The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down


Anne Fadiman

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Fadiman writes that Lia was seven when she first met her, which was two years after she had entered a nonresponsive state (her doctors called this a “persistent vegetative state”). Fadiman sensed something else amiss in the girl, too, admitting that perhaps her soul really was missing. She explains how, days after Lia came home from MCMC, her fever dropped, her respiration returned to normal, and her gag reflexes came back—her doctors thought this was the result of decreased brain swelling, while her parents believed it was the result of the herbal remedies they bathed her in when she left the hospital. Regardless, it was certainly not due to the nasogastric feeding tube, which the Lees removed after one week.
Once again Fadiman opens herself up to the possibility that the Lees were right about what Lia needed, first by admitting that it seemed as if Lia’s soul really had fled her body, then by simply recounting how the young girl’s health quickly improved once she left the hospital and her parents started treating her in the traditional Hmong ways.
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The first time Neil saw Lia in a routine checkup after her final seizure, he found himself very emotional. He expected the Lees to blame him for everything that happened to Lia, but he found that Foua—who was the one who had brought Lia for the checkup—understood his remorse. During that appointment, Neil broke down and cried—Foua hugged and thanked him.
It’s worth noting that this kind of emotional display was exactly what Lia’s initial treatment lacked. Wrapped up in championing their competing beliefs, Neil, Peggy, Foua, and Nao Kao all neglected to interact on a human level. Indeed, their experiences sorely lacked genuine interpersonal connection, which may very well have fostered a more productive environment for agreeing on how to treat Lia.
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The Lees continued to treat their daughter with neeb, having a shaman visit several times per year and giving her herbal remedies. Martin Kilgore, an incredibly intelligent public health nurse who made routine visits to the Lee household, let Fadiman accompany him one day as he checked in on Lia and her family. Despite Nao Kao and Foua’s general friendliness, Fadiman noticed during this visit that they did not show Martin the same kindness they often showed her. Martin, for his part, tried perhaps too hard, speaking too loudly and touching Lia without explaining what he was doing. Nonetheless, he tried to connect with them, asking what they believed had happened to Lia—Nao Kao replied by saying that they didn’t “know anything about that.” Fadiman was baffled, since Nao Kao himself had spent hours telling her about the soul-stealing dabs that afflicted people with epilepsy. In this moment she began to understand why Lia’s doctors often were exasperated by the Lees.
The stony disposition the Lees showed Martin Kilgore suggests that, in order for them to cooperate and be willing to share their culture, it was necessary that they respect the person with whom they were speaking. This puts the lack of communication between Neil and Peggy and the Lees into a new frame; the problem wasn’t only that Lia’s doctors failed to ask what the Lees believed was happening to their daughter, it was also that the Lees likely rendered such avenues of conversation impossible by closing themselves off socially.
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