Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

This novel read like no other text I have set eyes on. It is not artistically deep, though sometimes goes there in an academic sense, it is rather history mixed with passion mixed with devastation, stirred with pure knowledge.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, written by Anne Fadiman will not be read by many. When browsing the shelves in a book store I would be unlikely to pick up a book about a Hmong child with epilepsy and the miscommunication between cultures that take place with American Doctors and Hmong parents. I would, however, understand my grandfather the doctor, to be interested in a book of this nature. However biased this may sound, I read this book as if it were written by a man because the knowledge was so vast and so great I simply assumed that a male doctor had written it. I am an educated woman though not nearly to the extent that Anne Fadiman is, and fully understand that woman are capable just as men are, but it was only after being halfway through with the book that I realized it was a woman.

The basic premise is this: a Hmong family immigrated from Laos to Merced, CA. One of their many children, Lia, has a seizure disorder that started when she was just an infant. To Americans, this is a disease that should be monitored and medicated; to the Hmongs, this is not a disorder, but rather a sign of prophets. The parents of Lia do not speak English and assume that the doctor's prescribed medications will make her sick, though they do choose their own dosages of the medicines at their discretion. Because of this Lia is removed from her parents and put into foster care after years of doctors attempting to regulate her meds despite the parents' efforts to be in control of them. She is eventually returned to her parents, but a particularly bad seizure hits Lia and causes so much brain damage that she will not recover. Her mother carries Lia on her back for the rest of her life, puts her in diapers and feeds her. Her parents love her more than her doctors do and Lia remains alive despite what they have told the parents, although "alive" is a term used loosely in this case.

Beyond the synopsis of the book is a larger tale. A tale of the Hmong themselves; a mountain culture in Laos trained by the American CIA to fight communism in the East. The Hmong were chosen for their ability to work hard; they are warriors who remained to themselves and lived off the Opium that they harvested, but never took themselves. It was indeed a wise choice for the American Government, what better people to fight than a culture who does not need much pay and who fights with no leave. After the war, many were allowed by the American Embassy to immigrate to the U.S. to save their lives. Many were being killed in Laos or killed escaping Laos. Since they are an agricultural people, many immigrated to Merced where they still currently live.

The story of Lia is at the forefront and the story of the Hmong people surround her, but there is a larger story here, one we all belong to. It is the story, or rather question, of how we see the world. The world view we have is not the world view of the world. I wrote that sentence on purpose, for in it's confusion lies clarity and truth; re-read it. The Hmong culture and language are so vastly different than the American way, it is the optimal culture to compare to ours if one wants to shatter any truth we call truth.

The author clearly sides with the Hmong; she yearns for the American doctor to see a person and not a disease; for doctors to learn all cultures and all biases and use that knowledge for good. I do not know what my grandfather thought about all this, but the lurking question in my mind was, how can anyone expect all that from a doctor? Can we expect that doctors will have translators on staff of every language, will they have knowledge of every culture that passes into their double doors? I have to admit that eventually Anne says this: "I started to lament the insensitivity of Western medicine. The epidemiologist looked at me sharply. 'Western medicine saves lives,' she said. Oh right, I had to keep reminding myself of that" (Fadiman, 276). I am glad to hear her say this; I was hoping she would. I would like to join her efforts to bring multiculturalism to the forefront of every problem humans have, but it seems exhausting. If no one's right, then no one's wrong and where do we stop with that? I tend to lean towards Anne's viewpoints in terms of other people and their ways of life, but I can't go quite as far as she does.

Looming in the last pages of the book are a few of the many philosophical questions she raises and are highlighted by Papa. I will bring up the most difficult, "Which is more important, the life or the soul?" (Fadiman, 277). In the book one person says the life and another says the soul; both are doctors. Because of the very nature of the book, one can never answer that. The answer would not be an answer, it would be one person's view and it would be neither right nor wrong; it would

On the cover of the book there is a review that says, "A profoundly memorable book" and that it is. It will always haunt my memory as Lia haunts her doctors and her parents. The Hmong life is riddled with despair and displacement speaking a language that has no record, that is not written. Lia tragically and limply exists and the book does not disclose her fate. The author finishes the book at a shamanistic ritual to try and heal Lia where pigs are sacrificed and chants are spoken. Anne is both intrigued and partly distant, possibly disgusted and honored. The book is a winner of the National Book Critics Award and how could it not be? Though it is haunting, it was entirely worth writing and was written well.