This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman
For me, the “nut” of Anne Fadiman’s story of Lia Lee, a child she met only after Lia was in a persistent vegetative state, the “nut” is the community of which Lia is a part, though she is not conscious of any of them.
In “The Afterword,” Anne Fadiman writes, “Before we met, I would have considered Lia — someone who cannot speak, laugh, think, work, or, in my lexicon, “contribute” — deserving of kindness but of little value, a partial person if a person at all. She taught me otherwise. How can I say she is not valuable when she means so much to the people around her? How can I say she has nothing to contribute when she altered the course of my family life, my life as a writer, and my whole way of thinking …”
Lia did not have to end up vegetative. How do we square that? She slipped between two cultures with conflicting realities, each looking to do their best for Lia. The Hmong refugees were horrified at the doctors’ penchant for taking blood and for autopsies. Were they eating brains and body parts of the Hmong patients? Are Hmong people put in cans as food?
The doctors were horrified at the Hmong refugees who wouldn’t or couldn’t follow medication prescriptions and who brought in shamans, txiv neeb to cast out and do battle with evil spirits.
In 1986, after numerous seizures in her four years of life, Lia slipped into a coma from which she would not recover. Most people who wind up in a persistent vegetative state die within six months and the rest within three to five years. Anne Fadiman writes that Lia’s family cared for her more than five times longer than the longest expected times.
Lia lived to the age of 30. She died August 31, 2012, in Sacramento, California, 26 years later, weighing 47 pounds at 4 feet 7 inches tall.
Our world is populated with narratives by which we live our lives.
Fadiman tells us the newer generation of Hmong, raised in the US, are not locked into an animist version of disease and cures, animal sacrifices and shamans. That is a relief to know, because I admit to a certain horror reading the fanciful explanations of illness and the practices to cure the sick. These practices can seem strange to us, but no stranger than ours, when we take the time to examine them with the same eye.
Shortly after birth, the Hmong officially give the baby a name during a “soul-calling” ceremony, a hu plig. Until the ‘soul-calling’ the baby is not fully part of the human race. If the baby dies before the hu plig it is not given “customary funeral rites.”
For the Hmong, babies’ souls may leave for numerous reasons, such as being “drawn by bright colors, sweet sounds, or fragrant smells.” In Lia’s case, when she was about three months old, Yer, her sister, slammed the door of their apartment. Lia’s reaction (eyes rolled up, arms suddenly over her head, fainting) convinced the Lees that Lia’s soul fled Lia’s body, frightened of the noise of the door.
To compare, In Christianity, shortly after birth, the baby is baptized and officially named. If the baby dies before baptism its soul doesn’t get to go to heaven, no matter that it can’t possibly be guilty of anything yet. Its soul must wait in “limbo” until the second coming. Well, at least it avoided hell, or purgatory.
Catholicism adds its own ownership claim. In Catholic school, I was taught that if it wasn’t a Catholic baptism, with just the right Catholic words, the baptism didn’t happen. That baby’s soul was in danger and needed a true Catholic baptism. The language apparently didn’t matter, something I don’t remember ever wondering about.
Translations can be tricky. And pronunciations. And Accents. So, will the real superstition please stand up?
This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.