Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book #7 of 2010

"In the Sanctuary of Outcasts" by Neil White

Before he was imprisoned for fraud in 1993, editor Neil White's life had been defined by dreams of wealth and status. Even in prison, he saved the scented strips from magazines to substitute for the cologne he loved. But his was hardly the standard minimum-security facility: Carville, in rural Louisiana, also served as the country's last leper colony. Once inside, White is pleasant and collegial with his fellow inmates. He applies his creativity and desire for approval to his prison jobs, which at first include chalking the dining room menu board (he adds puns and sketches) and creating ambitious garnishes for food. He finds comradeship not only with white-collar criminals -- a mafia lawyer, a crooked doctor -- but also with loud, brash-talking Link, who mocks him as boring, "the whitest man I ever met." His most important mentors, however, are the men and women confined because of leprosy, particularly wheelchair-bound Ella Bounds, who was forced to leave her family as a child, and whose good humor and gnomic wisdom astonish him.

The Hansen's Disease (formerly leprosy) patients at Carville are the true stars of this memoir. Separated and often cut off from their families, they spend their lives in isolation at the leprosarium in Louisiana. That prisoners -- even low risk ones -- are sent to live with them shows how little respect and concern they are given.

When Neil White is imprisoned there because of his white collar crimes (check kitting to hide his growing debt) instead of being repentant for the lives he has ruined -- including his, his wife's, his children, his parents and his employees -- he sees the opportunity to make more money in writing about the Hansen's patients. I spent the first half of the book being really pissed at White because while he seemed genuinely interested in the patients, he also still craved the fame and fortune that landed him in prison. There is no doubt he is a good writer - his descriptions of his fellow patients are humorous and pitying at times. However, White, like most prisoners, doesn't seem to think what he did was wrong.

Fortunately he has an epiphany about half way into his one-year sentence (perhaps it is his wife divorcing him) and finally seems to realize the mess he has made of his life and a lot of other lives. He also sees the leprosy patients not as fodder for his journalistic study - but people with their own lives, joys and pains.

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