The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Reflection: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Summarily, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman describes a distressing tragedy centered on a child, Lia Lee, whose family emigrated from a traditional tribe known as Hmong in Laos to the Merced in San Joaquin, California. One day Lia’s older sister slammed their door, and at the same time, Lia rolled hers and started having epileptic fits. Fundamentally, Hmong religion is traditionally animist which makes the Hmong people believe that the spirit world is interconnected with all living things. Accordingly, at the center of Hmong culture is the TxivNeeb (Hmong healer) or the shaman simply known as the “father/master of spirits” who has the ability to enter a trance and summon spirits that could help heal diseases such as fits. As such, coming from a traditional animist community that believed in superstition, her parents felt that when the door was slammed, it provoked an evil spirit known as dab to enter their child thus causing the fit.

Consequently, within three months, Lia had experienced 20 epileptic episodes and had been admitted to the hospital three times. Lia’s American pediatricians carried out the appropriate tests and prescribed standard Western medication for her. However, Lia’s condition continued to be worse, and it was clear that although her parents deeply loved her, they were not able to provide the necessary care to their child. As a result, Lia’s condition continued to worsen especially after she fell off a swing and went into a vegetative state due to septic shock. Her seizures were, however, “cured” after she became brain dead.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is the authors’ competency in narrating culture clash. Throughout this article, the author narrates every event with exceptional skills that picture the collision between Hmong culture and Western medicine. The Hmong people were an illiterate society that did not know how to speak in English or write while Lia’s Western doctors did not know the Hmong culture or language. This made communication very difficult as parents, and other patients did not understand how to take their prescriptions or the importance of showing up for an appointment. As such, Western medicine was barely effective among the Hmong people. More so, this society strongly believed in superstitions such as convulsions were caused by a spirit known as dab. They believed that although this spirit caused fits, it also made a child be specially gifted. This explains why Lee’s believed that a TxivNeeb would be the only specialist that could make their daughter stop convulsing. The Lee’s thought that Western Medicine was making their daughter sicker and even stopped giving it to her making her fits worse.

The proponent of the bioecological theory, Bronfenbrenner, asserts that a child’s development is primarily influenced by his/her interactions with different facets and spheres of their surroundings. These spheres include the microsystem, mesosystem, ecosystem, and macrosystem. The microsystem shows culture clash in that Lia’sparents believed that their daughter was spiritually gifted and therefore thought that medication was doing her more harm and eventually stopped giving her the medicine. Secondly, parental beliefs that the fits were caused by a spirit known as dab made them believe that the Western doctors were ineffective and that only a TxivNeeb could heal their child as he could summon familiars and spirits on behalf of their child. These parental beliefs affected Lia’s growth rate and heath.

The mesosystem aspect shows that both the Hmong culture and the Western culture affected Lia’s life concurrently. The Lees believed that Lia should be protected from any injury during the epileptic fits, and they should seek the attention of a Hmong healer. However, since the TxivNeebwas not readily available in America, they sought help from western doctors. However, even after years of treatment, western Medicine was not effective because the parents’ beliefs prevented them from giving medication to their child. Secondly, the language differences between the two cultures affected Lia’s life significantly. From the doctor’s point of view, the distressing chains of events begun because the parents could not understand how the prescription works. This is because they were illiterate and did not understand how much or when to give medicine to Lia as prescribed by the doctors.

The ecosystem aspect shows how Lia’s life is by traditional beliefs of the Indochinese community although she was an American citizen. According to the author, Lia had several intricately embroidered hats which were meant to fool the dab that she was a flower and not a baby. She also has several years which were swaddling clothes with soul-retaining motifs, the pigpen,  which symbolized enclosure to prevent the baby’s soul from being stolen by the dad. Such traditional beliefs among the Indochinese community largely affected her life.

The macrosystem shows that although Lia’sdoctors understood the significance of western medicines, they also understood the power of culture. The doctors dedicated long hours studying Hmong cultural believe when Lia’s condition grew worse. One day, a Hmong healer visited Liain the hospital where she lay comatose. Surrounded by her adoring family, the healer sacrificed a pig and chicken and used their blood as well as sacred chants to call Lia’s soul back. Surprisingly, when he repeated the chants for seven times saying ‘‘Come home” Lia woke up and her parents took her home to care for her in their traditional way.

This narrative changed my perception about the interception of the cultural crash and real human life. When the child to Lia’s pediatricians becomes sick with leukemia Lia’smother, Mrs. Lee’s heart goes out to the other mother. She expressed genuine concern which can be seen from the questions she asked as well as her facial expressions. Although Mrs. Lee honestly thought that western doctors were imperfect healers, Mrs. Lee hugged Peggy passionately, and they were both shedding tears. I understood that sorrows of parenthood cut through humanity regardless of the cultural barriers as it affects the real human living. Through this observation, I realized human nature makes human life possible even when the world is marked by constant culture clash.

One aspect of the book that is lacking was an explanation of how the Hmong healer was able to get Lia to wake up from the coma. The author should have explained why the traditional sacrifice was more powerful than Western Medicine. This explanation is necessary because it shows how traditions shape daily life. The fact that traditional sacrifices can get Lia from the coma shows the highest form of culture collision given that western medicine could not.



Fadiman, A. (2012). The spirit catches you, and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. Macmillan.