OVERRIDE

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

Anne Fadiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

  • National Book Critics Circle Awards Winner

    National Book Critics Circle Awards Winner

  • Buy it now
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest

A Salon Book Award Winner

Boston Book Review Ann Rea Jewell Non-Fiction Award

A New York Times Notable Book

A Detroit Free Press Best Book of the Year

A New York Newsday Best Book of the Year

Finalist for the PEN / Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction


When three-month-old Lia Lee arrived at the county hospital emergency room in Merced, California, a chain of events was set in motion from which neither she nor her parents nor her doctors would ever recover. Lia's parents, Foua and Nao Kao, were part of a large Hmong community in Merced, refugees from the CIA-run "Quiet War" in Laos. The Hmong, traditionally close-knit, have been less amenable to assimilation than most immigrants, adhering steadfastly to the rituals and beliefs of their ancestors. Lia's pediatricians, Neil Ernst and his wife, Peggy Philip, cleaved just as strongly to another tradition: that of Western medicine. When Lia Lee entered the American medical system, diagnosed as an epileptic, her story became a tragic case history of cultural miscommunication.

Parents and doctors both wanted the best for Lia, but their ideas about the causes of her illness and its treatment could hardly have been more different. The Hmong see illness and healing as spiritual matters linked to virtually everything in the universe, while medical community marks a division between body and soul, and concerns itself almost exclusively with the former. Lia's doctors ascribed her seizures to the misfiring of her cerebral neurons; her parents called her illness, qaug dab peg—the spirit catches you and you fall down—and ascribed it to the wandering of her soul. The doctors prescribed anticonvulsants; her parents preferred animal sacrifices.

Anne Fadiman's compassionate account of this cultural impasse is literary journalism at its finest. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down moves from hospital corridors to healing ceremonies, and from the hill country of Laos to the living rooms of Merced, uncovering in its path the complex sources and implications of two dramatically clashing worldviews. 

BOOK EXCERPTS

Read an Excerpt

THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN (Chapter 1) Birth

If Lia Lee had been born in the highlands of northwest Laos, where her parents and twelve of her brothers and sisters were born, her mother would have squatted on the floor of the house that her father had built from ax-hewn planks thatched with bamboo and grass. The floor was dirt, but it was clean. Her mother, Foua, sprinkled it regularly with water to keep the dust down and swept it every morning and evening with a broom she had made of grass and bark. She used a bamboo dustpan, which she had also made herself, to collect the feces

READ THE FULL EXCERPT
BACK

MEDIA

Watch

  • NYU Journalism Primary Sources: Anne Fadiman

    Ted Conover interviews Anne Fadiman about her new book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

BACK

REVIEWS

Praise for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

“Superb, informal cultural anthropology—eye-opening, readable, utterly engaging.” —Carole Horn, The Washington Post Book World

“This is a book that should be deeply disturbing to anyone who has given so much as a moment’s thought to the state of American medicine. But it is much more . . . People are presented as [Fadiman] saw them, in their humility and their frailty—and their nobility.” —Sherwin B. Nuland, The New Republic

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down changed how doctors see themselves and how they see their patients. Anne Fadiman celebrates the complexity and the individuality of the human interactions that make up the practice of medicine while simultaneously pointing out directions for change and breaking readers’ hearts with the tragedies of cultural displacement, medical limitations, and futile good intentions.” —Perri Klass, M.D., author of A Not Entirely Benign Procedure

Reviews from Goodreads

BACK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Anne Fadiman

  • Anne Fadiman was born in New York City and was raised in Connecticut and Los Angeles. After graduating from Harvard, she worked as a wilderness instructor in Wyoming before returning to New York to write. She has been a staff writer at Life, editor-at-large of Civilization, and editor of The American Scholar. Fadiman is also the author of Ex Libris and At Large and At Small, and the editor of Rereadings. She now lives with her family in western Massachusetts and serves as the Francis Writerin-Residence at Yale.

  • Anne Fadiman Connie Miller
BACK

READING GUIDE

ORGANIZING A READING GROUP

GET THE GUIDE

Download PDF

TELL YOUR FRIENDS

FIND MORE BOOKS

Go to website

STAY UPDATED

Sign Up
BACK

BUY THE BOOK

Available Formats and Book Details

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

Anne Fadiman

Boston Book Review - Winner, L.A. Times Book Prize - Winner, National Book Critics Circle Awards Winner, Boston Book Review - Winner, L.A. Times Book Prize - Winner, National Book Critics Circle Awards Winner

BOOKS FOR COURSES AVAILABLE

BACK

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

BACK