Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Anne Fadiman

This is the account of a little girl in Merced, California who began having epileptic seizures at the age of 3 months. The fact that she is Hmong and her doctors are not is at the beginning of this tale of cultural misunderstanding. It is not the end, however.

There is much more than just ethnocentrism contributing to the struggle at the heart of the story, and Fadiman does a really good job of at least trying to explore everything that does contribute. I like this quote from the author herself from this interview (careful, possible spoilers), because it sums up some of what I felt when I read it: "I felt that I started pulling on a slender thread, the thread that was Lia Lee, the small sick child who is the central character of this book. I pulled on the thread and the thread became a string and the string became a rope, and then I tugged really hard on the rope and I discovered that it was attached to the entire universe."

If you have any interest in cross-cultural understanding, in looking beyond your own view of the universe and having the opportunity to stop and think about the relative importance of facts vs. beliefs and where the boundary between those two things is, then this book may interest you. In spite of the seemingly dry subject matter-an exhaustive investigative report of one medical case-it is a compelling read: It is beautifully written and the author manages to be fair, even compassionate, to both sides and really tries to help the reader to understand the deep-down intentions of all the players in the drama. I liked that. Some will find her too sympathetic to the Hmong, and some will find her too sympathetic to the doctors. For me, her balanced approach underscores the possibility that this situation may not have one right answer.

Here are a couple of other opinions of the book, but be warned, spoilers possible :
NY Times

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