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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures [Kindle Edition]

Anne Fadiman
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (717 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for 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 a close-knit and fiercely people, 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 aand 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.



Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Lia Lee was born in 1981 to a family of recent Hmong immigrants, and soon developed symptoms of epilepsy. By 1988 she was living at home but was brain dead after a tragic cycle of misunderstanding, overmedication, and culture clash: "What the doctors viewed as clinical efficiency the Hmong viewed as frosty arrogance." The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, written with the deepest of human feeling. Sherwin Nuland said of the account, "There are no villains in Fadiman's tale, just as there are no heroes. People are presented as she saw them, in their humility and their frailty--and their nobility."

From School Library Journal

YA?A compelling anthropological study. The Hmong people in America are mainly refugee families who supported the CIA militaristic efforts in Laos. They are a clannish group with a firmly established culture that combines issues of health care with a deep spirituality that may be deemed primitive by Western standards. In Merced, CA, which has a large Hmong community, Lia Lee was born, the 13th child in a family coping with their plunge into a modern and mechanized way of life. The child suffered an initial seizure at the age of three months. Her family attributed it to the slamming of the front door by an older sister. They felt the fright had caused the baby's soul to flee her body and become lost to a malignant spirit. The report of the family's attempts to cure Lia through shamanistic intervention and the home sacrifices of pigs and chickens is balanced by the intervention of the medical community that insisted upon the removal of the child from deeply loving parents with disastrous results. This compassionate and understanding account fairly represents the positions of all the parties involved. The suspense of the child's precarious health, the understanding characterization of the parents and doctors, and especially the insights into Hmong culture make this a very worthwhile read.?Frances Reiher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
830 of 843 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
I was one of the physicians involved in the care of Lia Lee. I'm referred to in the book as the physician that first diagnosed Lia's spells as seizures. Neil Ernst and Peggy Philp, the principal pediatricians in the book, were and are good friends of mine. Having experienced Lia Lee's saga personally, and then having read the book, I can only refer to Anne Fadiman's talent as astounding. Anne walks an incredibly fine, and very well documented, line as she describes what happens when American medical technology meets up with a deep and ancient Eastern culture. My team (Western medicine) failed Lia. Never have I felt so fairly treated in defeat, and never have I felt so much respect for an author's skillful distillation of a tragically murky confrontation of cultures.

ADDENDUM (8/8/09) I wrote the above review almost a decade ago. The experiences that I had during the events described in this book have continued to guide the way that I practice medicine. The Spirit Catches You has become a true classic in the medical and anthropological fields, being read in college, medical school, and nursing classes throughout the United States every year. This speaks to the enduring quality of the work that Anne Fadiman did in a book that remains unique in the skill with which it was written. The story it contains remains fresh and astoundingly relevant to the practice of medicine in particular, and cross-cultural relationships in general.
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362 of 375 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an exceptional piece of work!! November 4, 1997
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I don't think I should be writing in here since I am a part of the book. This book was amazing! It took me two days to read it and of course I shed a few tears on the way. My sister, Lia Lee, is doing well although she will never be able to see the bright sunlight or the incredible stars that we see everyday and everynite. She is an incredible child with so much love and affection from her family and the many friends she have encountered during her hardships.
I was only 7 when all this happened, but I do recall everything from the door slamming incident to the day the doctors told my family that it was okay for her to come but she will not live pass 7 days. I will never forget that week or those many years of pain my family or the doctors had to go through.
This book has given me a better view of what can really happen when two different cultures have their own ways of interpreting medicine or life in general. We must understand that different cultures have different ways of curing a person and doctors have their policy they must follow. To avoid another incident like this, we must work together as a whole and not blame each other for not cooperating with one another. Lets hope this book tells us what can happen in the future if we don't work with this now.
Anne did a great job on this book! My family couldn't have ask for more. She has become a great friend of my family and we are greatful for it. Anne-thank you !
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387 of 418 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars AS A HMONG AMERICAN April 7, 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall is a novel based on the clash of two cultures---the Hmong culture and the American culture. A little Hmong girl is diagnosed with epilepsy which her parents believe is caused by spirits. Because of this belief, they try to cure her illness not with western medication but their own Hmong ways. There is a huge misunderstanding between the parents and the doctors that Anne Fadiman explores. Anne Fadiman provides readers with a vivid, detailed history of the Hmong in Laos to their involvement in the Vietnam War to their struggles in America that explains this clash. On the other hand, she also explains why Americans see and felt the way they did about the Hmong culture particularly the doctors. One shortcoming is that the author implies that Hmong Americans and their experiences are completely homogenous, but the beauty of this book is that she is able to view both sides without judgment. As a Hmong American, it's hard to imagine an American who can achieve this, but the author achieves this so beautifully. It's hard to look at something from a totally different perspective especially because westerners are very rigid about their beliefs and have a sense of superiority in regards to other cultures thus I was shocked that Fadiman was able to communicate and understand the Hmong in such a way. She did a great job of digging beyond the surface and really understanding the Hmong people, their beliefs, and where they are coming from. As a Hmong American, I think she did a great job! She talked of things that I couldn't imagine an American even knowing about until I read this book. It's great to know that an American can look at the Hmong culture without judgment and even come to admire it and see some good in it even though it's very different from her own beliefs. I recommend this book to anyone especially those that are interested in learning more about the Hmong.
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121 of 136 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hmong American reader here March 20, 2004
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
People who are not familiar with Hmong Americans may read this book and assume that all/most Hmong Americans are like the Lee family and other Hmong families presented in the book. The events that took place with the Lee family occured when Hmong first arrived here in the late 70s/early 80s. These days, the majority of Hmong Americans are a lot more Americanized compared to the early 1980s. Although the assimilation has been slow compared to other first generation Americans, things have changed a lot since then. For example, many Hmong no longer practice the traditional Hmong religion and have converted to Christianity. The Lee family was a lot more traditional than most Hmong American families in the early 80s. I just wanted to clear this up.
Having said that, I enjoyed this book because it does the impossible. Fadiman is able to make the reader better understand the traditional Hmong culture, a culture that seems irrational and is opposite of western culture. It doesn't mean that you will agree with the Hmong culture but you will better understand it, including why the family did/did not do certain things to help their daughter who had epilepsy. I also believe that this book is important for those who work with the public because it promotes sensitivity towards other cultures. The doctors and the family had the very best intentions for the daughter who had epilepsy but the cultural barriers were just too much.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Perfectly highlights the tension that can exist between culture and medicine, and written in a way that is captivating.
Published 22 hours ago by ekann
1.0 out of 5 stars which makes it useless.
I can not get my heart rate during exercise because of sweating, which makes it useless.
Published 2 days ago by Imad Shawa
5.0 out of 5 stars great
fascinating story really about a clash of cultures more than anything else. Fadiman is a terrific writer
Published 5 days ago by JK
5.0 out of 5 stars but I found that I really enjoyed it beyond its educational aspects
I read this book for a college course on human behavior, but I found that I really enjoyed it beyond its educational aspects. You really become invested into the lives of the Lees.
Published 7 days ago by Cait Brobst
5.0 out of 5 stars The author did a wonderful job relating this story from the point of...
I wish I had read this many years ago. What insight into the culture and families of children and parents I had worked with for years. Read more
Published 8 days ago by Jeanann
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great book! Fast read!
Published 12 days ago by Jenna Eason
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
must read!
Published 12 days ago by Kim Hoang
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
👍🏼
Published 13 days ago by Nalini
5.0 out of 5 stars Great perspective
Great read. Was a mandatory book for a course in medical anthropology. First book I've been assigned and loved in a very long time.
Published 14 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars How I loved this book
How I loved this book! The amazing spirit of a sick child, the cultural constraints placed on an immigrant family and the bewitching words that tie them all together makes this a... Read more
Published 15 days ago by allie hookway
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