In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
Neil White has made a lot of mistakes in his life, some with serious consequences. Consequences such as spending months in federal prison for kiting checks. While engaging in his financial acrobatics to keep his magazines going, Neil never really considered that what he was doing was wrong, even after being caught once and losing people’s money. He figured that if he could just juggle the money until there was enough to cover everything, nobody would get hurt and nobody would mind. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out like that. Neil was caught in his financial indiscretions, hurting his family, friends, and many investors in the process.
When Neil was sentenced to 18 months in prison, he accepted his fate, although he never really seemed to consider that he was on the same level as the ‘criminals’. Because of his acceptance of his punishment, prison in and of itself didn’t seem to be a huge shock to him, what DID surprise him is that federal inmates were not the only ones housed at Carville penitentiary – Carville was also America’s last leprosarium (leper colony).
As one of the inmates who seemed the most open to befriending and talking with the ‘patients’ (as those with leprosy or Hansen’s Disease were called), Neil learned quite a bit of history of leprosy in the United States and about the fascinating and sometimes horrifying circumstances that had brought people to the leprosarium at Carville. Originally, still in his journalism-oriented mindset, White planned to engage in some participatory journalism to write a sort of expose about the state of leprosy in America and the fact that federal inmates were being held in the same institution as a population of people with leprosy.
An expose is not what White ended up writing, however. Instead, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” is his personal memoir of growth through his time at Carville. Okay, if I read the line “personal memoir of growth,” that would probably stop me from picking up a book, because those sorts of things usually turn out cheesy in my opinion. That is not “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” at all. White was very open and straightforward about his thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as he described the events of his year or so in prison. The growth he experienced seemed very genuine and very real and he seemed to be honest about how he arrived at it, he was never flashy or melodramatic.
This was a fantastic book. One might expect that a memoir of this nature would be more about the story than the writing, but as a former journalist Neil got everything right: the pacing, the storytelling, and the writing. In addition to White’s personal story and experience as a federal inmate, which was interesting in itself, I was fascinated to read about Carville as a leprosarium and about the lives of the patients there. I must admit that I’ve never given much (any?) thought sufferers of leprosy in American and definitely had my eyes opened by this book.
This was a great read and one that I would definitely recommend.