The Legacy of Lia Lee

Thursday, September 20, 2012


From The New York Times:

A work of narrative nonfiction, Ms. Fadiman’s book is a cautionary tale about the cultural chasm between Lia’s family, with its generations-old animist beliefs, and her rationalist American doctors...

 ...“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” won a National Book Critics Circle Award. It has sold almost 900,000 copies...and remains widely assigned in medical schools and in university classes in social work, anthropology, journalism and other fields.

As a result, Lia’s story, as few other narratives have done, has had a significant effect on the ways in which American medicine is practiced across cultures, and on the training of doctors.

“A lot of people in medicine were talking about that book for a very long time after it was published,” Sherwin B. Nuland, the physician and National Book Award-winning author, said on Wednesday. He added: “There’s a big difference between what we call ‘disease’ and what we call ‘illness.’ A disease is a pathological entity; an illness is the effect of the disease on the patient’s entire way of life. And suddenly you read a book like this and you say to yourself, ‘Oh, my God; what have I been doing?’ ”

“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” is also the story of the immense benefits of tradition, which can furnish, Ms. Fadiman makes clear, a level of familial devotion less often seen among modern Americans. Lia spent her entire life at home, assiduously cared for by her family, and it was this devotion, Ms. Fadiman came to feel, that kept her alive for so long.


As our country becomes increasingly multicultural and our health care system and other services must evolve accordingly, we have so much to learn from Lia’s story. Rest in peace.


Read the rest of Margalit Fox's article "Life Went On Around Her, Redefining Care by Bridging a Divide".