Study Guide

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

By Anne Fadiman

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Introduction

Although The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down may sound like the debut album from an obscure EDM artist, this little non-fiction book has changed the world in more ways than one.

The book was written by Anne Fadiman, a journalist with some serious pedigree. Fadiman's father is Clifton Fadiman, a legendary editor, writer, and part-time quiz show host. After following her father's footsteps into the world of journalism, Fadiman stumbled across the story of Lia Lee, a young Hmong child (more on them soon) who's diagnosed with epilepsy. Fadiman was only planning on writing a single article about Lia, but after the piece was rejected by The New Yorker, she figured she might as well upgrade to a full-blown book.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down documents the struggles of the Lees, a family of Hmong refugees who live in sunny Merced, California. After the youngest daughter, Lia, is diagnosed with epilepsy, the family runs headlong into the stubborn American medical system—an experience made even more difficult by the fact that parents Nao Kao and Foua can't speak a lick of English.

But that's not all, folks. You'll also learn about the history of the Hmong (we told you so), including their migration from China to Laos, their participation in the Vietnam War alongside American soldiers, and their deeply mystical religious practices. Far from being a boring history lesson, these anecdotes give us the context we need to understand Lia's struggles.

Though it's often heart-breaking, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a worthwhile read for countless reasons. Whether you're interested in cultural diversity, modern medicine, or traditional spirituality, The Spirit Catches You has you covered.

What is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down About and Why Should I Care?

To be honest, everyone is a little biased.

Maybe you're a hyper-intelligent nerd who scoffs at anyone who can't solve a differential equation. Maybe you're a jock who spends your days teasing kids who play Dungeons and Dragons. Or maybe you're the hippest hipster who has ever hipped (or hopped, for that matter), heaping scorn on anyone who listens to "mainstream" music.

In each of these instances, you'd be letting your personal biases cloud your judgment. Not everyone knows how to do calculus. D&D is actually kinda fun. And for the love of all that is holy, Lady Gaga sure knows her way around a synthesizer.

This concept (not Lady Gaga's synthesizer—the bias idea) is explored in-depth in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Although its stakes are much higher than an argument over indie rock, the book explores the idea that cultural biases prevent us from truly connecting with others. That's no good in our book. In fact, that's sillier than trying to battle a dragon with a level 12 Dwarf Barbarian.

Oh shoot—now we're revealing our biases.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Resources

Websites

Suab Hmong News
Want to know what's happening to the Hmong community right now? Well, that's what their personal news channel is for.

Epilepsy Foundation
This website is a wealth of information on epilepsy, detailing the condition and giving info on how you can help those who suffer from it. It's not called thespiritcatchesyouandyoufalldown.com, but one of the perks of Western medicine is shorter URLs.

Articles and Interviews

An Interview with Anne Fadiman
This interview focuses on writer Anne Fadiman's approach to writing, her thoughts on research, and her obsessive relationship with her subject matter.

Lia Lee's Obituary
Incredibly, Lia lived to be 30 years old—or about 26 older than her doctors expected. This obituary honors her memory and her contributions to the world of medicine.

The Secret Army Still Fighting the Vietnam War
This rather harrowing article details the struggles of the many Hmong who are still in Southeast Asia fighting their foes.

Video

Being Hmong Means Being Free
This awesome documentary details the history of the Hmong people.

Anne Fadiman at Whitman College
In this speech, Fadiman talks about writing The Spirit Catches You and the importance of seeing both sides of every issue.

A Dude Playing a Qeej
Ever wonder what Hmong music sounds like? We've got you covered.

Audio

Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris
Although this interview focuses on Fadiman's 1998 book Ex Libris, its insight into her writing practices makes it extremely insightful to her readers.

Radiolab on "Yellow Rain" in Laos
This controversial piece from NPR's Radiolab provides another great example of the cultural conflicts portrayed in the book.

Images

Lia Lee
Okay, we can't front—Lia Lee was pretty adorable. And we're big fans of Hmong fashion, too.

A Txiv Neeb
This killer photo features a Hmong txiv neeb performing a ritual much like the one we witness (well, read about) at the end of the book.