The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman – Reading Women 2019

This post is part of a series on reading women 2019 hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s Narrative Designer, Dan Michael Fielding.

There are two sorts of people who should read this book: 1) anyone planning to go into medicine and 2) literally everyone else.

As I mentioned before, this book has been recommended to me many, many times. My expectations going into it couldn’t have been higher, and yet Fadiman met or surpassed every single one.

In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Fadiman details the story of Lia Lee and her family, all recent Hmong immigrants, and their interactions with American doctors as Lia begins to experience increasingly dramatic epileptic episodes.

The story is recounted through the memories of Lia’s family, the recollections of doctors and medical residents, the history of the Hmong people, and the in-depth bureaucratic documentation of Lia’s life by the state.

The people Fadiman highlights in her book are varied and complex beings. I found myself incredibly frustrated by the doctors who couldn’t meet the Lee family where they were at, but beyond being frustrated by the individual doctors involved I was angry at an entire medical system that leaves people without support and guidance. The Lee family almost never had an English-Hmong interpreter available to them when they visited the hospital, the medical residents were exhausted and soon grew to dread Lia Lee’s visits, and the incredible cultural gulf between American and Hmong ideas of health quickly became impassable.

I appreciated Fadiman’s attention to detail, especially her attention to the details her Hmong interviewees gave her. Their relationship to the world was informed by a complex oral history that they shared with Fadiman who in turn shared it with us. Although I am always a little skeptical of taking written accounts of oral histories too seriously–especially because Fadiman herself is not Hmong–I still felt Fadiman made a strong effort to take her Hmong informants at their word. In a number of ways she did what their doctors were unable to do: she trusted that what they said was true, at least for them.

This book will definitely be the highlight of my year, and I can’t recommend it enough. If you have any interest in the importance of historical circumstances impacting present-day decision making you should check out this book!

What book did you read for the immigrant experience challenge? Let me know so I can add more books to my ever-growing to be read list!

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