During his years in Harvard Medical School, Farmer developed his own form of religious faith. Farmer struggled with Christianity and belief in God, yet he had enormous respect for both. They were certainly preferable, he reasoned, to the worship of money or success—the “religion” of most of his Harvard classmates.
Farmer’s philosophy is open-minded: he doesn’t look down in Haitians for believing in Voodoo, any more than he looks down on Catholics for believing in God. Rather, he believes that any ideology is worthwhile as long as it teaches people to help others.
In 1985, Ophelia flew back to Haiti to see Farmer. By this point, Farmer was comfortable with his role as an American doctor in Haiti: he wore a cross on his shirt, making him seem like a “priest” among his people. Ophelia immediately remembered what she loved about Farmer. She recalls taking a shower with him one Sunday evening—a warm, intimate moment that she still describes as the most romantic of her life.
Although Farmer wears a cross, he clearly doesn’t subscribe to every tenet of Catholicism, as evidenced by his religious doubts and also by the shower he takes with Ophelia. The love affair between Farmer and Dahl makes Farmer seem more human and relatable—he is saintly in terms of his work ethic, but still subject to “average” feelings like romantic desire.
Ophelia loved spending the summer with Farmer. And yet she couldn’t help but notice the differences between her own personality and abilities, and Farmer’s. Farmer was a genius—he studied for his classes at Harvard by using flash cards, and never missed so much as a question. He was already beloved in his community, while Ophelia, on the other hand, still felt like a blan and an outcast. Once, an old man offered Ophelia his walking stick. Ophelia modestly declined, but Farmer sternly told her to accept this “incredible gift.” Ophelia began to get the sense that she could never live up to Farmer’s lofty standards for good, moral behavior.
As Ophelia spends more and more time with Farmer, her sense of despair grows. She’s close with Farmer, but because he’s such a good man, he also feels like an alien to her. In many ways, Ophelia is the character in this book who most resembles Kidder (and who stands in for the reader) as she struggles and often fails to understand Farmer. Ophelia is clearly an intelligent and moral person, and it’s only when compared to Farmer that her intelligence and virtue fall short. This ultimately leads the two to grow apart.
During his time with Ophelia, Farmer threw himself into the design of his new hospital. He conducted a new health census, often walking from village to village to interview as many people as possible. During the course of one census, Farmer was overjoyed to learn that Père Lafontant and a team of American engineers would be building a pipe system for the community, giving the Haitians access to clean water. This drastically decreased the incidents of infant mortality.
As good a man as Farmer is, he’s not the only one who cares deeply about helping others. People like Père Lafontant are an important rebuttal to the idea of Farmer as a “white savior” of the Haitians. Lafontant is just (or almost) as concerned with helping the people of Haiti as Farmer is—he just doesn’t have the same resources and connections. It’s also notable that so many of the humanitarians in this book are priests: whether they literally believe in God or not, they consider Catholicism a personal mandate to help others.
Farmer admired Père Lafontant for his calm leadership. Under his supervision, engineers established a pipe system. Farmer was able to help Lafontant by showing him his census information. Farmer had found the optimum way to target malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid—three of the deadliest diseases in Haiti. Farmer was also inspired by Lafontant’s holistic approach to improving the community. Where a typical doctor would have just tried to increase vaccinations, Farmer—influenced by Lafontant—wanted to wipe out institutionalized poverty, the root cause of sickness in Haiti.
When Farmer fights disease, he takes an holistic view of the problem. Instead of just treating individual cases of HIV or malaria, he uses his research, his rapport with patients, and his anthropological training to attack the root cause of the problem. This involves acknowledging some harsh truths, however: for one, that traditional healthcare in Haiti simply doesn’t do very much to fight the problem.
Farmer’s ambitious plans for helping the Haitians would require huge sums of money. Farmer was able to get help from a charity called Project Bread, which specialized in providing free bread for the poor. The director of the charity, a wealthy businessman named Tom White, read an essay of Farmer’s called “The Anthropologist Within,” and was impressed by Farmer’s ambition and intelligence. White was a respected philanthropist, and gave millions of dollars to Catholic charities.
Farmer’s success in Haiti is based on his ability to convince other people to think like him. He’s lucky to have a wealthy support group, headed by donors like Tom White, who share Farmer’s attitude toward America, charity, and Haiti. It’s a mark of Farmer’s ambition and far-sightedness that he’s able to convince millionaires and billionaires to wipe out disease in an entire country.
White contacted Farmer, and ended up flying out to meet Farmer in Haiti. The poverty in Haiti made a huge impact on White, who had grown up in an unstable household dominated by an alcoholic father. After his meeting with Farmer, White became increasingly involved in Farmer’s health projects in Haiti. He paid to have a Haitian clinic rebuilt, and modestly refused to name the new clinic after himself. Once, White told Farmer that he was thinking of flying to Haiti and working as a missionary, to which Farmer replied, “In your particular case, that would be a sin.”
Like Farmer, White gets into humanitarian work in part because of his childhood: he knows firsthand what it’s like to be poor and frightened. But here again, knowing this information about White’s childhood simply isn’t enough, as obviously there are many wealthy children of alcoholics who don’t become generous philanthropists. Kidder acknowledges that, after a certain point, we can’t understand why good people do good things. There’s no biographical explanation, and part of it simply must involve a person’s will or a predisposition for charity. Farmer suggests that for White to become a missionary would be a “sin”—seemingly because White can do so much more good by using his money to help thousands of others than by using his personal presence to help a few. This may be a commentary on missionary work itself (it’s arguable how “helpful” simple conversion to religion is without any charitable work to accompany it) but it also might show Farmer being rather hypocritical. Farmer himself might be more objectively “useful” if he didn’t make house calls or visit individual patients, and instead focused on fundraising, politics, and research, but instead he prefers to do what is most immediately necessary at the time to do the most good, one case at a time.