Monday, August 29, 2011

"In the Sanctuary of Outcasts" by Neil White

Here's the plot to a book.  Would you want to read it?
Neil White, a privileged, educated white Southerner, is found guilty of bank fraud and sentenced to one year in Carville, a cushy minimum security prison.  Throughout his ordeal he is well-supported by family, friends, and even inmates, and he is able to see his two loving children every weekend. In his memoir, he takes the reader through the course of his sentence and self-reflective journey as he realizes he can't change who he is--but maybe he'll try not to make so many mistakes in the future.
The answer: no. It's boring, self-pitying, and self-indulgent. Publishers, too, must have realized that there's nothing worthwhile in that story.  So, instead, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is sold on the one part of White's story that is compelling: Carville, White's prison, was also the U.S.'s last leprosarium, which was home to about one-hundred leprosy patients who had lived there for decades.

As a reader, I was drawn in to all the fascinating story possibilities this situation provided. Like most people, my idea of leprosy is the "unclean" beggar image from the Bible.  I had no idea it still existed or how the U.S. treated (and continues to treat) persons with the disease.  I had so many questions. What were the lives of the patients like? What were their histories? How had their lives at Carville changed over the decades? How had they created their own society within the institution? They had been forcibly removed and quarantined as young people but now, elderly, they chose to stay. And now their home was being invaded by convicts--how did that make them feel? What kind of tensions were created in such a situation?

White's memoir does address some of the latter questions about the relationships between the patients and inmates (spoiler: there wasn't much of one; they didn't like the inmates), but it mostly ignores the early questions. Although White claims he interviewed all the patients, we hear very little of their stories. And though White spends a lot of time lauding his relationship with Ella, an elderly black patient in a wheelchair, it's not quite clear why she had much of an effect on him--other than saying so would help sell books. The reader is given little idea of what Carville was like from the patients' point of view.

In fact, early on even White admits that he's more interested in his own story than the story of the leprosy patients, which, unfortunately for me, I did not care about one bit. White spends far too much time mourning his downfall and whining about his "good intentions."  We even see his "good intentions" fall flat in the book; he spends about a chapter "thinking about" the negative connotations surrounding leprosy and wondering if he can do something about getting it renamed (and by the way, it's already called Hansen's disease). Then he forgets about it and the topic is dropped. And he goes back to his journey of self-discovery.... blech.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is an easy and fast read, but I would not at all recommend it if you're interested in the lives of the patients who carried out their entire lives there.

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