Fadiman Speaks on Common Reading at MHC

Posted: October 1, 2009

New college students have much in common with immigrants to a new country, according to Anne Fadiman, author of the 2009 Common Reading selection for the class of 2013, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (1997).

Speaking September 29 to a packed audience in Hooker Auditorium, Fadiman told students their first year at Mount Holyoke will be "both thrilling and terrifying" as they transition from the familiar culture of their families and homes to that of the College campus. They will feel, she predicted, somewhat like the newly arrived immigrant characters of her book, a Hmong family from Laos that settled in Merced, California, in the early 1980s.

For Foua and Nao Kao Lee, however, the stakes in their cultural transition were unusually high. Although they settled in a neighborhood of fellow Hmongs in Merced, when their infant daughter Lia developed severe epilepsy--qaug dab peg, translated as the spirit catches you and you fall down--the Lees found themselves on a cultural collision course with the local Amerian medical community. Both her parents and her doctors--"all likeable people," said Fadiman--tried to do what they believed was best for Lia, but their understanding of the causes and treatments for her illness were vastly different. The Lees, like other Hmong, believed Lia's illness was spiritual in nature; her doctors saw a science-based brain disorder. Neither ever managed to understand or effectively communicate with the other, with tragic consequences.

"This book chose me," said Fadiman, a journalist who spent eight years researching and writing about the Lees and the history of the Hmong people. She managed to connect with the family in a way the medical professionals never could, she said, because she worked with an Americanized Hmong woman who became her "cultural broker," rather than just an interpreter who translated her questions.

"She translated the culture that lay between the words, and that's what was missing with the doctors," she said. And she saw the family "during a period of chronic grief," while Lia's physicians saw them only in crisis.

"Unlike in an emergency, it is possible to have conversations that make sense" in a period of grief, she said. "But never pretend what you write will be the same as if it was written by an insider," she added. Despite all of the time as she spent with the Hmong, she says, "There are nuances I'll never get."

Fadiman advised students in the audience to take lessons from the book--to see the world from different perspectives and people as individuals, to "try not to retreat into the safe and comfortable center of your culture at times of crisis," and to spend energy finding common ground rather than differences with those from other backgrounds.  Although we often believe our own cultures and perspectives are "the center of the universe," she added, "They're not."

That lesson is gradually beginning to change the American medical system. The New York Times recently reported the Merced hospital where Lia was frequently treated has become the first in the country to give shamans standing as religious chaplains. The shamans now work hand-in-hand with doctors to persuade Hmong patients to accept Western medical treatment while simultaneously respecting and accommodating their spiritual needs. The article credited Fadiman and her book for "prompting much soul searching at the hospital" and beyond.

Lia's parents once hoped that, like many epileptics in Hmong society, she would become a great shaman. When her progressively worsening seizure disorder caused serious brain damage, they abandoned that dream; Fadiman did not.

"I do believe she grew up to be a great (shaman)," she said. "She's teaching at Mount Holyoke right now--and I'm just the conduit."

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. The event was sponsored by the Office of the President.

Related Links:

Common Reading Blog

New York Times