Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Secret People

"A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him,"I do will it. Be made clean." The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;that will be proof for them." The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. ~Mark 1:40-45.”

"A wonderful, wonderful experience" is how Neil White describes his year spent incarcerated with the last living American victims of leprosy and 500 other prison inmates. Not the response you might expect, but after reading his memoir, you come to understand the meaning behind the sentiment. His book, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, published by William Morrow, gives the reader a whole new perspective on the history of Hansen's Disease.

Sixteen miles south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sits the little village of Carville, once home to a large leprosarium. More than 5,000 patients have been cared for in what was once an old stately southern plantation known as Indian Camp. In 1993, it was also a Federal Medical Center for the prison system. Mostly composed of minimal security inmates, the prison population was not supposed to mingle with the remaining 134 patients of the leprosarium. But, thankfully, Neil White makes it his mission to tell their stories and enriches his own in the process.

What comes to mind when you hear the word, leper...revulsion? Fear? Pestilence? Maybe all three? Exactly the thoughts that jumped forefront to Neil White upon first learning about his unusual neighbors while doing prison time for a white-collar bank fraud conviction.

The author introduces the various personalities of the inmates and patients with skill, and I found myself wanting more stories from Stan and Sarah, the blind couple; Ella, the woman-child who had spent a lifetime shut away from her beloved family, and Jimmy Harris, who went on to write and self-publish his own book, King of the Microbes. My biggest complaint about the memoir? The far too abbreviated histories of these "secret people" who suffered a lifetime of incarceration instead of the short months sentenced to Neil White; their only crime that of contracting a hyper-feared incurable disease. Same goes for the inmates like Link (as in "missing link"), the black kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who is both hilarious and tragic at the same times. Mistaking the word "leper" for that of an African jungle animal, "leopard", is typical of the lexicon of the barely educated Link. The passage describing Link as he carjacks a Little Debbie's van in the middle of the Garden District will have you rolling on the floor with laughter.

To be fair, Mr. White was trying to experience a catharsis of sorts with his book, a personal testament to his life-changing experience and not an in-depth biography of the patients. I get it, but I have to be honest - the histories of the afflicted were far more intriguing than the epiphany of a white southern silver-spooned boy who has a come-to-jesus meeting with his ego after getting his butt knocked in the dirt of the proverbial evil corporate world.

Still, it is a great quick summer read with enough tease to make you want to know more about these people who lost so much and the disease that marked them as outcasts in their own country. Besides, what can be more entertaining than a book incorporating the old south, leprosy, and a felon?

Oh...and did I mention you learn who really killed JFK?

Here is a YouTube video of Neil White discussing his book:

Many thanks to Shawn at William Morrow for trusting me to review the book. You can learn more and preorder here.

1 comment:

joared said...

You make this book sound like a really interesting read.