Claudia Putnam's Reviews > The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
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it was amazing
bookshelves: journalistic-synthetic-non-fiction, anthropology-ethnography

In graduate school (comparative religion), I took a class called ritual, illness, and the body. This book came out just a few years later. Though we studied other fascinating examples of medical anthropology looking at Western, especially American, practices, it would have been wonderful to be able to use this text.

Though doctors today more often take courses in cross-cultural awareness in med school, it's still just a small portion of their training, if they get it all. This book is highly relevant a couple of decades after publication, not just to the medical community but to all of us. We all need to make further strides in understanding the Other, whether living in the dominant culture or not--Fadiman explicates the assumptions of the medical community as well as she strives (I'm sure her understanding only begins to approach the worldview of the Hmong, no matter how hard she tried) to get at traditional societies.

Beyond the tragic misunderstanding that resulted in the irreversible brain death of a beautiful Hmong child, there is a lot to contemplate here. I thought a lot about the Amish, for instance, who have been allowed to live as they please and believe. Yet, the Hmong asked for no more--some land of their own and the ability to go on living as they too believe. They fought bravely for us in Laos and were made refugees because the overspill of our policies in Indochina. They had no interest in assimilating to American culture. They did not come here because of American opportunities, but because they had nowhere else to go as a result of our policies. The only opportunity they found attractive about America was a thing they had heard about: Freedom. But they did not find it here... to them it would mean a freedom to pursue their shamanic, agricultural, mountain lifestyle with its animistic beliefs and animal sacrifice. And if the Amish can do as they please, including being granted the ability to be conscientious objectors in wars, why shouldn't these fighters get they land they ask for and the freedom to follow their religion and lifestyleIt's just a question. Why indeed, do we require that ALL refugees merge into American society? Why can't it be case by case? Some, like many Southern and Central Americans, come here seeking relief from the oppression of their own societies and the alternatives and opportunities presented by America, just as the ancestors of Euro-Americans did. Others come as a result of American policies abroad. It seems we ought to allow for these distinctions.

Fadiman does not directly raise this point. It's only implied.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of other direct points about how working with shamans and other native beliefs and family systems can help families agree to, say, use Western medicine AS WELL. And perhaps help doctors, too, be less dismissive of indigenous ways of seeing things. The doctors in this California community tended to dismiss the Hmong, inventive guerillas capable of holding off large invasive forces, as stupid and primitive. Nor did they have any idea of their traumatic pasts. Or how difficult it had been to translate a highly adaptive skill set in their old land to things like apartment buildings and suburban lifestyles. Canned food. It wasn't that they were too stupid to figure it out, but that they were skeptical of the value, and not too different, in some ways, from large groups of Americans who are increasingly reluctant to accept conventional Western medicine at face value.

Well written, moving, and worth the read.
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Reading Progress

March 27, 2013 – Shelved
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: journalistic-synthetic-non-fiction
Started Reading
January 16, 2018 – Finished Reading
January 27, 2018 – Shelved as: anthropology-ethnography

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by carol. (new)

carol. Sounds fascinating. Nicely reviewed.

Claudia Putnam Hi Carol... nice to hear from you!

message 3: by carol. (new)

carol. Nice to see you reviewing :)

message 4: by Samantha (AK) (new)

Samantha (AK) Nice review. Thank you for sharing this.

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