Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down


Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is gripping reading.

Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is gripping reading.

Have you ever finished a book and wished that you had written it?

That happened to me during and after reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,  Anne Fadiman’s rvieting account of cultural differences intersecting with the American health care system.

Fadiman gained intimate access to the health travails of Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl who was diagnosed by the doctors she saw as having epileptic seizures.  In her culture, though, Lia’s fits meant that she was gifted and special.

These different views are only the beginning of what this book has to offer.  Fadiman gives the family’s background, including their harrowing flight from their home in the 1970s, resettlement in California and efforts to set up a new life.  She also clearly won the trust of the doctors who treated her and who reflected on how they could have done things differently.

A series of unfortunate treatments and parental actions occurs during the course of the book, leading both to social services getting involved with the family and Lia being put on a drug regime that, far from helping her, appears to contribute to leaving her in a vegetative state.

It’s painful stuff, indeed.  

Fadiman is remarkably effective at showing how both sides see each other as well as where they could have made other choices.  She raises uncomfortable questions about why Lia’s parents seem more upset about her medical difficulties than about another child who actually died on the journey and shows through a sibling’s schoolwork how poorly their needs are being met.  

Fadiman also conveys how critical intercultural understanding is for successful communication, and how the existing medical system mitigates against that kind of treatment in numerous ways. 

I already put this book down on my list of Top 10 books for 2008, and as President Obama prepares to return from vacation and again take up the mantle of health care reform, this book is well worth reading to help inform any changes that are made.  

I did not write this book, but I sure enjoyed reading it.


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