Neil goes to jail for writing bad checks, and ends up in a federal prison housed in the same facility as folk diagnosed with leprosy, some of whom have been there almost their entire lives. With honesty and humor he is changed by the people he meets. Cliche, I know, but a good read.
Did you know that up until 1999, Carville, Louisiana, was home to folk diagnosed with leprosy (now Hansen’s Disease,) who were forcibly removed from their homes once they were diagnosed? Even in the mid-20th century, children were taken from their families permanently for fear of contagion. Not only that, this same facility on a spit of land at a curve in the Mississippi River, was used to house federal convicts in the 1990′s. Can you imagine? Prisoners and folks with leprosy, all in one facility.
But this true story isn’t so much about that, as it is about one man’s redemption. Neil White was literally robbing Peter to pay Paul, by writing bad checks on one account to cover bills coming out of another account. In the pursuit of the good life, he ended up a felon, housed out in the middle of nowhere, with other felons and folk with leprosy.
To say his life changed is an understatement. We Presbyterian ministers would call it “metanoia,” that is, the life-transformation that happens when we are touched by grace.
We watch Neil’s thought processes, as he tries to find ways of living this life that tests him and what he truly believes at every turn. And his brutal, painful honesty about what was going on inside his mind – Well, as my mother-in-law who recommended this book said, “He was a jerk!”
He was building himself a media empire, and it’s not that he got lost along the way, because it’s pretty clear he was pursuing his version of the American Dream: To make it big, and breaking the law and cutting corners? No big deal. And being imprisoned in a leper colony didn’t do much to change his life’s goals, at least not at first. No, this was no burning bush for Neil, nor was it being struck blind on the road to Damascus. Those particular values and that particular definition of success were deep ruts in his heart and mind. You don’t get out of them easily.
It took facing his own fears of contamination – Should he shake hands with an ill person? What if they breathed on him, or spit on him? How about going to church with outcasts? What about taking communion with folks with leprosy? Touching them? Helping them back into their wheelchairs if they’ve slipped out?
Between those daily moral dilemmas and several months of conversation and relationships, Neil’s whole being slowly starts changing. Outside, he was all about success and education and appearance. In here? Even his fellow convict Link found him a failure – The whitest-white guy, the guy who has no money to show for all his efforts. And Link’s plan for the future is to become “one of them ‘leopards’” and sue the government. So much for rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. Still, Neil held himself at a distance, imagining he was an undercover reporter writing an expose on the place.
When we’ve given our entire lives to certain values, those values are hard to transform, and Neil wasn’t even sure he needed to change. It took getting to know Ella, and hearing her story, and letting her into his heart, for him to realize this life was more than making money. Yes, it’s a cliche, but in this case, it’s fascinating. Ella was taken from her home as a school girl in a one-room school house, and sent to live in Carville. She was now in her 80′s, wheel-chair bound. This for her, was home.
The grace with which she lived her life opened Neal’s eyes to the wake of ruin and pain he had left behind, and only then, the transformation was able to begin. (Yes, we ministers call that “confession.” Then comes redemption.) And at the end, he knows she meant so much more to him, than he did to her.
I have no idea if it “stuck,” Neal’s transformation. I can be as skeptical as the next. But he’s amazingly honest about his own character flaws – He adored cologne and starch, for goodness’ sake! But what I like most about his account, other than the fascinating interplay of race, class, health and illness, able-bodied and disabled, displaced and at home, is how articulate Neal is about the seduction of the American Dream and the pursuit of the dollar.
He lost everything in that pursuit; reputation, marriage, home, day-to-day contact with his kids. But it gave him a time out to consider, was his life what he wanted it to be? And it took an old black woman with no legs and a debilitating disease who had lost everything but somehow had peace, for Neal to get it. For all you preachers out there, that’ll preach. For all you seeking the spiritual life, this will help you find your center. For everyone else? It’s a great read.
Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White