This Dust of Words

Watch this entire Truly CA episode: This Dust of Words by filmmaker Bill Rose. (Running Time: 59:14)

Even at a very young age, Elizabeth Wiltsee was different from everyone else. Behind her wide eyes and gap-toothed smile lay a prodigious intelligence. With an IQ of 200, she taught herself to read by age four and was reading classical Greek by the time she was ten. She grew up in Manila, then Geneva, and graduated with the first National Merit Scholarship from the Milton Academy, outside of Boston. At Stanford University, English professor John Felstiner found in Wiltsee the soul of a poet, possessing " an utterly uncommon voice and sensibility."

Two decades later, parishioners in a small farming community on the central California coast would find her sleeping in the doorway of their church, apparently mute, adverse to all offers of help. Despite her deepening mental illness and erratic behavior, she soon became part of their town. She would shyly attend Mass and spend her afternoons in the public library, poring over classics to perfect her own translations of ancient Chinese and Greek poetry.

Then she disappeared -- last seen headed east over the coastal mountain range, traveling by foot. Seven months later her body was discovered in a remote wilderness area some sixty miles away. Before she had left town she had calmly told another homeless woman, "I'm going home."

Much like Wiltsee's conviction that words fail to capture the essence of existence, so too are they inadequate at understanding the mystery of her life. This Dust of Words, whose title is taken from Wiltsee's Stanford honors' thesis, is both a meditation on that mystery and the story of uncommon kindness and compassion; an elegy for a life lived differently -- brilliant, tragic and haunting, right to the very end.

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