Kidder researches Farmer’s life. He was born in Massachusetts in 1959. His mother was a farmer’s daughter, and looked a lot like Farmer. His father, who everyone nicknamed The Warden, was a competitive man, and worked as a salesman. When Farmer was a child, his father moved the family out to Alabama. As a child, Farmer was a prodigy. He studied herpetology (the study of reptiles) while he was still in grade school, and also excelled at studying the Bible, although he later said that he never felt “engaged” with Christianity. He read prodigiously, finishing War and Peace at the age of 11.
In the second part of his book, Kidder will fill in the gaps in our knowledge of Farmer. We have seen his present “saintliness,” but now want to know: what kind of childhood does a saint have? What led Farmer to have such a strong and constant desire to help the poor and suffering, at the expense of his own needs and desires? Kidder emphasizes that an important part of Farmer’s effectiveness isn’t just his work ethic—it’s his genius. He is essentially a child prodigy, and (fortunately) happened to use his talents to help others.
When Farmer was about 12, his father moved the family once again, to Tampa, Florida. Farmer’s mother was a kind, lovely woman, who read to her children every night. Later on, she got a bachelor’s degree from Smith College. Farmer’s father urged his children to participate in community service. One day he took them to pick citrus in Florida, despite the fact that this was regarded as work for black people. This was Farmer’s first experience with Haitians.
Undoubtedly, Farmer was inspired to help the poor because of his parents, both of whom brought him up to value kindness, generosity, and community service. It’s also notable that Farmer broke the “color line” at a young age: he was never raised to see whites as superior to other races, despite the prevailing influence of American culture.
Farmer’s father loved to go sailing. He had a boat, the Lady Gin, in which Farmer remembers sailing as a child—to this day, he keeps a photograph of the boat in his office in Haiti. Farmer thinks fondly of his childhood in Florida, though he remembers it being especially hard on his mother, who had to support her entire family. While Farmer denies that his career in medicine was “written” in his childhood, he admits that his childhood had a huge impact on his decision to go to Haiti and help the sick.
Farmer’s childhood is clearly important in his decision to go to Haiti as an adult, but it’s not the whole story. After a certain point, Farmer’s childhood can’t explain his saintliness, as plenty of children who grow up practicing community service aren’t particularly wonderful people when they’re adults. Kidder accepts that there’s a limit to how well we can understand Farmer through simple biographical details.
Farmer was an excellent student in high school. He was president of his class, and attended Duke on scholarship. At Duke, he was surrounded by wealthy people for the first time in his life, and joined a fraternity. He also developed interests in drama and art. But in the second half of college, Farmer began to reevaluate his life. He left his fraternity, saying that he couldn’t in good conscience belong to an organization that didn’t accept black students. He also inherited from his father a desire to look out for the oppressed and the poor.
In college, Farmer flirts with the trappings of wealth and power: fraternity membership, parties, academic honors, etc. And yet ultimately he rejects most of these things, because they distract him from his love for people. Farmer has the charisma, intellect, and connections to fit in among the “one percent,” but he refuses to do so. His priority is helping others, even as a young man.
Farmer’s father died at the age of 49, very suddenly. He’d seemed to be a healthy man, but he probably had a heart attack. Farmer spent much of his childhood looking for his father’s approval for everything he did: sports, academics, charity work. But Farmer’s father was reluctant to show any enthusiasm for his son’s successes. Behind Farmer’s back, his father was extremely proud of him, and bragged about him constantly. But when Farmer himself was present, his father never praised him, reasoning that his didn’t want his son to get a “swell head.” Farmer remembers a letter that his father sent him after he was admitted to Harvard Medical School. The letter said, “I want you to know how proud I am,” and it made Farmer weep.
It’s hard not to read about Farmer’s frosty relationship with his own father and not compare it with Farmer’s relationship with his own child (Catherine) in Paris. We can sense that Farmer loves Catherine deeply, just as his own father loved him. But Farmer—just like his father, in a way—is reluctant to abandon those who are immediately in need in order to focus on someone whose life is relatively comfortable and happy—even if that person is Farmer’s own child.