The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down


Anne Fadiman

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman is the daughter of Clifton Fadiman (a respected literary intellectual, radio broadcaster, television personality, author, and editor) and Annalee Jacoby Fadiman (a screenwriter and war correspondent). She attended Harvard University, and she was the founding editor of The Library of Congress’s publication, Civilization. Fadiman was also an editor of the celebrated The American Scholar, and she has written two essay collections and a memoir about her father. She currently teaches nonfiction at Yale University and is married to the author George Howe Colt, with whom she has two children.
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Historical Context of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Geneva Accords of 1954 sought to stabilize the French-colonized Southeast Asian countries of Indochina in the tumultuous aftermath of the Korean War. The treaty established a ceasefire in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Despite this agreement—which the United States never actually signed—America was anxious to stop the spread of communism. As a result, the United States became involved in a proxy war; the CIA secretly trained and armed a group of Hmong called the Armée Clandestine to fight the North Vietnamese. The Armée Clandestine fought Laotian communist forces who had aligned with the Vietnamese—this struggle is known as the Laotian Civil War, one of the several smaller wars that raged alongside the Vietnam War. However, as a result of their anti-communist involvement, many Hmong were put in danger when, eventually, Laotian communist forces won control of the country. For safety reasons, many Hmong became refugees, often filtering through refugee camps in Thailand before—if they were lucky—arriving in America in the mid 1970s. Claiming that CIA members had promised them safety and benefits, newly-Americanized Hmongs readily accepted government assistance, a fact that upset many non-Hmong Americans. Because the Hmong only came to the United States for safety reasons, the older generations in particular showed little interest in assimilating into American culture, exacerbating the already tense relations between the Hmong and their new compatriots.

Other Books Related to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down follows in the tradition of medically-informed works of nonfiction like Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, a collection of case histories about patients suffering from neurological disorders. Like Fadiman, Sacks explores the role of the doctor/patient relationship in contemporary medicine. Regarding Fadiman’s interest in the intersection of Western medicine and non-American cultures, another related literary work is Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, a biography about a doctor who treats tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru, and Russia. The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down is also revered as one of the foremost accounts of Hmong people in the United States, and is certainly one of the most widely-read detailed examinations of Hmong culture. Because of this, there are few obviously related mainstream literary works, though Fadiman does make use of certain source materials and academic works, such as Dwight Conquergood’s I Am a Shaman: A Hmong Life Story with Ethnographic Commentary and Keith Quincy’s Hmong: History of a People. She also calls upon a compilation of Hmong folktales and myths edited by Charles Johnson and Se Yang called Myths, Legends and Folk Tales from the Hmong of Laos. These sources, along with various anthropological Ph.D. dissertations, enable Fadiman to extrapolate upon years of study and ethnographic thought.
Key Facts about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
  • Full Title: The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
  • When Written: 1988-1997
  • Where Written: Merced, California and New York City
  • When Published: 1997
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Literature
  • Genre: Ethnography, Medical Anthropology, & Literary Nonfiction
  • Setting: Merced, California
  • Climax: During Lia’s final seizure, the doctors are ultimately unable to stabilize her, thereby failing to protect her from monumental neurological damage that leaves her paralyzed and nonresponsive.
  • Antagonist: The most immediate antagonistic force in The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down is Lia’s epilepsy, though Fadiman is more interested in exploring the miscommunication across cultural divides that render her doctors and parents unable to work together to treat her illness.
  • Point of View: Fadiman writes from her own first-person perspective, though she does not appear in several chapters in which she explains Hmong history.

Extra Credit for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Lia Lee. Despite her doctors’ estimate that she would die within days of being taken off life support, Lia Lee lived for twenty-six years in a paralyzed, non-responsive state, making her 30 years old at the time of her death in 2012.