In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

White_Neil_Sanctuary_OutcastsAs I have studied the world inhabited by people with intellectual disabilities, I have learned that they are not the only folks in our society who have suffered ostracism and demonization. African-Americans and other racial minorities, of course, have received similar treatment. And so have other groups considered by so-called “normal” people to be “defective” in some way.

I’m also thinking of people who suffer from mental illness or who have a physical deformity or limitation. After reading Neil White’s In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, I can add another group to the list. White writes about the national leprosarium at Carville, Louisiana, where people with leprosy are institutionalized.

The “least of these”

White learned of them when he was sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison that was adjacent to the Carville leprosarium. As so often happens when people come up against “the least of these,” they are deeply affected.

White, who had been convicted of bank fraud, was transformed by his relationships with people like Ella, an 80-year-old woman who had lost both legs to leprosy. Like my Uncle Melrose and others with intellectual disabilities in the early 20th century, Ella was institutionalized at Carville when she was a young girl. She lived her entire life there.

She never achieved the trappings considered essential in modern life – a home, a family and a certain level of prestige. But she achieved a black belt in wisdom, and she shared much of it with White.

Deja vu all over again

The book points out the striking parallels in the treatment of leprosy patients and people with mental disabilities.  As White points out:

“In the days when leprosy patients were quarantined in the United States, the rationale for confinement was public welfare. It was widely believed leprosy patients would spread a scourge on society. For decades, men and women who had done no wrong were imprisoned for the public good.”

These exact words could have been written about people like Uncle Melrose and the thousands of others who were confined to state schools for most of their lives. People with intellectual disabilities were considered a menace and society needed to be protected from them — and vice versa.

When White and some of his fellow inmates were released, leaving behind the leprosy patients, he wrote that he did not miss the irony in the situation.

“…we were being released, while the innocent remained behind. We were the scourge on society. We were the “lepers.”

Powerful words in what is a powerful story of transformation and redemption. I highly recommend this book.