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Excerpt From 'In the Sanctuary of Outcasts'

Leprosy. Kahn [a prison guard] had to be wrong. Surely, healthy people—even inmates—would not be imprisoned with lepers. But that would explain the man with no fingers. Everybody knew lepers’ body parts fell off. Or maybe Kahn was just beginning the mind games I’d seen guards use in movies to break prisoners.

A nurse rushed into the room and opened two folding chairs. She told me to sit at the table, and she asked me a series of routine questions about drug use, smoking, chronic diseases, and depression, to which I answered “no.”

“Any family history of mental illness?” she asked.

I hesitated. “Define mental illness.”

The nurse suggested I tell her about any family members who might fall into that category, so I explained about my great-aunt, who bought 70 pairs of shoes in a single day before she was committed, and about my grandmother, who did a couple of stints in the state mental hospital and then ran for president, twice—

The nurse interrupted, “Of the United States?”

“Yes,” I told her, “but it all happened when she was off her medication.” Then I mentioned that my mother sees auras and claims to have been Mary Queen of Scots in a former life.

She interrupted again. “I’m going to mark this yes.”

When she finished, I asked if there were really lepers living here.

“They prefer to be called Hansen’s disease patients,” she said. “But, yes, about 130 live here.”

I asked if they were contagious and if we ever got close to them and, if so, was there some way to get transferred to another prison. The nurse cut me off and said I’d hear all about it at admissions and orientation.

My mind raced as she collected her paperwork. I could recover from a year in prison, but I couldn’t put my life back together with a missing hand or a deformed face. That would be like a life sentence. If I caught leprosy, I would lose my family, never be able to get close to Neil and Maggie. I was frantic, but I had no way of letting anyone know what was happening to me. I was completely helpless.

From the book In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. Copyright © 2009 by Neil White. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.