When I met author Neil White at the 2009 Louisiana Book Festival, I never imagined he’d once served an eighteen-month prison stint in the swampy landscape of the Bayou State. Clean cut and handsome, he chatted about books and writing, not bank fraud or check-kiting. But as he signed his memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, he hinted that his was no ordinary story.
“Hope you enjoy this strange, magical time and place,” he inscribed on the title page. But I’d find more than enjoyment while reading his odd tale of jailhouse redemption. I’d learn about the freedom that comes with self-acceptance and a valuable lesson about writing.
As a journalist and magazine publisher, Neil White was an admired business man in his community. Married with two children, he had what appeared to be the perfect life. But life is not always what it appears to be. And, for the convicted felon, neither was prison. Here’s what he encountered his first day of incarceration:
We turned a corner, and I caught a glimpse of four or five nuns as they hurried into one of the buildings. Through a corridor window, I saw a small monk riding a bicycle through a pecan grove. This place was bizarre, like something out of Alice in Wonderland or The Twilight Zone. Nuns and monks. A leper with no fingers. … And a legless woman chanting like Dorothy in Oz. How the hell did I end up here?
Ironically, the former publisher landed in prison trying to save his image, his marriage, and his magazine. Desperate to maintain a façade of perfection, he became a magician of check writing. But how did he end up in a prison with “the leper with no fingers”? Well, turns out the correctional facility was housed in Carville, Louisiana, the last leper colony in the continental United States.
With the realization he was living in a leprosarium/prison, Neil White hesitated to touch anything. And as fate would have it, his first job was to work in a cafeteria alongside patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). And that’s where he met Ella Bounds, the “legless woman chanting like Dorothy in Oz”:
Then I saw the old woman in the antique wheelchair, the only one left in the room. She cranked her wheelchair toward me. She stopped a few feet away, not too close, and uttered the same odd incantation. “There’s no place like home.” Aware, I think, of my discomfort, she looked at me and said, “Hope you get back soon, ’cause there’s no place like home.” She smiled and cranked her wheelchair out of the cafeteria. When she reached the exit, she called out again. “There’s no place like home.”
An inmate who had come in to mop the floor whispered to me. “That lady,” he said, pointing toward the old woman, “she got the leprosy when she was twelve years old. Her daddy dropped her off one day and never came back. Then he asked, “Still feeling sorry for yourself?”
I guessed the woman was close to eighty. That would mean she’d been here for about sixty-eight years. I was going on my sixth hour.
A person in prison finds time, that precious commodity, to figure out the important things in life. Of course, it helps to also find a friend like Ella Bounds to guide you along the way. When Neil White worried what people must think of him back home in Oxford, Mississippi, she well let him know that what others think “ain’t none of your business.”
And when he wasn’t sure what to do with his life, she told him a story about nonreturnable Coke bottles and taught him about purpose. But you’ll have to read In the Sanctuary of Outcasts for that one. I’ve given enough away. Believe me, it’s worth the purchase. And Neil White’s superb writing makes his memoir a joy to read.
As for the lesson about self-acceptance and writing, I’ll offer one last glimpse as the author reveals the moment he and Ella shared their nightly dreams. “Listening to her describe this dream, watching her laugh, witnessing the way she held herself, I realized that, somehow, Ella had escaped the shame of leprosy.” A shame that has prevailed for the past five centuries:
But Ella carried her leprosy like a divine blessing. She had faith that she would be healed in heaven. She embraced the life she believed God had chosen for her on earth. She had transcended the stigma that crippled so many.
In “this strange, magical time and place,” freedom is given to a man imprisoned by a legless woman in a wheelchair. Ella Bounds accepted her disfigurement and her fate. And she taught Neil White to find his own sanctuary of self-acceptance and not be crippled by what others think. For if that is what you focus on, your best words will be stuck in knarred, stiff fingers and never fly across the page.