Home > Life, School > The Spirit Catches You – Notes Part 3

The Spirit Catches You – Notes Part 3

I’m posting some of my thoughts about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman in case anyone finds them interesting or stimulating. It’s a wonderful, enlightening, but sad book.

As I write up my notes, I’ll post them in future blogs. But READ THE BOOK! Your big sister has spoken. 🙂

Chapter 3

Lia Lee was the three-month-old daughter of the Hmong couple Foua Lee (her mother) and Nao Kao Lee (her father). This chapter recounts Lia’s first epileptic seizure and how language barriers prevented communication between the Lees and Lia’s doctors. The chapter title is the same as the book title. In Hmong, “the spirit catches you and you fall down” is the literal translation of qaug dab peg, which Hmong-English dictionaries translate simply as “epilepsy.”

Translation is interpretive: Note that Hmong-English dictionaries do not give the literal translation of qaug dab peg, which embodies the Hmong view of the disease and its cause. They translate it into English in terms of our world-view, concepts, and assumptions. Even between languages of similar cultures, translation is an interpretive rather than a literal process. And the more two cultures differ, the more distortion will inevitably occur in translating words, phrases, and sentences from the language of one culture to the language of the other.

Parents aren’t perfect: The Lees believed that Lia’s seizure was a symptom of “soul loss.” They thought that when her older sister Yer had loudly slammed a door a moment before the seizure occurred, it had frightened Lia’s soul into leaving her body. Anne says that the Lees doted on Lia but blamed Yer and were somewhat distant from her as a result. Many of us have had similar (though less heartbreaking) experiences with our parents.  The Lees did their best but they are human beings.

Anne says that studies of Hmong parents have found they are more attentive and affectionate toward their children than Western parents. They showed this affection toward Lia but not as much toward Yer, though again, I’m sure that they did their best.

Sacred disease: The Hmong think that epilepsy shows a person has psychic powers suitable for becoming a shaman, and that the illness gives a person more sympathy for other people who are sick. They think it might show:

that the person (who is usually but not always male) has been chosen to be the host of a healing spirit, a neeb. (Txiv neeb means “person with a healing spirit.”)

It’s not clear from the text how we got from epilepsy indicating soul loss to its being evidence that the epileptic is host for a healing spirit. The dab peg that catches your soul is supposed to be an evil spirit.

At any rate, Lia’s parents were alarmed by her illness but also proud because of its suggestion that Lia was supernaturally talented.

The first two times Lia had seizures, the hospital had no one who spoke Hmong, and the Lees spoke hardly any English. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Lia’s seizures had ended. The Lees couldn’t tell the doctors what had happened and the doctors didn’t know how to ask. The doctors diagnosed Lia as suffering from pneumonia, so they prescribed antibiotics and gave the Lees instructions that they didn’t understand. The third time Lia had a seizure, it was still going on when they arrived at the hospital so they got a correct diagnosis that time. They also got a sympathetic doctor (Dan Murphy) who would work with them from that point forward.

What caused Lia’s seizures? The Lees and Dr. Murphy still weren’t able to communicate, so they didn’t know that they had arrived at different — but not inconsistent — explanations for Lia’s seizures:

Dan had no way of knowing that Foua and Nao Kao had already diagnosed their daughter’s problem as the illness where the spirit catches you and you fall down. Foua and Nao Kao had no way of knowing that Dan had diagnosed it as epilepsy, the most common of all neurological disorders. Each had accurately noted the same symptoms, but Dan would have been surprised to hear that they were caused by soul loss, and Lia’s parents would have been surprised to hear that they were caused by an electrochemical storm inside their daughter’s head …

What makes an explanation “the right one”? The explanations given by the Lees and Dr. Murphy do not contradict each other. They agree about the symptoms of Lia’s illness, and neither explanation makes it impossible for the other explanation to be true. In addition, it’s always a little arbitrary when we pick out “the” cause of an event in a complex situation. There are usually lots of causes at different levels.

Why do we think that our Western neurological explanation is better than the Lees’ spiritual explanation? We would probably give several reasons.

  • First, we believe that it enables us to control physical reality better than the spiritual explanation.
  • Second, our neurological explanation is supported by its connection to a vast amount of scientific knowledge and testing. The idea that epileptic seizures are caused by misfiring neurons is linked to knowledge in neuroscience, chemistry, pharmacology, and many other disciplines. Of course, those are our sciences. The Lees could probably list all the spiritual beliefs and theories that support their explanation.
  • Third, we would argue that our explanation can be verified by observation, while the Lees’ explanation can’t be. The Lees would probably disagree, arguing that our notions of “scientific verification” are too narrow and don’t give the whole picture.

Most interesting of all was that Dan ultimately said yes, Lia was having epileptic seizures, but he couldn’t explain why:

None of the tests revealed any apparent cause for the seizures. The doctors classified Lia’s epilepsy as “idiopathic:” cause unknown.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the cause was soul loss. But it’s certainly the explanation that the Lees would have given.


Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

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  1. ninjanurse
    May 10, 2010 at 7:16 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. The challenge for nurses is to find a way to listen to our patients. My patients are Cambodian-speaking elderly. I want to help them gain the knowledge that will enable them to navigate our crazy health care system with some power on their side, rather than just having the option of doing what the doctor says or not doing it.

    • Rinth de Shadley
      May 10, 2010 at 9:23 am

      Hi, NinjaNurse —

      Thank you for the nice comment! It sounds as if your Cambodian patients have a good ally in you.

      The Lees’ experience was a terrible tragedy. But you are helping to prevent those tragedies for other people. I admire you.

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