Kirkus Reviews QR Code


Beyond the Image

by Anne Sebba

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-385-48952-8
Publisher: Doubleday

This surprisingly nuanced biography of the international icon of humanitarianism neither shies away from nor revels in controversy.

Sebba, a British journalist and author of a children's book on Mother Teresa, has laced this biography with thought-provoking ethical questions. Though the book jacket promises to reveal "the truth'' about Mother Teresa's friendly relations with the Duvaliers of Haiti, her unscrupulous financial dealings, and other salacious tidbits, the book itself intelligently transcends the genre of the muckraking biography. Part I is a straightforward chronological narrative of Mother Teresa's childhood in Albania, her early association with the Loreto order, and her 1947 exodus from it to found the Missionaries of Charity. Part II outlines some of the criticisms the order has endured in the last decade; political and fiscal dealings aside, some of the most damning charges have been lodged by the international medical community regarding the quality of care provided in Mother Teresa's facilities. Stories of unhygienic conditions abound. One volunteer reported seeing a nurse using the same filthy rag to wipe the bottom of one baby, then the nose of another; the same needles reportedly provide injections to multiple patients; and painkillers are often not prescribed, even to the terminally ill. Sebba probes beneath the surface of these allegations to discover their root in Mother Teresa's theology of suffering. The nun has indicated repeatedly that she finds a redemptive value in suffering, and Sebba sees this as a potentially dangerous sentimentalization. She also discusses Mother Teresa's much-publicized opposition to abortion and contraception, and ultimately concludes that her absolutist stance against contraception makes her social ministries more of a Band-Aid than a cure.

Finally, Sebba dares to ask why Mother Teresa has been so lionized in the West, suggesting that her apotheosis has much to do with assuaging white guilt for India's grinding poverty.