Neil White’s mother always told him that he was destined for greatness. Another man, a lesser man, one without White’s arrogance, vanity and narcissism (or, more kindly, pluck, persistence, and big dreams), might have seen 18 months incarceration in a minimum-security prison in Carville, Louisiana as a huge obstacle on the road to greatness – Neil White saw it as an opportunity. A publisher of slick ‘n shiny lifestyle magazines, White had big dreams for the future, but a propensity for playing fast and loose with his finances landed him in prison for bank fraud, and now humiliated, broke, and emotionally estranged from his wife he decided that he could use the time to transform himself: the dream wasn’t dead, greatness was still within his grasp.
Ever the wheeler-dealer, White whipped up multiple business plans for the future, started classes for other inmates, and started taking notes for the book he would write about his time at prison, a book he was sure would be an award winner and bestseller. Menial jobs assigned by guards were transformed by the perfectionist White into art: illustrated menu boards and lavish garnishments beautified the cafeteria (if only Martha Stewart had these opportunities in her prison!) He also managed to elevate the usual standards of inmate hygiene by hiring a fellow inmate to press his clothes and swiping perfume samples from magazines.
And this might have been all there was to Neil’s story – “How I Stayed Fragrant and Mastered the Art of Garnishment with Honeydew While Serving a Sentence for Check Kiting” – until he met a group of people that would change his life. There was another population at Carville besides the prison inmates, people who were missing limbs, or were blind, or whose faces were disfigured, these were Hansen’s Disease patients, the correct term for what used to be called leprosy, and they were forced to share their sanctuary with the prisoners.
Although patients and prisoners were not supposed to mingle, Neil was intrigued by the patients, especially an elderly woman named Ella, who lost both her legs to the disease and had lived in Carville more than 50 years. Ella and the other patients shared with Neil heartbreaking stories of being forced from their families, of assuming false names to protect their families, of having children taken away from them, of living with the intolerance and fear so many people felt about the disease, and of course the disability and disfigurement that so many of the patients had. It was then that Neil could finally face the truth, “surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I could see my own.” In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is Neil White’s powerful memoir of personal transformation.