The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Characters

Lia Lee

A little girl who is part of Merced, California’s population of Hmong immigrants. The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down tells the story of treating Lia’s epilepsy, examining her medical experience in Merced in… (read full character analysis)

Anne Fadiman

The author of The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down. Fadiman came to Merced in 1988 after hearing that the hospital was experiencing a swath of cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications with the Hmong… (read full character analysis)

Foua Lee

Lia’s mother and Nao Kao’s wife. Having given birth to twelve children in her native Laos, Foua and her family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand to escape the dangerous communist forces… (read full character analysis)

Nao Kao Lee

Lia’s father and Foua’s husband. Having immigrated with Foua and the rest of their family to America from Laos, Nao Kao is a devoted father who advocates strongly for Lia, often allowing his… (read full character analysis)

Neil Ernst

One of Lia’s primary doctors (along with his wife, Peggy Philp) at Merced Community Medical Center. Neil is a highly intelligent and inquisitive pediatrician who specializes in infections, asthma, and allergies. Incredibly driven… (read full character analysis)
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Peggy Philp

One of Lia’s primary doctors, and Neil Ernst’s wife. A pediatrician who specializes in hematology and child development, she is—like her husband—a motivated person who is most interested in discovering the truth. She… (read full character analysis)

Dan Murphy

A family practice resident at Merced Community Medical Center who is interested in Hmong culture. Dan is the first doctor to diagnose Lia as epileptic after seeing her in the throes of a seizure during… (read full character analysis)

Jeanine Hilt

A social worker who works closely with Lia and the Lee family. Jeanine takes thorough notes about Lia’s circumstances, notes that Fadiman draws upon extensively to illustrate the specifics of the young girl’s story. Although… (read full character analysis)

Dee Korda

Lia’s foster mom and Tom Korda’s wife. Dee is a gentle, kind person who devotes herself to caring for children. When Lia joins the Korda family, they already have five biological children and… (read full character analysis)

Sue Xiong

A Hmong-American interpreter who translates for the Lees and who also accompanies Child Protective Services workers to the Lee household when Lia is taken away from Foua and Nao Kao for the second time. Nao… (read full character analysis)

Sukey Waller

A psychologist who works at Merced Community Outreach Services. When Fadiman has trouble meeting and getting to know Hmong people, Bill Selvidge recommends that she talk to Sukey, whom he describes as one of the… (read full character analysis)

Bill Selvidge

A doctor living in Merced who invites Fadiman to meet his Hmong patients. Bill is a veteran of the Peace Corps with a passion for learning about other cultures, and he was once the chief… (read full character analysis)

Terry Hutchinson

A pediatric neurologist who works at Valley Children’s Hospital in Fresno. When Lia is in foster care, Dee Korda takes her to see Terry, who decides to prescribe her Depakene, a drug that proves effective… (read full character analysis)

Jonas Vangay

A Hmong community leader in Merced. Jonas attended the most elite secondary school in Laos before eventually earning a master’s degree from a French university. After working as a computer analyst in Paris, he relocated… (read full character analysis)

Blia Yao Moua

A Hmong community leader in Merced, and the director of an organization—Lao Family Community—that helps Hmong people apply for job training, navigate the bureaucratic difficulties of receiving public assistance, and stay up-to-date with news from… (read full character analysis)

May Ying Xiong

Fadiman’s interpreter, or—in Sukey Waller’s words—“cultural broker.” May Ying is a twenty year old clerk-typist at the Merced County Office of Refugee Services when Fadiman first meets her. Her recently-deceased father was a well-respected… (read full character analysis)

Arthur Kleinman

A psychiatrist and medical anthropologist who developed eight questions designed to aid people working in the context of cross-cultural medicine. The questions focus on gaining an understanding of what patients believe is ailing them (or… (read full character analysis)

Vang Pao

The Hmong leader of the Armée Clandestine, which the CIA armed and trained to fight communist forces during the Vietnam War. Vang Pao was a fierce military leader who actively recruited Hmong soldiers. Like many… (read full character analysis)

Martin Kilgore

A public health nurse who makes house calls to provide Lia with medical checkups after her final neurological crisis. Martin is an eccentric intellectual with an I.Q. of 150 and a full-body tan from taking… (read full character analysis)

Yer Lee

One of Lia’s older sisters. When Lia is three months old, Yer slams a door and Lia goes into her first epileptic seizure. Foua and Nao Kao believe that the loud sound of the… (read full character analysis)
Minor Characters
Dang Moua
A successful Hmong businessman living in Merced, California whom Fadiman interviews. Fadiman attributes the popularity of Merced amongst the Hmong to Dang’s influential presence in the area as a prominent social leader.
Tom Korda
Lia’s foster father and Dee Korda’s husband.