“Surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I could see my own.” That’s how southern author, Neil White, sums up the eighteen months he spent incarcerated in Carville, Louisiana at the nation’s only functioning leprosarium. In his award-winning memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir, White peels back layers of his own ego to reveal a soul stripped raw.
It all started with ambition. A fierce drive to be the best, with a boyhood dream of landing in the pages of The Guinness Book of World Records. Married, with two children, a booming publishing career, and money to burn, White was on his way to making a name for himself. He became known in southern circles as an elite philanthropist, donating willingly to various causes and offering support to his friends and community. The posh homes, expensive cars, numerous boats and frequent travel plans built the perfect image. But it was all a façade. Behind the mask, White was in trouble. Living a double life and making choices that would leave him financially and spiritually crippled.
Eventually, White’s money transfers triggered concerns, and the FBI launched an investigation. He was found guilty for kiting checks, with shortfalls in the millions. Explaining to his young children that Daddy was “going to camp,” White packed his bags and entered the federal penitentiary at the end of the world, in the southern tip of Louisiana, where the river runs North and life as he knew it would shift.
He had not been warned about sharing his sentence with lepers and cons, but within the first week of incarceration, White had been spit on by a Hansen’s Disease patient and was terrified of contracting the feared infection (leprosy). Colorful characters provide a fast pace throughout this soul-searching tale, and White weaves a story that will stick with even the most judgmental reader.
It’s hard not to have sympathy for White’s wife who files for divorce in the thick of the turmoil and leaves readers asking what took her so long. It takes a while to find that same sympathy for the author, who comes across at times as a pompous egomaniac, but who – in the end – redeems himself as a man who finally understands what matters in life.
Ultimately, White’s memoir shows that people really can learn life’s hardest lessons, and leaves readers with a belief in the good of man. He introduces mob lawyers, con-artists, and thieves. But the folks who really leave a lasting impression are the blind man with leprosy who reads the bible in Braille with his tongue, and Ella Bounds, an elderly African-American patient who was removed from her family as a young girl and forced to live in the colony, separated from society, not because she had committed a crime, like White, but because she had the misfortune of contracting a disease.
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts was an Indie NEXT Great Reads Selection. The book was a finalist in the “Books for a Better Life” Award. Sanctuary was one of three national finalists for the 2009 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” Award. And it is a finalist for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance “Book of the Year” award. Foreign language translations have been published in Germany, Croatia and the Netherlands. Hardback copies are available now. The book is also available in paperback June 1, 2010.
Visit Neil White’s website to learn more about the author, the book, and the facility at Carville.