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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Culturesby Anne Fadiman
1997 National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction
Synopses & Reviews
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction
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, Foua and Nao Kao, were part of a large Hmong community in Merced, refugees from the CIA-run "Quiet War" in Laos. 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, Neil Ernst and his wife, Peggy Philip, 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.
"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." Richard Bernstein, The New York Times
"An intriguing, spirit-lifting, extraordinary exploration of two cultures in uneasy coexistence...A wonderful aspect of Fadiman's book is her evenhanded, detailed presentation of these disparate cultures and divergent views — not with cool, dispassionate fairness but rather with a warm, involved interest...Fadiman's book is superb, informal cultural anthropology — eye-opening, readable, utterly engaging." Carole Horn, The Washington Post Book World
"This fine book recounts a poignant tragedy...It has no heroes or villains, but it has an abunance of innocent suffering, and it most certainly does have a moral...[A] sad, excellent book." Melvin Konner, The New York Times Book Review
"I cannot think of a book by a non-physician that is more understanding of the difficulties of caring for people...or of the conditions under which today's medicine is practiced." Sherwin B. Nuland, The New Republic
"So good I want to somehow make it required reading....The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down explores issues of culture, immigration, medicine, and the war in [Laos] with such skill that it's nearly impossible to put down." Linnea Lannon, The Detroit Free Press
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, this brilliantly reported and beautifully crafted book explores the clash between a medical center in California and a Laotian refugee family over their care of a child — and the lack of understanding that led to tragedy.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -326) and index.
About the Author
Anne Fadiman is the author of two essay collections, At Large and At Small and Ex Libris, and the editor of Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down received a National Book Critics Circle Award, an L.A. Times Book Prize, and a Salon Book Award. Her essays and articles have appeared in Harpers, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among other publications. She is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.
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