“It hurt his feelings prematurely,”said journalist Tracy Kidder, trying to recover from his admission that he read sections of his unpublished work to one of his subjects, including the part that described the subject as the kind of guy who threw like a girl.
The subject, was understandably hurt by this description. Kidder was hurt that the subject had to find out directly from him, instead after the book was published.
Kidder came to speak at Harvard last week, and just when you are thinking that this post is going to have nothing to do with healthcare, let me remind you that Kidder is a journalist and one of his most famous books chronicles the life of Dr. Paul Farmer.
In Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder describes the life of a doctor so intelligent and giving, that he begun his aid work in Haiti before ever finishing medical school, completing his M.D. at Harvard essentially by correspondence.
A subject this lovable is every journalist’s worst nightmare. As Kidder puts it, “we tend to push away evidence of a virtuousness that exceeds our own.”
Farmer certainly fits the bill. If you were not already blown away by the Harvard-M.D.-by-correspondence thing, Farmer also started his own non-profit, Partners in Health. The charity provides health care and community based support to impoverished people all over the word, focusing in particular on infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
So how does one balance all of this virtuousness? “Every less than virtuous thing he’d ever done was precious to me,” said Kidder.
He also used the setting of the book, rural Haiti, to provide the conflict that was not available in the character. It worked. Mountains Beyond Mountains paints an inspiring portrait of a doctor actually working to make the world a better place.
While the book humanized Dr. Farmer, the lecture humanized the Pulitzer-prize winning Kidder. He admitted that while he was at Harvard College in the 60s, he tried to write fiction. Forecasting his own literary prominence, he also wrote notes in the margin of the manuscript for his biographer to find.
“You know, drugs don’t help,” Kidder finished, laughing.