I attended a writing conference/retreat at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota this summer, and our writing tutor handed out a list of recommended books called “Why Pick Up That Book and Read It?” The books were organized into categories such as “to be transported to a new world” or “to realize you’re not alone.” Anne Fadiman’s 1998 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was under the heading “to see the world in a new way,” and it certainly fulfills that promise.
I had read Fadiman’s book of “familiar essays” called At Large and At Small and was enchanted by her precise, winsome prose. She takes on topics as diverse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and ice cream in a charming blend of memoir and research-based journalism. It works. In The Spirit Catches You, Fadiman tells the story of a Hmong family living in California who have a daughter, Lia, who has life-threatening epilepsy and the battle between the American doctors who are treating her and her Hmong parents, who have their own understanding about the disease and cultural norms.
Fadiman’s strength is the ability to toggle between detailed medical information about Lia and a sweeping history of the Hmong people in a deft, artful way. She clearly cares about everyone involved and lets their humanity shine through, both in their mistakes and their triumphs. I found myself rooting for whomever she was focusing on at the time; when offering the doctors’ perspective I would think, of course they need to do everything they can for Lia, whether her parents fully understand or approve of what is going on or not. This is a life-or-death situation. Then in the next section I would feel her parents’ intense frustration at not being fully informed of what is going on, their own great wisdom and pride which are rooted in their culture, and their obvious intense love for Lia. The ending testifies to that love and is both inspiring and heartbreaking.
These folks have a poster that features this quote:
“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
Fadiman’s book embodies that idea in a deeply complex way. There are no pat answers here. This is a tough topic and a sad book in many ways, but well worth a read.
Photo: Lia and her mother.