In her critique of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Janelle Taylor argues that Anne Fadiman’s portrayal of Hmong culture is problematic. Please explain how Fadiman’s story is problematic. In your discussion, be sure to consider:
- How is the story set up as a tragedy? That is, if both the parents and the doctors are uncompromising in their quest for Lia’s well-being, how do they wind up colliding so tragically?
- How are Hmong culture and Western medicine used as explanations for the tragedy? Are they similarly responsible, or does each play a different role? Why? What do these differing explanations tell us about Fadiman’s views of Western medicine? The story is set up as a tragedy because both sides are doing what they believe is best for Lia.
There isn’t a bad side or a good side, which makes it that much more difficult to comprehend. As one reads the book, there is a need to look for the black and white, when in fact, it’s all grey. That’s what makes it tragic; there’s no one to blame. Taylor, when discussing the meaning of tragedy, writes that, “the same quality…that allows us to take right action can also blind us to our own error and lead us into disaster. (Taylor, P. 163). This is what happened with the two sides. Each one had its own idea of what would it would take to “pursue the good” (P. 163), and it that pursuit they ended up in disaster. For example, Neil was exhibiting this quality when he reported Lia’s parents to child protective services. If he had not done so, it would have been, in his mind, wrong. However, as it was shown later, he was in a way “wrong” about Lia’s parents being neglectful. The understanding of Lia’s illness was a very important part of the tragedy.
Her doctors viewed it in terms of biology; as a disease that needed to be treated and cured. The Hmong view the illness as serious, but also as “an illness of some distinction. ” (Fadiman, P. 21) The seizures are thought to facilitate trances and help the person see want others may be unable to see. Lia’s parents were aware that the seizures had to be controlled somewhat, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken her to the hospital in the first place; however, it was also seen as a gift. They had to deal with mixed feelings about Lia’s condition, feelings that were a “mixture of concern and pride. (Fadiman, P. 21) When Fadiman asked Bill Selvidge why the Hmong were never asked about how “they treated their illnesses” (Fadiman, P. 112), his reply was that it never occurred to them.
Fadiman’s uses the Hmong culture as an explanation for the tragedy. She goes into great detail when explaining their history and their beliefs. In doing so she ends up essentializing Lia’s family; by using phrases such as, “the Hmong cannot be assimilated” (Fadiman, P. 158), and “Hmong parents are likely to view assimilating as an insult and a threat” (Fadiman, P. 07), she was implying that the Hmong were incapable of changing. It was a fact of them being Hmong that made Lia’s parents incapable of following the instructions on her prescription medication, or not bother to learn English. They weren’t choosing to not change, it was in their nature, and their essence, their “Hmong-ness”. Unlike the Hmong, in Fadiman’s view, the Western doctors were capable of change. The doctors choose to not ask Lia’s parents what they thought her illness was, and how they would treat it.
They chose to not change because they felt that they were correct; as Neil said, he “felt it was important for these Hmong to understand that there were certain elements of medicine that we understood better that they did”. She goes further into the explanation by claiming that the problems were due to power and not about beliefs (Fadiman, P. 84). The Western doctors have social authority because the Hmong patients depend on them, and they have control, whereas the Hmong don’t have much social authority, and therefore no power.