In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir
By Diann Blakely
Neil White had--or thought he had--everything. A newspaper/magazine entrepreneur who was sentenced to a year in the Carville, LA minimum security prison for kiting checks to keep his Gulf Coast publishing empire and upscale family lifestyle afloat, he was shocked to find himself living side by side with patients in the last leprosarium in the US, one to which people were at one point involuntarily confined. Though that particular form of incarceration ended twenty years ago, nearly all of those suffering from what is now referred to as "Hansen's Disease" preferred to stay rather than endure the stigma placed on them by the world beyond the "leper colony." (Actually, Carville is an unincorporated community of about eleven hundred people and is named for the grandfather, who served as postmaster, of one of the most famous figures on the political scene--yes, James Carville.)
I'd say White’s book, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, is a page-turner, but there's cruelty in that, considering that so many of his subjects have no fingers with which to turn pages. His former prison inmates taught White a great deal too, especially "Doc," his roommate, a licensed physician who wanted to patent a penile erection shot, and "Link," as in "missing," who thought White an idiot for stealing money from banks and having nothing to show for it. The story is one of learning humility. Among the many losses White endured was that of his first wife through divorce, as well as, even more important, the painful separation from, and threatened loss of, his children. Initially told that “Daddy was at camp” and in a long “time-out,” they paid him regular, excruciatingly bittersweet visits, initially escorted by White’s first wife, Linda, and then this mother. The redemption that comes with that humility, and the scarifying look at one’s truest self, is the core lesson of White’s story: "Finally, in a sanctuary for outcasts, I understood the truth. Surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I could see my own," he writes.
It’s worth pointing out that White’s is no off-the-cuff, rushed into-print memoir, as is so often the case these days. Instead, White spent fifteen years working on his book. He enrolled in writing classes at his alma mater, Ole Miss, allowing the late Willie Morris, who was an “old friend,” and Barry Hannah, his current tennis partner, to teach him everything he could about writing as opposed to publishing, the vast but shaky empire which he had started from Oxford, MS, then moved to Gulfport then finally to New Orleans. Of his time in Carville, White says in an interview with Times-Picayune book editor Susan Larsen, "I think, if you are intuitive, you are aware of the unbelievable suffering -- physically and emotionally -- that was endured by the people who were brought there. And you couple that with the amazing healing that happened there, it sends chills down my spine. You're in a place in the United States where people who are citizens of this country were the last people who were imprisoned because they had a disease. What that did to them and how they responded. I was in awe of the place. It's almost like going to a church that has a 500-year history. You think of all those people who've been there and brought their problems to that altar."