Caught By The Spirit…

When the Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down…..

If one could describe how one feels when they are told their child has a catastrophic illness, they would say that you feel caught. Caught in something so unfamiliar and scary that there is nothing else to do but fall. Never, never in a million years did I think something like this could happen to our family.  As I searched for meaning, this short novel found its way to me.  I found comfort and consolation in it’s pages and this is why…

This story struck me to my core. It brought up my own feelings of vulnerability, control, passion, perseverance, fear, grief, unconditional love and hope. My heart ached for this family and their daughter. As a parent I could sympathize with the Lees. My daughter was four months old when she was diagnosed with a rare form of infant epilepsy. I was lost, overwhelmed and desperate. I can remember our first night in the hospital, laying next to her begging for mercy. I’m not sure why I did this, but without hesitation I placed my hands above her head, closed my eyes and imagined myself having the ability to heal her. This became a ritual for her and I and is one that I hold very close to my heart. What happened in that hospital over the next week was a miracle.

“The Spirit Catches you and You Fall down”, by Anne Fadiman is a captivating and compelling novel. Anne Fadiman was born in New York City, a Harvard graduate and editor of The American Scholar. Fadiman, a freelance journalist explores the complex relationship that develops between an immigrant family and their encounter with western modern medicine. This is a poignant tragedy that depicts the clashing of two cultures, fear, grief, love, acculturation, assimilation and identity formation. It is the tale of an immigrant child whose family made an arduous journey, in search of extrication. Leaving behind their land, their loved ones and worldly possessions, their journey takes them from the war-torn mountains of Laos to the San Joaquin Valley. Lia Lee was born on July 19, 1982, in the Merced Community Medical Center. When Lia was three months old she was diagnosed with generalized grand mal seizures. Cultures clash, leaving the Lee’s at odds with their well -intentioned American doctors. Although they both wanted what was best for Lia, the inability to understand and communicate with one another leads to tragedy.

The Hmong’s are a culture rich in tradition and beliefs. This is the story of a refugee family and their struggle to protect their ill infant daughter and ancient spiritual traditions from well-intentioned American doctors, beaurocrats and a society of ill informed and intolerant individuals. This is an anthropological study of the Hmong culture and it’s emersion into American society. The Lee’s struggle with acculturation, assimilation and identity formation throughout their lives journey. Acculturation is the cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture and the merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact. This is the process by which human beings acquire the culture of a specific society. This was never an intention for the Lee’s, as it was also never the intention of many of their relatives and clansmen. In fact it was the complete opposite. They wanted very little to do with western culture, traditions and customs. However, they were caught in a vortex of assimilation and identification.

The Hmong hold their beliefs and values with high regard, ideals cherished and sacred. When Lia was first brought to the hospital, Lia’s parents believed her seizures were the result of their daughter being both cursed and blessed by a condition known as quag dab peg, translated as “ the spirit catches you and you fall down.” The Hmong culture believes individuals with presenting seizure like symptoms to be spiritually gifted. In the Hmong culture it is practice to see a txiv neeb or Hmong healer. However, Western doctors viewed the seizures as a catastrophic event. If left untreated by modern medicine would lead to her demise and death. The Lee’s believed that a combination of the two methods would bring balance, including amulets, herbed solutions and animal sacrifice. Had there been a better understanding between the two parties, would Lia have had the opportunity to live a fairly normal life?

To date there are currently hundreds of thousand Hmong living in the United States. Before reading this book, I had never heard the name Hmong. I was ill informed and unaware of their struggles and the silent war that brought them here. Fadiman provides a detailed and accurate depiction of the Hmong, their struggles, traditions and rich history.

My daughter has been seizure free for 1 year and nine months.

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