Title: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts
Author: Neil White
One Sentence Summary: Neil White was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for bank fraud, and to serve his sentence he was sent to Careville, Louisiana, home to the last people in the United States disfigured by leprosy.
One Sentence Review: White’s memoir has the ingredients to be fascinating — and in parts, it is — but when writing about himself White manages to make the most unique stories feel flat.
Long Review: Neil White had it all — a successful publishing business, a lovely wife and two adorable children, and the respect of everyone he came in contact with. But White’s success was built on lies, a series of check kiting schemes used to cover huge losses and an extravagant lifestyle. It didn’t take long for White’s schemes to be uncovered, and as a result he was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.
White was sent to Carville, Louisiana, a low-security federal prison that was also the home to the last colony of people in the United States with leprosy. This community of outcasts — prisoners and patients — shared a home sheltered from the outside world. The journalist in White initially planned to use his prison time to research an exposé on life in the prison, but as he got to know the other inmates and patients, he started to find a new perspective on his life. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is White’s memoir about his time in Carville.
The odd and controversial history of Carville is a story that I’m glad found a narrator in White. Many of the incidents in the history of medicine and public health are distasteful today, and the treatment of people with leprosy is no exception. Many of the patients were were taken from their homes after being diagnosed with the disease and forced into isolation. The fact that they have overcome this treatment and built a home for themselves makes much of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts a book I’m glad I spent time reading.
But what struck me in reflecting back on the memoir is how little emotional connection I had in most of the story. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy reading the book, it’s that I felt like White never really got me to become invested in his journey, and by extension, the main narrative of the book. I found pre-prison Neil off-putting (as I’m sure I was supposed to), but never really felt like the lessons he wrote about learning in prison meant anything.
Certainly, the stories of the leprosy patients and the people who make Carville their home were interesting, but something about White’s style kept me from really investing in their stories, too. I think maybe if White had spend a little less time reflecting on his life and more time telling the stories of those around him, I may have enjoyed the book more.
However, I get the feeling that I’m in the minority on this one. If you want some other opinions, check out the reviews below.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!