The subtitle of Anne Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997) is “A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures”—a precise summary and a massive understatement. In 1985, in California, a baby girl named Lia Lee begins to have tonic-clonic (formerly “grand mal”) seizures. Her parents go to the community medical centre to get help, in spite of a lack of interpreters and the family’s deep reservations about western medicine: the Hmong, a Southeast Asian group, have spiritual taboos on surgery, organ transplants, drawing of blood and other practices. The Lee family struggle to understand and incorporate western treatments; the American medical people work far above and beyond the call of duty to treat Lia; friends, relatives and advocates are eager to help. But it’s not enough for everyone to mean well. The family believes that a sudden loud noise has caused Lia’s soul to “flee her body and become lost”; in Hmong culture this condition is treated by engaging a shaman and sacrificing an animal. But to Lia’s American doctors, “an electrochemical storm inside their daughter’s head has been stirred up by the misfiring of aberrant brain cells.” To compound matters, it often takes weeks of tinkering with meds to control seizures; in this process Lia is prescribed fourteen pharmaceuticals with varying instructions, and on her chart the phrase “non-compliant mother” occurs over and over. So…why did the Lees choose to be strangers in this strange land? During the war in Southeast Asia in the 197s, the Hmong, who had had to abandon their farms, were recruited to fight for the Americans in an area where by treaty the US could not deploy ground troops. As soldiers in the “Armée Clandestine” the Hmong men were fierce, effective warriors. Then their CIA-backed sponsors withdrew, leaving them to their fate as traitors. The Lees got out, and then their little girl developed epilepsy, a condition with plenty of baggage in any culture. Anne Fadiman is clear, compassionate and universally empathetic in presenting Lia Lee’s story. She does not assign blame, nor does she excuse anyone. And it’s a cracking good read from start to end.

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Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.


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