In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts: A Memoir, by Neil White
I must admit that although I read a fair amount of memoirs, I have not read many prison memoirs . Among the more thorny problems to deal with in terms of prison memoirs is the issue of framing. It is easy to feel sympathetic for the plight of those who have been imprisoned by corrupt totalitarian regimes like Communist Russia or China or Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the reader generally assumes that those who have been imprisoned in the contemporary United States have earned their prison sentence, such as we see for the one year sentence served by the author for kiting checks in order to increase his cash flow as a would-be redneck riviera magazine mogul. The author of a memoir like this has a difficult challenge in showing a certain amount of contrition and personal growth as a result of imprisonment while simultaneously also remaining a sympathetic enough figure for law and order readers. This is a difficult challenge, and if the author does not seem entirely genuine in his self-portrayal, this is still a worthwhile read about a man who spent a year in a leprosarium (or, less politely, a leper colony) and how it led him to reflect upon his life.
In about 300 pages the author gives the reader an inside look into a brief period of time when the federal government engaged in an unintentional social experiment by which people afflicted with leprosy (even if it was no longer active) shared their colony with federal convicts. The experiment, as one might imagine, did not go particularly successfully and the author provides many examples of self-effacing humor that demonstrate his overeagerness to please others, his troubled family history with a certain amount of mental illness and alcoholism present among relatives (including both his father and paternal grandfather) and the wreckage of his own marriage under the strain of life behind bars. The author shows considerable literary flair in giving an insider’s look at the way that lepers still serve as outcasts and how for their own safety and well-being many of them preferred to remain in Carville despite the fact that they could be free in the outside world if they wished. It is sobering reading to see frequently gentle and kind souls prefer to share their housing with prisoners rather than make it in an uncaring world with people like ourselves, and the author makes the most of the awkwardness of dealing with the fear of contagion and the shame of being kicked out of a leper dance.
Perhaps most notably of all the author manages to convey a sense of himself as a human being, certainly a flawed one, but a human being not too unlike ourselves. It is not hard to see how someone from a dysfunctional family background with a burning desire to be someone special in the eyes of the world and to present himself as a model to the world could engage in some immoral short-cuts in order to preserve his reputation in the absence of personal honor. Likewise, the author does a good enough job at presenting himself as a naif in prison so that even if he is a bit unreliable as a narrator that there is still a great deal to appreciate here. If you are looking for a prison memoir of a check kiter that is also a history of the treatment and housing of lepers and a reflection on an unusual but striking failed social experiment in imprisonment, this is certainly a pleasant enough book to read that will also cause some reflection about the extent to which we make outcasts feel at home in the larger social world.
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