Neil White was a supremely successful southern business man, first a reporter, than a publisher, with a beautiful wife, lovely children, gorgeous homes and a yacht. He was a leader in the business community, contributed to many charities, and was an elite philanthropist, who traveled the world in high style.
White’s world came crashing down when he was arrested for kiting million dollar checks and committing financial fraud by the FBI. White was sentenced to 18 months incarceration in Carville Louisiana, a picturesque, verdant, small, community in Louisiana.
It was not until White arrived at the locus of his incarceration, that he realized he was to serve his time in the nation’s only remaining Leprosorium, for people who were disfigured by Hansens disease. Many of the people in the facility had contracted the disease as children and were living out their entire lives in Carville, to protect them from the cruelties of the outside world. Most had been there for decades.
Other white-collar criminal types were also incarcerated at Carville. One was new White’s roomy, a Russian born physician and pharmacist, convicted of Medicare fraud for using an compound banned by the FDA, but quite effective for weight loss. He estimated that he had billed Medicaid between $15-$37 million for these useful services. He was sentenced to 15 years in Carville. He was an very interesting man.
At White’s first prisoner group meeting upon his arrival, led, of course, by a priest, another newly arrived con-man criminal, tells the priest group leader, that he didn’t want to “become no leopard.”
Shortly after this first fun group orientation, White receives notification that his wife has, understandably, filed for divorce.
So starts this absolutely incredible memoir. It’s reminded me in some ways of Thomas Mann’s, “Magic Mountain,” except that Mann’s sanatorium was in a TB Asylum in Switzerland, not in a Leprosorium in Louisiana.
White is an astoundingly good writer, and he strips himself raw in this memoir, examining himself and his life. He enters the leprosorium, an arrogant and self-involved man, and he leaves it profoundly changed by the experience.
The book is not a depressing read. It is incredible, at times uplifting, sometimes tragically sad, but also moving. It is, of course, also true.
The residents the reader meets who live in the Carville facility seem to exist in an alternate universe, separate entirely from our world and ways. The reality of people sequestered away for their entire lives for a treatable, manageable, disease is heartbreaking. More so when you consider the separations and horrific losses this would have necessitated earlier in their lives. By the time White enters the facility most of the permanent residents had lived there for decades. This was their home.
At times, similar to when reading Mann’s Magic Mountain, I felt the residents sense of safety, their adjustment to their completely removed sanctuary, even if it meant they were outcasts.
After all, don’t most people feel like a bit of an outcast at some time or another in their life?
Shakespeare certainly did. He wrote Sonnet 29 about it:
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.”
But then he remembers, no matter how outcast he might be in “fortune and in men’s eye’s,” he is not an outcast …..
“For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Something similar to this occurs in this book . Some of the people in the sanctuary, form bonds of friendship, respect and emotional attachment to each other, that results in an unexpected community, that is quite moving to read about.
In fact, later when I learned they might move the residents out of the only home they had known for many decades, I became quite upset, thinking you can’t rob these people who have suffered too much, of their only sanctuary.
White forms a close friendship with Ella Bounds, an 88 year old black woman and double amputee, who contracted leprosy as a child. She is a dignified and impressive person, who clearly had a powerful effect on White, as she does on the reader. There are more people and stories here that will at times humor you, possibly anger you, definitely surprise you, but in the end, move you profoundly.
White leaves after eighteen months, a changed person, and the reader is a better person also, for having read this book.
For more reading on the history of the Carville Facility and the current location of the present facility, please see: