Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir by Neil White

On May 3, 1993, Neil W. White, III entered a minimum security prison on a narrow peninsula on the Mississippi River in Carville, Louisiana. Soon after being praised by several national business journals as a model for entrepreneurs, White had been caught kiting checks to support his growing magazine empire, which included New Orleans Magazine, Louisiana Life, and Coast Magazine. The story of his quick fall from a life of luxury, professional acclaim, and a happy family to bankruptcy, societal disdain, and divorce is one element in his unusual account of a year in prison, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir.

On that fateful day, White had no idea where he was. Due to a shortage of federal prison space, some inmates not considered dangerous were being sent to the Federal Medical Center at Carville, formerly called the National Leprosarium, a residential, long-term hospital for leprosy patients. Though the population of patients had shrunk dramatically over decades, there were still more than 100 in residence. Some had been there over half a century. On his way to his assigned room (which could not be called a cell because it had no door), he noticed people missing legs, fingers, and parts of their faces. Not knowing where he was and with whom he was sharing space, he was troubled. What was about to happen to him?

What happened was that White was immersed in a community of inmates and patients, both unhappy about the "marriage of convenience" forced by the federal prison system. Distrust was high for good reason, and White thought that he could write a sensational book about the situation to sell as soon as his eighteen-month sentence ended, helping him regain his status and wealth. What he learned instead, after breaking rules to interview patients, led him to question his whole way of life. His gentler, more reflective book took fifteen years to write.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir is a highly entertaining book. White includes a fascinating cast of characters - most with names changed. His short chapters recount daily encounters with patients and inmates, visits from his family, and a battle with the prison system that the patients eventually win. Most public libraries should get this forthcoming book, which according to the publicity, will be heavily promoted across the South.

Readers may be interested in learning more about leprosy. A good starting spot is the World Health Organization wesite, which discusses the disease, its treatments, and its incidence around the world.

White, Neil W., III. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir. William Morrow, June 2009. ISBN 9780061351600

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