A Leper at a Leper Colony

An Interview With a Leper
An excerpt from an interview that was published in the Sunday Magazine, October 21, 1973

By Joan Wixen, Sunday Magazine Special Writer

As we were landing, I looked down and saw we weren’t landing in a regular airport. That it was more like a path in the middle of nowhere. Once on the ground, he opened his little door, got out and went around to open the door for me and told me to wait there for the leper to come and get me. And as he started climbing back into the plane I said to him, “You can’t leave me alone here. Please wait with me. I’m afraid.”

“Lepers don’t like to be seen,” he said, “so you’ll have to wait until I fly away.”

There I was, all alone, as I watched the plane go back up into the air, and I felt like yelling, Come back, I’ve changed my mind, as I thought, This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I’m so scared I think I might faint. Will I ever be able to get back to Honolulu?

Everything was very quiet now, but it wasn’t the peaceful kind of quiet, it was the kind that brings fear. There was a tiny stone bench a few feet away. So I walked over to it, and I sat down and waited for the leper to come and get me.

I was becoming panicky now, and so I tried to distract myself and took a piece of paper from my purse and started writing the beginning of the piece: I sit on a bench and await the leper who is to meet me, a 44-year-old electrician who has had the disease since he was 19. His name is Richard Marks, and leprosy has a congenital predisposition, and and his brother, sister, father and grandmother all have had the disease.

What is it like to be a leper and know you have a disease that never can be cured? That is equated with all that’s loathsome? What does it feel like to walk around knowing you bring repulsion to most people?

Yet as I looked around, everything seemed so beautiful, so I continued writing to try somehow to calm myself down. If you didn’t know anything about this place, you would think you were in the middle of a utopian paradise. A beautiful island in the middle of the Pacific. Acres and acres of flowers in such radiant colors, that they don’t even seem real.

The climate, it couldn’t be better. The average temperature is in the 70's with hardly any rain and just the right amount of wind with the sun shining all year long. But there’s one thing wrong. This place is a leper colony. And all the people who live on this little peninsula called Kalaupapa on this tiny Hawaiian island named Molokai are either lepers or the hospital staff..

Few people ever come here. This is a place where there are no public restrooms or restaurants, and children aren’t allowed, because they have a susceptibility to the disease and are separated from their parents after they are born and sent to the live with relatives, and only rarely do they see their parents

I heard the noise of an automobile now and saw an old station wagon in the distance. As it got closer, I saw what looked like a man behind the wheel, and he was wearing dark glasses, a kind I had never seen before, because they looked more like large black bottle caps or something that was made to fit over electrical sockets, rather than glasses to fit over a human being’s eyes.

To read the entire interview, please contact the Detroit Free Press.