“Anne Fadiman’s compassionate account of [a] cultural impasse is literary journalism at its finest. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down moves from hospital corridors to healing ceremonies, and from the hill country of Laos to the living rooms of Merced, [California], uncovering in its path the complex sources and implications of two dramatically clashing worldviews.”1
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures calls us to consider the kinds of unfortunate consequences that can occur when conflicting viewpoints clash in sensitive and serious situations and discordant visions of reality remain unresolved. This award-winning work challenges the reader to face a complicated, troubling, and heart-rending set of circumstances and yet resist rushing to judgment, determining causes, finding fault, and solving problems before fully understanding how the primary participants see what is happening. This much-admired book thus also encourages us to think about the potential practical uses of ethnography for understanding so-called social dilemmas and for developing more effective public policies. And it leads us to philosophical reflections on the bigger, broader picture—on the complexities of multicultural societies, on intra-national and international relations, on power and ethnic identity—and evokes the still urgent political question Clifford Geertz tackles in “The World in Pieces”: “What is a culture if it is not a consensus?”2
Written by a non-anthropologist—the perspicacious Anne Fadiman—this first-rate ethnography also invites us to take another look at the ethnographer’s task and reconsider, in particular, how to develop a genuinely dialogical anthropology. “Now and then,” her preface concludes, “when I play the tapes [of my interviews] late at night, I imagine what they would sound like if I could somehow splice them together, so the voices of the Hmong and the voices of the American doctors could be heard on a single tape, speaking a common language.” In this case, as you shall see, the interplay of voices is primarily a juxtaposing and interweaving of native voices, American and Hmong; and a downplaying of the voice of the ethnographer, who sounds more like an investigative journalist reporting the plain facts than a social anthropologist analyzing an alien cultural system, or interpreting the meanings of unfamiliar artifacts, institutions, and practices. And yet, as you shall also see, Fadiman ends up less ethnocentric and more honestly open-minded than many of the archetypal ethnographers Tedlock critiques in the articles we read earlier. And she winds up telling and showing us more about aspects of culture and society—about beliefs, kinship, economy, and political order—than is typical of so many conventional ethnographies.Discussion
One key to appreciating The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is to recognize the author’s attitude and approach, her angle, so to speak, as articulated in the preface: “I have always felt,” Fadiman writes, “that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one. This is especially true, I think, when the apposition is cultural.” Accordingly, Fadiman aptly and ably places us in a position where we “can see both sides better” by enabling us to eventually see both sides simultaneously, as integrated parts of a single if multi-sided story. In a word, she concocts a kind of “fish soup” style narrative to chronicle this convoluted case, weaving, if I may mix metaphors, a complex web of connections. She tacks back and forth, from the American viewpoint to the Hmong, from the Hmong to the American, and from the current circumstances of the Lee family to the historical and cultural background of the Hmong people, and back again. Moving forward, she takes us from one side to the other, from the doctors to the family, and from the family to the doctors, branching out to the opinions of nurses, social workers, judges, and foster caretakers, of this one and that one. And she takes us from here to there, from this to that, from the familiar to the unknown, from American to Hmong beliefs-about-the-world; values and attitudes; myths and legends; social institutions and shared practices; marriage, family, and kinship relationships; international and domestic politics; military exploits and mass migrations; changing economic conditions and activities; language barriers; and, of course, medical practices.
In this way, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down amounts to a genuine dialogue, as defined by Tedlock, a “speaking alternately.”1 But in this ethnography, conversation occurs not across the gap of difference between an ignorant ethnographer and informed members of the society who seek to help her understand the meanings of events and institutions. Nor does it take place across the rival positions of American doctors and a Hmong family; after all, this is fundamentally a case of misunderstanding and lack of communication between people with conflicting viewpoints. The dialogue takes place, instead, between the reader and the read-about, a dialogue mediated by the author, who writes readers into the overall conversation, so to speak, a conversation that now includes inner dialogues with aspects of and alternatives to our current selves. For Fadiman finally convinces us that we no longer know exactly where we stand, or just where we should stand. She thus promotes not only vicarious interpersonal encounters with alien others, primarily the Hmong and secondarily the members of the medical profession and their supporting associates. She also provokes the ultimate alien encounter, a close encounter of the third kind, if you will: an alien encounter with our selves, an encounter, that is, with ourselves as other than who we thought we were. She de-familiarizes our own way of being in the world. No wonder this work hits so hard, breaking the reader’s heart and blowing his or her mind. Fadiman succeeds partly, maybe even largely, because she remains in the background, because she resists the temptation to present an analysis or to construct interpretations, a very different approach from that advocated and practiced by the anthropologists we met in previous lessons. She simply presents the facts and leaves interpretations up to the reader. But she presents the facts with powerful purpose, piling up precisely those details that enable the reader to reach plausible if tentative conclusions, and to revise those conclusions again and again as additional facts are brought to light. On the other hand, Fadiman’s refusal to provide a definitive account of what went on and what went wrong sometimes leaves the reader lost in a sea of unfamiliar facts, unable to discern which matter most, to decide what to think about what happened, or even, on occasion, to determine exactly what did happen. Then again, her non-analytical approach allows the reader to refuse to make a final judgment, to remain open in the end, listening for Lia’s soul to respond to the call to come home. A final key to appreciating The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is to note that Fadiman arrives in the field after the fact, becoming acquainted with the Lees eight years after they arrive in the United States, six years after they first carry Lia to the emergency room, and two years after the big seizure that destroys Lia’s brain, making her work a kind of historical ethnography as it were. This means she must rely more heavily on documentary sources, and on interviews, and less on participant observation than the typical ethnographer. And she must reconstruct what went on, which she manages to do, in depth and detail, including what was said (and not said), and what people were thinking and feeling at t
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