Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997)

Anne Fadiman has written a deep and fascinating study of a Hmong family in America, thereby illuminating a piece of American culture as well. It's the story of Lia Lee, born in Merced, California to a family that originated in the highlands of Laos. Her epileptic seizures, starting when she was three months old, brought the family into contact with a medical community that wanted desperately to treat her illness; but while the Lees viewed the doctors as cold and threatening, the doctors viewed the family as negligent and 'non-compliant.'

The medical catastrophe that is Lia's life as recorded in her hospital charts stands in contrast to her family's love and care for her, and what they view as the spiritual crisis of her illness; neither side has any way to understand how the other sees the situation. Fadiman's art is to trace the vast gulf in world-view between the family and the doctors, so that the reader can appreciate how much everybody wanted to do the right thing for Lia, even as her condition worsened over time.

We are not left with blame or polemics, but with a glimmering of hope that--partly through books like this--hospitals and medical students are beginning to be aware than they will sometimes have patients who don't understand or believe their explanations of health and illness. The Spirit Catches You shows how rich that understanding could be.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I'll be reading it for BU school of Social Work you own the book by any chance? I think I can get through it in a week or two. I'm probably going to read it in August though (closer to the discussion date).-Meghan