In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir
By Neil White
Published by Harper Perennial, 2009
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Neil White's memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, details the year he spent in federal prison for bank fraud in the early 1990s. What makes this affluent, white collar criminal's story different is where he served his time: the Federal Medical Center in Carville, Louisiana. Carville, as it is often called, is part low security federal prison, part prison for prisoners with serious medical conditions, and part home for the remaining Americans suffering from leprosy.
That's right. Leprosy. I was hooked instantly. I had so many questions! Did the author and the other prisoners know about the leprosy patients before arriving at Carville? Did the U.S. government know for certain that the prisoners could not contract the disease? Did any of the prisoners feel that placement at Carville violated their Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment? How did the leprosy patients feel about being housed with criminals? Was leprosy that much of a problem in the U.S. that the government established a home for those inflicted with the incurable disease?
I dove into the book. I had to know more about Carville, the leprosy patients, and the felon who told his young children he was going away to camp to spare them the psychological and emotional pain and anguish of knowing their father was going to prison.
I savored the history Neil White provided. I had no idea leprosy victims were often rounded up by bounty hunters or that the shame and stigma of the disease led victims' families to abandon and disown them. Victims often changed their names to protect their families from the shame. The patients' stories were heartbreaking, yet heartwarming, because these forgotten people had not forgotten God, themselves, or their will to live.
The historical component and the patients' stories, as much as I enjoyed reading them, just couldn't save the story from the narrator himself. I grew to despise him. He kited checks, losing millions of dollars in investors' money, including his mother's retirement. He ruined lives, not just his life or that of his wife and two small children, but of his employees and investors. The few, brief mentions of the sheer size of his crime didn't lead me to believe that Mr. White had any shame or remorse. The only shame he had was in getting caught. I felt as though these few statements about feeling guilty were inserted into the narrative out of necessity, because it was the right thing to do, not because the author actually felt that way. Mr. White lamented over the loss of his affluent, luxurious lifestyle and his richie rich reputation, not because of what he did. He quickly came up with the idea of writing this story while in prison - to rebuild his wealth and reputation, not out of an altruistic or journalistic imperative. This upset me.
Maybe Mr. White didn't do so great of a job at expressing his remorse and his desire to be a better person and father to his children during the course of the book. Maybe he does have remorse for his crimes. Maybe he came out of this experience a better person. Maybe so, but I couldn't tell by reading this book. And that ruined the story for me.