Crestfallen over the passing of Dr. Paul Farmer, I
asked my physician for any professional anecdotes about the man. She had only
limited personal experience to speak to, so she instead prescribed the
biography of Jim O’Connell, another hero of hers.
O’Connell bears a striking resemblance to Farmer in both his career and
demeanor. Both Boston-based medical doctors, they found their calling for
service to marginalized groups, starting a program from scratch and even
fighting some of the same ailments (namely multidrug-resistant tuberculosis).
Both famously selfless even among physicians, their struggles with professional
boundaries has sometimes bordered on unsustainable. They both developed a
personal vernacular–Farmer with terms like “white liberals” and “pragmatic
solidarity”, O’Connell with “old crusties” and “pre-admiration.” Both beyond
modest, they’ve rejected the status traditionally awarded to doctors and
instead insisted on partnership with their patients.
These parallels make it difficult to imagine O’Connell and Farmer as anything
less than close friends. It turns out they were
but you wouldn’t know it from reading the book; Kidder makes no mention of
Farmer throughout Rough Sleepers. That omission feels odd given the time he’s
spent with both doctors.
In light of those similarities, Rough Sleepers and Mountains Beyond
Mountains feel surprisingly distinctive. Kidder maintains a greater emotional
distance from O’Connell than he did from Farmer. His reluctance to criticise
remains (with subjects like these, who could blame him?), but his personal take
on the issues are largely limited to rhetorical choices. Without the
“mold-breaking” reflection of
Mountains, Sleepers makes
for a much more conventional biography.
Kidder embraces the relatively small area of O’Connell’s practice with frequent
references to specific streets, squares, and bridges. While this is
obviously helpful to a native Bostonian such as yours truly, it also fits
thematically as a subtle but persistent reminder that these peoples’ lives play
out in public spaces. Kidder tells many more of those stories than he did for
Farmer’s patients. Most are are brief vignettes–short tales of loss and
triumph that support the urgency felt by O’Connell and his Street Team. Other
folks make multiple appearances, and Kidder finds something of a supporting
character in a rough sleeper referred to as “Tony.” Tony’s tragic struggle
substantiates O’Connell’s rumination on the wider homelessness epidemic. It
also drives home the emotional toll of an entire career spent caring for the
unhoused. This is never more clear than when O’Connell reflects on his gallery
of former patients at the book’s conclusion. It’d be impossible to understand
the plight of every rough sleeper, but for this American class of untouchables,
Kidder excels at making empathy feel like an essential pursuit.