Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall DownThe Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful and heartbreaking book. I can’t remember the last time I read a non-fiction book that affected me so deeply.

The core story is of the short life of Lia Lee, a girl born to Hmong refugees shortly after their arrival in the United States. At the age of 3 months she becomes severely epileptic, suffering a series of escalating, life-threatening seizures over the next several years. The true tragedy, though, is not just the epilepsy, but the cultural chasm that prevents her parents and her doctors from treating her effectively. For several months her condition is undiagnosed, because there is no one at the hospital who speaks Hmong and can translate the parents’ concerns. Once her epilepsy is recognized, linguistic and cultural barriers keep her parents from understanding their daughter’s prescriptions and treatments, keep the doctors from understanding the parents’ concerns, and deepen the rifts between the Hmong and immigrant communities.

The author interweaves the story of Lia Lee with a history of the Hmong people, explorations of their culture, and an explanation of how they came to take refuge in the United States in large numbers. The result is a rich and fascinating story that helps place the Lee family in context, and shines a light on the difficulties and tragedies involved in cross-cultural medicine.

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