A Sanctuary of Self-Acceptance

Today’s guest post is by the always remarkable Darrelyn Saloom. Follow her on Twitter, or dig around for more of her excellent tales.

When I met author Neil White at the 2009 Louisiana Book Festival, I
never imagined he’d once served an eighteen-month prison stint in the
swampy landscape of the Bayou State. Clean cut and handsome, he chatted
about books and writing, not bank fraud or check-kiting. But as he
signed his memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, he hinted that his was
no ordinary story.

“Hope you enjoy this strange, magical time and
place,” he inscribed on the title page. But I’d find more than
enjoyment while reading his odd tale of jailhouse redemption. I’d learn
about the freedom that comes with self-acceptance and a valuable lesson
about writing.

As a journalist and magazine publisher, Neil White
was an admired business man in his community. Married with two
children, he had what appeared to be the perfect life. But life is not
always what it appears to be. And, for the convicted felon, neither was
prison. Here’s what he encountered his first day of incarceration: 

We
turned a corner, and I caught a glimpse of four or five nuns as they
hurried into one of the buildings. Through a corridor window, I saw a
small monk riding a bicycle through a pecan grove. This place was
bizarre, like something out of Alice in Wonderland or The Twilight
Zone
. Nuns and monks. A leper with no fingers. … And a legless
woman chanting like Dorothy in Oz. How the hell did I end up here?

Ironically,
the former publisher landed in prison trying to save his image, his
marriage, and his magazine. Desperate to maintain a façade of
perfection, he became a magician of check writing. But how did he end
up in a prison with “the leper with no fingers”? Well, turns out the
correctional facility was housed in Carville, Louisiana, the last leper
colony in the continental United States.
With the realization he
was living in a leprosarium/prison, Neil White hesitated to touch
anything. And as fate would have it, his first job was to work in a
cafeteria alongside patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). And
that’s where he met Ella Bounds, the “legless woman chanting like
Dorothy in Oz”:

Then I saw the old woman in the antique wheelchair,
the only one left in the room. She cranked her wheelchair toward me.
She stopped a few feet away, not too close, and uttered the same odd
incantation. “There’s no place like home.” Aware, I think, of my
discomfort, she looked at me and said, “Hope you get back soon, ’cause
there’s no place like home.” She smiled and cranked her wheelchair out
of the cafeteria. When she reached the exit, she called out again.
“There’s no place like home.”

An inmate who had come in to mop the
floor whispered to me. “That lady,” he said, pointing toward the old
woman, “she got the leprosy when she was twelve years old. Her daddy
dropped her off one day and never came back. Then he asked, “Still
feeling sorry for yourself?”

I guessed the woman was close to
eighty. That would mean she’d been here for about sixty-eight years. I
was going on my sixth hour.

A person in prison finds time, that
precious commodity, to figure out the important things in life. Of
course, it helps to also find a friend like Ella Bounds to guide you
along the way. When Neil White worried what people must think of him
back home in Oxford, Mississippi, she well let him know that what
others think “ain’t none of your business.”

And when he wasn’t sure
what to do with his life, she told him a story about nonreturnable Coke
bottles and taught him about purpose. But you’ll have to read In the
Sanctuary of Outcasts
for that one. I’ve given enough away. Believe me,
it’s worth the purchase. And Neil White’s superb writing makes his
memoir a joy to read.

As for the lesson about self-acceptance and
writing, I’ll offer one last glimpse as the author reveals the moment
he and Ella shared their nightly dreams. “Listening to her describe
this dream, watching her laugh, witnessing the way she held herself, I
realized that, somehow, Ella had escaped the shame of leprosy.” A shame
that has prevailed for the past five centuries:

But Ella carried
her leprosy like a divine blessing. She had faith that she would be
healed in heaven. She embraced the life she believed God had chosen for
her on earth. She had transcended the stigma that crippled so many.

In
“this strange, magical time and place,” freedom is given to a man
imprisoned by a legless woman in a wheelchair. Ella Bounds accepted her
disfigurement and her fate. And she taught Neil White to find his own
sanctuary of self-acceptance and not be crippled by what others think.
For if that is what you focus on, your best words will be stuck in knarred,
stiff fingers and never fly across the page.

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15 thoughts on “A Sanctuary of Self-Acceptance

  1. Amber J. Gardner

    I wonder how you find such fascinating books and people. I’ve never read a memoir before, but you sure do make me want to. You should try a hand at being a publicist for authors lol.

    I love your posts cause they always make me think about myself and how to improve. Though I sometimes feel like I always end up in the same place, I’m glad there’s plenty of advice told in such a beautiful way by you.

  2. Debra Marrs

    Darrelyn, you remind us why we read: to engage with people (characters) we remember long after the book, to live another life vicariously, and to experience a hope that magically drifts off the page as a writer’s story unfolds. Like the writers you feature in your blog posts, you always find the most interesting angle for coverage. Each of your mini-essay blog posts sweep the reader to another place and time. Thank you SO much for introducing me to Ella Bounds via Neil White. I can’t wait to read In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, too.

  3. Sally G

    Precious Darrelyn. Another gentle slap across the cheek, waking me from reverie. You remind me to discard the fears that can paralyze, that make me forget that sacred information we were born with but lost in childhood…that our light was meant to shine so brightly as to blind those around us. I love your insight and the prose that follows. You are a gift.

  4. kathryn magendie

    Wow….the simple beauty of the prose aside, I am still reeling from the idea of Miss Ella dropped off at 12 and living there until her 80’s – imagine….I can’t….this is beautiful, the post, the story, the woman, the man …you…alll

  5. Sally Fisher

    I’m so glad you chose to cover this story! It’s important we learn from the mistakes of the past. Ms. Ella seems so sweet, and you’ve really sold me on the book. I just ordered my copy off Amazon.

  6. Christian Allman

    Mere words fail me. Neil and Ella’s story is astonishing. But Darrelyn Saloom’s description of that incredible coming-of-the-ages saga is a masterpiece. Ms. Saloom has the heart of a what Dan Millman called "the peaceful warrior" and the gift of deeply-anchored second sight.

  7. Kerri

    Darrelyn is a generous and open-hearted reader and she always seeks to expose what’s beyond and beneath the words of authors and books she reviews. Her enthusiasm is infectious!

  8. Carolyn Patin-Jones

    Wow! Wow! Wow! Darrelyn, you have done it again! I will have to read this book. I love the way you find purpose and life lessons for you and others in his story. Thanks so much for sharing your review of this author’s book. You are an encouragement to me, as well as others, that I am sure of!

    I look forward to next’s month’s story.

  9. Barbara Weibel

    Powerful stuff, Darrelyn. We go through life behaving in a manner we think is expected of us, working at jobs we hate, worrying about what others will think if we do this or do that. Then one day, we look up and realize our life has passed us by and we’ve never done the things we always wanted to do, things we are really passionate about, all because we were worried how it would look to others. With self acceptance comes immense freedom. Ella’s mantra, which is my own as well, provides the key to achieving this self-acceptance: "What other people think of you is none of your business." Profound words from a wise woman. Thanks so much for sharing this memoir. I will check to see if it is available for electronic download.

  10. Theresa Milstein

    Who wouldn’t want to read this memoir after reading Darrelyn Saloom’s description of it? Too many people believe that writing a memoir is just accounting the details of an interesting life. This shows that it’s much more. Neil White experiences a unique journey and has an epiphany, which are important ingredients in any good memoir or work of fiction.

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