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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997)

by Anne Fadiman

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Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is perhaps a perfect work of narrative journalism, a non-fiction book which is both compellingly told, meticulously researched, and deeply thought-provoking. Not a word feels wasted in any of its dense three-hundred pages, and by the time you reach the end, you'll close the book feeling newly educated in Hmong culture, the American health care system, refugee politics, and everything in between. More than that, though, The Spirit Catches You is just a damn good read. You don't need to think you'd be interested in any of the issues it touches on; it will make you interested. The driving narrative, the heartbreaking story of the life of one epileptic Hmong child, is (much like life itself) brimming with both pathos and joy. And Anne Fadiman is the ideal reporter of it all: erudite, impartial, receptive, and exceedingly gifted as a prose stylist. I can't say I've ever read a better non-fiction work, and I doubt that I ever will (though I hope to read others just as good). The Spirit Catches You is simply a must-read, and there's not much more to say about it than that. ( )
  williecostello | Mar 11, 2014 |
This was a very interesting book on Hmong culture and particularly an understanding of Hmong spirituality and it's relation to health/medical care. It follows the story of a young Hmong girl who has epilepsy and her parents and doctors care and views of the disease. The chapters alternate between telling Hmong history and telling the story of the girl.

I'd highly recommend it for anyone that lives in an area where there is a significant Hmong population (like the Twin Cities). I really learned a ton about Hmong history and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for some of the cultural differences I might encounter in my day to day life. ( )
  ariahfine | Feb 6, 2014 |
I received a copy of the 25th anniversary edition of this book through First Reads. This was a wrenching read, deftly handling the disparate points of view of the Hmong immigrants, the medical practitioners, and the various intermediaries during the saga of Lia Lee's fraught health conditions. A great deal has changed since the 1980s, in part due to the publicity this book brought to cultural issues in the health system although increased awareness of the Hmong's role during the secret war in Laos and their subsequent exodus to this country is really not one of them. I'm also not sure that there is really a much better understanding of what it's like to live with grand mal epilepsy. The most hopeful note I noticed when reading this was the evidence of extraordinary reserves of good will available on all sides despite a desperate life-threatening series of medical emergencies. ( )
  rmagahiz | Dec 21, 2013 |
Great book for medical sociology and sociology generally. ( )
  binh-jules | Nov 28, 2013 |
This book is not about one case, that's just the vehicle. The author takes you through what it is like to work with another culture from both sides. She does not make judgments or draw conclusions. She just presents you with what happened from the points of view of as many people as she can find. It's well written and makes the Hmong culture and history accessible.
I won't say I 'loved' it, because there are many things about this book (and the whole situation) that are hard. But I'm so glad I read it.
If you want a book that will make you think, and think, and think, this is one. ( )
  ksnider | Nov 18, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
If tragedy is a conflict of two goods, if it entails the unfolding of deep human tendencies in a cultural context that makes the outcome seem inevitable, if it moves us more than melodrama, then this fine book recounts a poignant tragedy.
 
Ms. Fadiman tells her story with a novelist's grace, playing the role of cultural broker, comprehending those who do not comprehend each other and perceiving what might have been done or said to make the outcome different.
 
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If Lia Lee had been born in the highlands of Laos, where her parents and twelve of her brothers and sisters were born, her mother would have squatted on the floor of the house that her father had built from ax-hewn planks thatched with bamboo and grass. (Chapter 1 - Birth)
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"Of course, Martin had undergone an equally unseemly metamorphosis himself, from savant to bumbler.  It was as if, by a process of reverse alchemy, each party in this doomed relationship had managed to convert each other's gold into dross."  pg. 223
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Genre: non-fiction

Summary: A child of a family of Hmong Immigrants to the US has epilepsy, and cultural misunderstanding contributes to overmedication, culture clash, and a tragic result for the young girl.

Commentary:
The group read this along with Linda Voigt's "Bodies," an excerpt from article on Medieval Model of the Humours

The group responded enthusiastically to the Fadiman book, especially its fair-minded and balanced presentation of both the Hmong and the American medical perspectives on the case of epilepsy patient Lia Ly.

While there was much sympathy for the devastation wrought by the language barrier when two such different cultures collide, there was a sense that things have improved, at least a little, in health care facilities over the past twenty years. "We have learned something" was said a couple of times, referring to the need for intercultural understanding.

The materials on the humours -- which were thought to control bodily health, personality, and one's position in the world -- was a revelation to some participants. I had included it to make the point that, until the 17th century, the Western European model of the body and its functions, the psyche, and the relation of the individual to the cosmos, would be as alien to modern Americans as the Hmong model is.

After the first session in which individual difference was emphasized, this session on cultural differences seemed a logical development in the seminar themes. Many participants commented in later sessions how much The Spirit Catches You meant to them -- how it helped them step back from a cross-cultural therapeutic encounter to assess whether they were really understanding what was going on or what the client was trying to say. (Kathy Ashley, Maine)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374525641, Paperback)

Lia Lee was born in 1981 to a family of recent Hmong immigrants, and soon developed symptoms of epilepsy. By 1988 she was living at home but was brain dead after a tragic cycle of misunderstanding, overmedication, and culture clash: "What the doctors viewed as clinical efficiency the Hmong viewed as frosty arrogance." The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, written with the deepest of human feeling. Sherwin Nuland said of the account, "There are no villains in Fadiman's tale, just as there are no heroes. People are presented as she saw them, in their humility and their frailty--and their nobility."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:36 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

When three-month-old Lia Lee Arrived at the county hospital emergency room in Merced, California, a chain of events was set in motion from which neither she nor her parents nor her doctors would ever recover. Lia's parents were part of a large Hmong community in Merced. The Hmong, traditionally a close-knit and fiercely people, have been less amenable to assimilation than most immigrants, adhering steadfastly to the rituals and beliefs of their ancestors. Lia's pediatricians cleaved just as strongly to another tradition: that of Western medicine. When Lia Lee entered the American medical system, diagnosed as an epileptic, her story became a tragic case history of cultural miscommunication. Parents and doctors both wanted the best for Lia, but their ideas about the causes of her illness and its treatment could hardly have been more different. The Hmong see illness and healing as spiritual matters linked to virtually everything in the universe, while medical community marks a division between body and soul, and concerns itself almost exclusively with the former. Lia's doctors ascribed her seizures to the misfiring of her cerebral neurons; her parents called her illness, qaug dab peg--the spirit catches you and you fall down--and ascribed it to the wandering of her soul. The doctors prescribed anticonvulsants; her parents preferred animal sacrifices.… (more)

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