We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love.  It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. 
–William Somerset Maugham
I just returned from an unplanned pilgrimage to Louisiana.  To clarify, the trip itself was planned, but the spiritual aspect was wholly unexpected.  This journey began with a book I read this summer, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.  Knowing of my love for memoirs, a friend recommended the book to me in a chance meeting in June.   The author, Neil White, who currently resides in Oxford, Mississippi, was a highfalutin magazine publisher.  He  was incarcerated at a facility in Carville, Louisiana in the 90’s for a check kiting scheme.  The memoir is his story about the experience.  What makes his story unique is that the federal prison where White did his time was housed in the same facility that served as an active colony for patients with Hansen’s Disease.  Hansen’s Disease is the term for what was previously called leprosy, an infectious bacterial disease that affects the skin and nerves and often causes physical deformities. The Carville facility is the last remaining leprosarium in the continental United States. Originally, the colony was planned in New Orleans because that is where many of the cases occurred, but fear and ignorance lead angry residents to burn down the other sites. As a result, a more remote location was chosen.  Remote indeed –  the “untouchables” were quarantined at this hospital on a dead end road on the banks of the Mississippi River, hidden among sugar cane fields.   

In his memoir, White writes that he originally planned the book as an exposé about prisoner conditions (Oh the horror of having to do time at a leper colony – how could the state place the poor criminals in such cruel and unusual conditions?), but over the course of his sentence, the prison became a place of solace as he developed relationships with the patients and other inmates that radically changed his perspective. Is this book just more spin in a money-making scheme from a con artist or is it a truly changed man’s story of redemption?  I can’t give you an answer to that question, but I can tell you that I found it an informative and fascinating read with colorful characters and a worthwhile message.  It’s about a place and people worth knowing.  Moreover, a portion of the author’s proceeds go to the International Association for Integration Dignity and Economic Advancement, the National Hansen’s Disease Museum, and advocacy groups protecting the rights of persons afflicted with Hansen’s disease. This makes it worth the price as far as I’m concerned.

Today, the State of Louisiana owns the Carville facility and it functions as a military port.  Guards in military fatigue sign you in the front gate. The Hansen’s Disease Museum is a tenant on the property. Although most cases of Hansen’s Disease are now treated at outpatient clinics, many of the patients who were at Carville remained there because they had nowhere else to go. Currently, four patients reside on site, one of whom is Mr. Peterson, known as “Harry” in White’s book. Mr. Peterson, as I was told by the museum curator, works about three hours per day in the museum. I am sad I didn’t get to meet him. The museum itself houses many artifacts and photographs illuminating the history of the disease in general and life at Carville specifically. For example, the glass Coke bottles were on display that  Coca-Cola refused to pick up due to fear of contagion.  (“Unclean! Unclean!”) Rather than shattering them across a wall, which would have been my preference for dealing with this predicament, the patients bordered their flowerbeds with them.  Being in touch with these tangible items was moving , but the most significant experience to me was a visit to the cemetery at the far end of the property. Hundreds of patients afflicted with the disease,  and the nuns who served as their caregivers, are buried beneath pecan trees draped in Spanish moss.  Some headstones bear aliases because many changed their names when the diagnosis was made to avoid bringing shame to the names of their families. The gravity and selflessness of this act astounded me as I walked the hallowed ground cradling the remains of these secret people.

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