself and we see that when surrounded by loved ones, he is able to restrain himself from committing a crime. When he has something to work for and people who return his kindness, Stuart is not a danger to anyone, but once an act of violence is committed against him, or he is on the receiving end of any kind of abuse, that dark side floods his brain and takes over. Perhaps if the way in which mental illness is perceived held less stigma, and the way in which it is treated was more like the treatment of any other illness, Stuart would have had a better chance at surviving in this world.