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November 14, 2012

Psychologist Tells Inspiring Story of His Giant Uncle

by Greg Flakus

Millions of people seek help from psychologists in part because they feel different from others. But Phoenix-based psychologist Andrew Erlich says everyone is a freak in some way. Erlich argues for acceptance of differences in a book about an uncle who overcame prejudice and pain caused by his extreme height.

In more than 50 silent movies in the 1920s, Jake Erlich amazed audiences by towering over every actor in a scene.

On stage, he was known as Jack Earle, The Texas Giant. To his show business friends, he was a gentle and considerate man. Among his friends were some of the smallest people.

This son of Jewish immigrants had a tumor on his pituitary gland that caused his unusual growth. Growing up... and up, in El Paso, Texas, Earle often was the object of derision.

"Having to dodge rocks that were thrown at me when I was a kid would become all too common," said Erlich, reading Earle's comments from his book.

Andrew Erlich is Jack Earle's nephew. His book, The Long Shadows, tells how Jack, or Jake, overcame his challenges, including depression.

"Most of us have something that we are embarrassed about. It is like an invisible clubfoot. But for Jake, it was present. Everybody saw it," said Erlich.

As a clinical psychologist, Andrew Erlich helps patients who see themselves as freaks. First, he tells them about his uncle.  

"Here is a man that overcomes the stereotypes, and he does it not by avoiding who he is, but by embracing who he is and expressing it in the visual arts and in his performances," he said.

Erlich's book tells about how Jake toured with the circus and then, after suffering temporary blindness, took up sculpture and painting.

"He found freedom through creativity. I am very interested in the creative process in the people that I see, and I use Jake as an example, and I show them his paintings," said Erlich.

Jake's paintings depict circus events, scenic vistas and the lives of common people he met traveling the country.

"Jake really wanted to do something that was not photographic. You see a scene and your emotions come through as you see it, and you paint it from different perspectives," said Erlich.

Today, advances in medicine can prevent the gigantism that afflicted Jake Erlich. He died at the age of 46 in 1952. But Andrew Erlich said openness to diversity is progress compared to Jake's era.

"People were very frightened of human differences, and they would build walls to protect themselves from those differences and those walls that separate us are very dangerous," he said.

Erlich hopes that his uncle's story will help readers accept themselves and fulfill their dreams.