Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
Larissa MacFarquhar, New York: Penguin Press, 2015
This is a strange book about an unusual kind of “strangers”, people endowed with impossible idealism and overpowered by the urge to help other “strangers”, those who do not belong to their families. The Indian Hindu family Amtes rescues many people from the ills of leprosy, builds several villages, and stick at its many helping missions over four generations of doctors and social workers under very harsh conditions. The Canadian-American family Badeau raises 22 children including three severely handicapped boys who live well beyond their normal life expectancy.
The merit of the book lies in the stories it tells its reader, and the journalist MacFarquhar excels at this. She narrates the stories of “do-gooders” on four continents although the majority are North Americans. She has little to say, however, about the incredible physical resilience of such do-gooders, especially the women, some of whom manage to combine extremely demanding forms of engagement toward the stranger with birthing and mothering their own children. Not many would manage this, including this author, just for physical reasons.
What fails to convince is the way the author inserts rather shallow “abstract” arguments at various points in her book, without weaving them into her stories. She asserts at the outset that caring for strangers’ children seems “unnatural, even monstrous” (8). Her repeated argument that altruism excites hate, or at best rejection, stretches credibility. There are few examples of this in the book’s stories. The attack on a missionary in Mozambique, which she relates, seems due more to the wretched and violent living conditions of that country than to any protest against altruism. The same can be said about the suffering experienced by the midwife working for decades in Nicaragua and whose patients suffer much more. MacFarquhar cites relevant social scientists, Darwin, Smith, Comte, Nietzsche, and some fiction writers such as Ayn Rand and Baldwin who protested against absolute goodness. But there is no way to do justice to such important thinkers in a few lines, and to add insult to injury, the citations are not footnoted.
MacFarquhar writes that do-gooders act on their own, and this is why they seem so “strange” (296). Yet her stories are a testimony of the opposite. None of the do-gooders have acted alone although they did make their own rules initially. But the book is written from a very American point of view, stressing individual efforts, rather than collective attempt to make long term changes to unjust structures. Thus the usual heroes do not feature here, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mandela. Assuredly these figures are well known and this would have been redundant. But the lack of attention to people who have tackled structural injustices in order to alleviate human suffering is a disappointment. This is a well written, interesting and yet strangely flawed book.