Letters reveal a life’s anguish in Carville

Out of The Shadow of Leprosy: The Letters and Stories of the Landry Family. By Claire Manes. University of Mississippi Press, 2013; $28

At the age of nine, Claire Manes learned shocking news about her maternal grandfather, Edmond G. Landry, when she repeated insensitive jokes about leprosy. The disease wasn’t an uncommon subject in her hometown near Carville, the site of the first national leprosarium.

In 1924 her grandfather had entered the sanitarium for treatment of the stigmatized disease and died there in 1932, almost 10 years before Dr. Guy Henry Faget’s discovery of sulfone drugs as a miracle cure.

Though Edmond entered voluntarily, he was, in reality, incarcerated — sequestered from his young wife and two small children — unless a documented cure enabled his release. Like most Carville patients, he assumed an alias, Gabe Michael, to protect himself and his family from undeserved public shame and fear.

He lost intimacy with his children and wife, the author’s namesake, who remained fearful of the presumed contagiousness of the disease.

He lost citizenship privileges, including the right to vote, and his veteran’s benefits.

At different times from 1919 to 1977, one or more of his four siblings — Norbert, Amelie, Marie and Albert — also received treatment at Carville, spending the last years of their lives there. While the causes of Hansen’s disease, the less pejorative term for “leprosy,” are not definitive, genome research shows that 5 percent of the population has a genetic predisposition to it, Manes explains.

Edmond might have lost his legacy in his family if it had not been for his mother’s and brother’s safe-keeping of his letters from Carville, which are the center of his granddaughter’s book.

In what she calls her search for her grandfather, Manes breaks her family’s secrecy about Edmond, recovering a dignified memory of him as a man determined to find some meaning in his life at Carville, to oppose injustice and to contribute to the welfare of the community there.

Her reconstruction of him is also an act of self-creation, as Manes reflects in her epilogue, “My Journey Out of the Shadows,” drawing her insights from theories of stigma, trauma, memory and narrative.

Her epistolary memoir is a distinctive addition to life-writings about Carville, from Betty White’s 1950 “Miracle at Carville” to the more recent Neil White’s and Jose Ramirez Jr’s respective “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” and “Squint: My Journey with Leprosy.”

Mary C. Carruth, PhD, teaches English at Southern University, Baton Rouge.