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Mon February 1, 2010
"In the Sanctuary of Outcasts" by Neil White
Neil White had it made. A good-looking fellow, the son and grandson of lawyers, White had graduated from Ole Miss after four years as a self-satisfied Kappa Sigma, married a beautiful girl, Linda, and was the father of two adorable children, Neil and Maggie. The family lived in Oxford, Mississippi, where Neil was the founding publisher of the "other" newspaper, the "Oxford Times."
By Don Noble
Neil White had it made. A good-looking fellow, the son and grandson of lawyers, White had graduated from Ole Miss after four years as a self-satisfied Kappa Sigma, married a beautiful girl, Linda, and was the father of two adorable children, Neil and Maggie. The family lived in Oxford, Mississippi, where Neil was the founding publisher of the "other" newspaper, the "Oxford Times." They lived well, in fact lived high, and appeared prosperous, but the paper was losing money. White wrote overdrafts, and then kited checks to keep afloat. Caught, but not criminally prosecuted, White went bankrupt and his investors and vendors lost about $150,000.
It takes the reader a moment to absorb this, but White did not feel he had failed. He felt, as he puts it, "bulletproof." Moving to his hometown of Gulfport he found new investors and launched "Coast Magazine" and then "Coast Business Journal" and "Louisiana Life Magazine," and took over "New Orleans Magazine." It was hubris of the rawest sort, a house of cards that came down, of course, and this time his kited checks totaled $1 million.
Arrested and convicted, White was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, beginning May 3, 1993. He is in a so-called minimum security prison, but the punishment is real, the rules are arbitrary and rigidly enforced and the threat of violence is never very far away.
Perhaps White would have written his story in any prison, but Carville, on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, (yes, on land once owned by James Carville's ancestors ), was, no kidding, part minimum security prison and part leper colony.
At this point, White felt bad, felt low, but not exactly repentant. He was full of plans for after his release, used cologne ads torn out of magazines so he would smell good, and set about writing an expose of the prison, where the 400-plus inmates might possibly catch leprosy from the 130 patients. White would be the George Plimpton of the pen, in a participatory journalism project, while, in his mind, only pretending to be an inmate.
He sets about reading of the history of Carville, and interviewing his fellow residents.
The criminal inmates are, let me say, a very mixed lot. Many are ill; some are violent. White rooms with a brilliant MD, in for criminal malpractice and Medicaid fraud, who is inventing an injected cure for impotence. He comes to know Jimmy Hoffa's lawyer and a mob lawyer who may have information on the JFK assassination, as well as a computer hacker whiz, a brilliant but overly inventive accountant, and a number of rougher types.
He also makes a study of leprosy and this too is fascinating. Leprosy is a neurological disorder but medication can bring it under control. There is no inoculation against it and no test to determine who is susceptible. Fingers and toes don't exactly rot off but, untreated, the body may absorb digits. When the extremities go numb, sometimes patients injure themselves without realizing it, and become infected. Leprosy might be transferable through an infected droplet from a cough. Nobody is sure. it seems also that armadillos in East Texas and Louisiana get leprosy.
Over time however, White's project and White himself changed. The book shifted from history and expose of the faults he sees around him to an honest, moving, introspective memoir, the story of a man who thinks he has lost everything, but finds himself.
Making friends with several victims of Hansen's disease, as they preferred to be called, he is impressed by their courage and resilience, especially by that of his friend Ella Bounds, 80 years old with no legs. This wise woman, who had been involuntarily committed as a child but is now free to go, gives him some advice that turned him around. White had spent his life climbing, climbing, seeking adulation and prizes, caring way too much what others thought of him. He asks Ella "how does a person change" and she tells White, who is perpetually interviewing others, ask "your own self."
White's epiphany and his metamorphosis are slow, but genuine. He comes to realize his own sin of pride, seeks and finds solace in the church, begins to help others by teaching reading skills and develops a real empathy for the pain of the leprosy patients and the inmates.
White was released on April 25, 1994 at the age of 33. Linda had divorced him but he is again happily married, has a close relationship with his college-age children and lives in Oxford where he owns "a small publishing company."
Neil White learned a lot about Hansen's disease and himself while serving his time, and the reader too comes away richer for reading his account.
Carville is now a National Museum of Hansen's disease.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."