The Sanctuary of Outcasts, by Neil White, is a memoir. Yet, it is more than that. It is an expose of our prison system and our medical system, as well. It tells the story of what goes on behind the scenes in places ordinary man never ventures. At times it seemed surreal.
It is the story of a man, who fell from grace; it is the story of a man who was raised well, albeit with some dysfunction in his family. He was always encouraged to succeed, perhaps with unreal expectations. It is possible that the overabundance of undeserved praise led, in some way, to his decline and disrespect for rules and ethics. His slow climb back up is facilitated by the people he meets in the most unlikely place, Carville, a prison whose inmates share the facilities with a leprosarium.
The author speaks in a voice which accurately depicts his personality to the readers, not necessarily endearing him to them. When we first meet him, he is an arrogant, egocentric, selfish young man. As we get to know him as he does his time in prison, we watch him grow as he experiences moments of introspection, in which he searches for a different path to take to fulfill his desire for some kind of unique success and achievement in his life.
Rather than satisfy only himself which was his original modus operandi, he begins to finally question his behavior instead of making excuses for it. At first he is consumed with creating a scheme to get rich and powerful again. Slowly he begins to realize that it might be better to help others, as well as himself, and in that way truly change. He grows more compassionate and realizes as he experiences the sadness of the loss of his wife and children in his everyday life, due to his impending divorce, how deeply he has actually hurt others. He had never thought at all about the effects of his actions and behavior on his caring and innocent friends and relatives. With this knowledge, he begins to rehabilitate himself and others. He is fortunate to have the support of many friends and family within and without the prison. One particular patient in the leprosarium teaches him to respect his own life as well as others. He learns that wherever he goes, he takes himself with him and he seems to have truly been rehabilitated by his prison experience.
To the reader, the prison may not feel at all like a place of incarceration. When we learn about the facility and what it offers, it truly feels more like a camp. Our prisoner has enormous freedom, even while restricted. However, being confined in a facility with lepers was at first frightening although later on it is redemptive. The author’s writing style is easy and conversational. I often felt I was included in his experiences and was not just a reader of the page. It felt almost as if he was speaking directly to me. There were other moments when it felt overly dramatic and contrived, as when he describes his despondency over his impending divorce and takes to his bed for days, seemingly without being questioned or examined by a doctor or any authority figure, although he claims to be ill and is after all a prisoner whose whereabouts are always watched and accounted for.
For some, the prison seems to be a step up in their lifestyles. Except for the occasional description of a few exceptionally demeaning incidents with no obvious purpose but to humiliate the prisoner, the environment seemed like a real camp not just a sarcastic description. On the one hand it was not a bad place, with facilities for employment, learning and entertainment and on the other it was extremely dangerous with some sadistic and cruel guards, some of whom seemed to have no purpose other than to humiliate the inmates. Also, although it was not obvious from outward appearances, violence always lurked as an undercurrent that belied the country club atmosphere. There was no in between. In order to survive in prison, one actually needed somewhat of a criminal mentality. It would seem to be a paradox, therefore. How could a prisoner resurrect himself when he needed to be just a little immoral and unethical in order to survive until the time he was again released into society, expected to once again follow the path of the righteous?
There were recreational areas, exercise areas, a library, three square meals, camaraderie, great television shows and even classes which Mr. White institutes in the prison. He holds himself above most of the prisoners. His arrogance wanes slowly. Amazingly, he finds redemption in a place of deprivation and loss. His ambition remains intact but hubris is replaced by humility. The same person emerges from the prison with new goals. His spirit was not destroyed just his arrogance.
Most of the time his descriptions of the people he meets seem genuinely honest, but at other times, he seemed to stretch the imagination, almost depending on or counting on the gullibility of the reader in much the same way he depended on those he “scammed” to believe him, which was the behavior that sent him to prison in the first place. I felt as if some incidents were either embellished, on the one hand, or not quite complete, on the other. I guess that is his poetic license. For the most part, I really enjoyed reading the book and watching him rise to a better place in life. It is a well written, interesting and enlightening book. You will not be bored.