“Go to the Edge of Your Culture”

“The Spirit Catches You …”author shares wisdom gathered during eight-year book odyssey

President Esteban and Felicia Contreras congratulate Dolly Moore-Solomon.

Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

photo: Kathleen Mcpartland

Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, began her talk on Oct. 16 by describing her journey through the cultural conflicts of the Hmong and the medical profession:

I cannot tell you how many times my friends teased me about spending eight years on a book about an epileptic Hmong toddler. All I could say to them was, ‘Yes, it is about an epileptic Hmong toddler, but it is also about many other things that are important to me.’ I felt that I started pulling on a slender thread, the thread that was Lia Lee, the small sick child who is the central character of this book. I pulled on the thread and the thread became a string and the string became a rope, and then I tugged really hard on the rope and I discovered that it was attached to the entire universe.

Fadiman found the story of the epileptic Hmong toddler Lia Lee by accident. When a friend told her about his experiences with the Hmong at Merced County Medical Center (MCMC), Fadiman added the Hmong and the medical profession conflict to a list of article proposals she submitted to The New Yorker, and it was accepted.

In Merced, Fadiman did not have good luck contacting Hmong families. When she complained to a MCMC doctor, he recommended May Ying Xiong, who had been his children’s babysitter, as an interpreter. After talking with May Ying for 15 seconds, Fadiman knew her luck had changed. May Ying came from what was, in essence, Hmong aristocracy. Her father, who died when she was 15, was a famous shaman who also held high military rank, had trained in the United States, and spoke very good English. As well as being an extraordinary human being, said Fadiman, May Ying had status that gave Fadiman entry into the Hmong community.

Several doctors had mentioned the interesting and tragic case of Lia Lee, but described the Lee family as hostile, and possibly retarded or demented. Some doctors said that Lia Lee, age 4, was dead. “I walked with May Ying into the Lee home and wondered for a few moments whether I had found the wrong address, because this family was certainly not retarded or crazy or hostile. This family was warm and humorous and smart and outgoing,” said Fadiman. As she told her husband George about the experience, he asked her about May Ying, about how long the visit was (3 hours), and asked her if the family were in the midst of a medical emergency. “It helped me define all the advantages I had over her two extremely well intended, smart, honorable, and decent pediatricians, Neil and Peggy, who tried to break through to Fuoa, Lia’s mother, but they were working through a system that never gave them enough time,” said Fadiman.

Over the next eight years, Fadiman became close friends with the Lees. Over the same time period, she also became friends with Peggy and Neil. She came to understand more about why the doctors experienced the Lees so differently, and why the rumor in the medical community was that Lia was dead.

Lia Lee had a neurological crisis that left her in a vegetative state. “She could not do anything, and in America if you cannot do anything, you have no value. However, from the Hmong point of view, she was as fully a person, as fully a member of the family, and as fully loved as she had ever been,” Fadiman explained.

Fadiman finished the article, but the new editor of The New Yorker did not accept the piece. Left with an article too long for other magazines, and too short for a book, Fadiman took on other projects, but the Lees haunted her. She returned to Merced, the MCMC, the Lees, and the book.

The day before she spoke in Chico, Fadiman visited May Ying Xiong and the Lees in Sacramento where they now live. Xiong, a happily married mother of three, is today a very prominent Hmong leader who runs the Hmong Women’s Heritage Association, which helps Hmong families adapt to American life. Lia Lee is 19 years old and still cared for by her family in their home. All of the other Lee children are pursuing university educations.

Fadiman gained a great deal from her time with the Hmong: a different view of family as a place of support and intense love as evidenced by the treatment of the disabled and the value of the elders; an understanding of the daily commitment to community; and a delight in the well-told stories of an oral tradition. She said she is a different kind of mother than she might have been if it were not for meeting Fuoa Lee. The “pure” love that the Lees had for all of their children, but for Lia, especially, was something that transcended anything Fadiman had ever experienced or observed.

The most important thing she learned from writing the book was “In times of stress we all retreat to a comfort zone that is in the center of our cultures. I saw it happen with the Hmong, I saw it happen with the doctors. The more crisis-ridden the situation, the more Hmong the Hmong became, and the more medical the doctors became.”

The events of Sept. 11 have created stress for the nation and a retreat to the center of American culture. Fadiman urged the audience to resist that retreat. “The only way that two cultures can get along is if in moments of stress they maintain the same courage they might have the rest of the time to go to the edges of their cultures … Do not be asking yourself ‘how do they differ from me?’, ask yourself ‘what do we have in common?’”

Written by: Barbara Alderson


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