A driven writer and entrepreneur, Neil White, played fast and loose with other people’s trust, manipulated money around in a way that was frowned upon by our legal statutes, and found himself a guest of the government at a penal institution that also served as America’s last leper colony. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts
tells of his one year stay there, what he saw and learned, not only about our criminal incarceration system but about the history of leprosy, both the textbook learning and the sort that no book can teach, about true acceptance and understanding, overcoming one’s worst and becoming one’s best.
Holding one’s family life together and coping with a year in the joint is put in perspective when one is surrounded by people who are literally wasting away, but who may have more substance to them than those more fortunate. The tale here is primarily White’s journey, his change from a person 100% concerned with the trappings of financial success, a disciple of “greed is good”, to a reflective, mature person, one more focused on doing good, and living simply and honestly. He comes to terms with his internal flaws in an environment defined by externalities.
White offers a wonderful array of characters, from Ella, his legless muse to Doc, who has developed a remarkable way to attack many dire illnesses, to Link a street thug, to an understanding priest. The list goes on. Many of the characters White encountered in his year in stir are briefly noted, but he offers plenty of their interesting tales and this enriches the storytelling. He also offers us a peek into the strain his incarceration placed on his family. There are grainy photos here of some of the people he writes about, including his wife and children. I imagine that is how they looked attached to wall of his cell.
This is a warm, fast, engrossing and satisfying read.
P 169 – Finally, in a sanctuary for outcasts, I understood the truth. Surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I could see my own.
“How can I face the people of Oxford? What will people think?” I said.
“What peoples think,” Ella said,”ain’t none of your business.”
That night, in bed, I pondered this novel idea—to act without seeking praise from others. A good portion of my adult life had been spent daydreaming about what others thought of me. I imagined and re-imagined accolades, awards, trophies, applause. Just wait until they see this! I would say to myself, not even sure who “they” were.
Journalism had been the perfect profession to spread the good news of my accomplishments. More than sixty thousand households—every neighbor, friend, and relative—received a monthly sampling of my works bound in the finest paper money could buy. People stopped me on the street to talk about a never-before-published photograph I had discovered, or a thought-provoking editorial I had penned. And I was more than happy to stop and elaborate. At times, it made me dizzy. I felt like I was fulfilling a destiny.
Now, this hunt for adoration felt demeaning.