Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Date of Publication: April 24th, 2012
Dates Read: September 6th – October 4th, 2016
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, over-medication, and culture clash: “What the doctors viewed as clinical efficiency the Hmong viewed as frosty arrogance.”
My Rating: ★★★★★
I must say, this is probably my favourite class reading of all of the ones I’ve had to do so far. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures was assigned reading for my sociocultural anthropology class, and I can completely understand why.
Firstly, I want you all to understand that this book will make you feel things – anger, grief, confusion, heartache. This book will make you think with its analysis of an incredibly complicated topic. Most of all, you will learn from this book – I know I did. In fact, I believe the author learned just as much from experiencing and writing about this process as I did reading it. You will find that she does give her own opinion sometimes, and the reader may not always agree with it, which is completely normal and expected – authors will always have some kind of bias, it’s just human nature. You’ll also find, though, that Fadiman’s opinion will change in small ways over the course of the book. Like author character development!
One of the most important things that I have found about this book is that Fadiman, for the most part, doesn’t try to convince the reader that one side is right. She shows us that Western medicine is not the infallible be-all-end-all that we think it is, but also that it’s not doing everything wrong. One form of medicine is not superior to the other; rather, they are two different ways of handling the same situation.
I also like that we really get to see Lia’s story from so many different angles; first from the American doctors who worked with Lia, then from Lia’s parents, and then from other doctors, social workers, psychologists, and a whole bunch of other people throughout. Some of the Westerners were frustrated with this family, while other Westerners completely agreed with them. This really helps the reader understand that there are no good guys or bad guys in this situation, just people doing what they can with what they know. Everybody in this situation had the best intentions – they wanted to help Lia, to make her life better – but there were many mistakes and misunderstandings that led to complications.
It’s also great that Fadiman took the time to give the readers a bit of history. Most of the chapter-long history lessons were about the Hmong, which really helps any Western reader in understanding this group of people and their customs and belief systems. As an anthropology student, I found it really interesting. Fadiman also gives a bit of history for some of the American medical doctors and hospitals, just so the whole story can be seen and better understood.
The big thing about this book for me is that Fadiman, as a Westerner, is respectful of the Lees and their culture, never trying to frame them as “crazy” for not going along with American medicine. Instead she takes the time to understand their daughter’s story from their perspective, befriending them and even sometimes taking part in their activities. She works hard to get this message across to the readers, to convince them that while their medicine may be different, it is not necessarily lesser than American medicine – just different.
As for the writing, I found that there was more humour in it than I expected, which was a welcome surprise, especially for a book with such a heavy and complex topic. It may be a little wordy and a bit technical for some people at certain points – it is, after all, about a medical story – and the time does jump back and forth, which could get confusing and/or annoying. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I think that it really made me think.
Overall: A real thought-provoking, well-written piece on a very difficult topic.
Note: the specific edition that I read contains an afterward by the author, which updates the reader on the situation and ties up some loose ends left in the main book. This case was originally published in the 90s, and since then many things have changed, so if you plan on reading this I highly suggest getting the latest edition.