In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

47 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is riveting. I had trouble putting it down. I wouldn’t have expected to say that about a prison memoir, but it’s true.

Neil White was in the publishing business. First, he ran a newspaper in Oxford, MS. When that didn’t work out, he went to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where he started up a magazine business that grew so rapidly it made his head spin. It also made him greedy. He tried to expand too fast, and he got in over his head. He started kiting checks just to buy a little time. I would write checks for money he didn’t have from one account to another. He’d keep writing checks to himself from other accounts at other banks to keep from showing an enormous overdraft. He didn’t actually have the money. He was taking advantage of the window between the time the check is deposited and the time it goes through on the other account. He did this just to buy one more day before he could collect the advertising money to cover his expenses.

Turns out people go to prison for stuff like that. White ended up in Carville, Louisiana. This is the town that James Carville is from. It’s also the site of America’s last leprosy colony, a colony that had dwindled so in population by the 1990s when White arrived that it was being put to double use as minimum security prison. The prisoners and the patients shared the same facility. They were housed in separate sections, but they still intermingled. As you might imagine, neither population was entirely thrilled with this arrangement.

Neil White was frankly terrified of catching leprosy when he first arrived. He shared a room with a doctor (busted for selling banned substances in diet pills), and he asked a lot of questions. Turns out that despite the fact that leprosy has fairly well been contained in this country, doctors still don’t know exactly how it spreads. White’s roommate thought it spread through airborne particles, and the very first day that White was sent to work on the patient side of the facility, someone spit in his face. He probably had reason to be frightened.

Gradually, however, he began to take an interest in the patients as people. He interviewed them. He got to know them. He learned some important lessons from them.

Some of these people had lived in the colony their whole lives after contracting leprosy as children. They may have come there at the age of 8 or 9 and lived in the same institution up through to old age. They knew nothing else, and even refused to leave when offered a chance to assimilate back into the outside world. Theirs is an amazing story.

Neil White also has an interesting story. His prison time was truly life-changing. He didn’t want to change, and he didn’t think he needed to change at first, but after months of interacting with people who had truly suffered in life, he began to confront his own faults. He began to see his imprisonment not just as a humiliating experience but as a lesson in the consequences of pride and greed.

I wasn’t really sure I believed his turnabout. I figured you have to be pretty egotistical to do what he did, and someone that egotistical would say what he thought he needed to say in his book in order to sell a lot of copies and garner some sympathy for his own cause. Maybe that is the case, but in the intervening years, he does seem to have turned his life around. He’s at least stayed out of prison.

I’m going to take that to mean it’s safe to see the character building he does in the book as genuine. I hope it is. I find it inspiring.

I must say that I did not even know leprosy was still around. I’m stunned by the idea that we were still isolating its victims from society throughout the entire 20th century. I can’t even fathom what it would be like to live out a whole long life in a leprosy colony. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an old woman who had not left the colony since grade school days and who formed her perception of the outside world through watching Young and the Restless.

Nevertheless, these are people who seem to know a whole lot about humility and perseverance. Read their story. It will awe and inspire.

One thought on “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White”

  1. loved this book, too. Stayed up late and read it in one night. We have a similar summer reading list!!!!

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