Lia LeeLia Lee, the Hmong child who was the subject of Anne Fadiman‘s acclaimed work of literary journalism, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, died quietly in Sacramento on August 31, without media attention. Lee was 30 years old.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media organizations reported the death of Lia Lee in articles this weekend.

An epileptic, Lia could only communicate with her her eyes and through crying for the early part of her life. When she was four years old, she suffered a grand mal seizure which rendered her unable to speak or move. Mai Lee, Lia’s sister told The Washington Post, “Lia’s legacy is to give families with sick children the strength and courage to question their doctors,” Mai Lee said. “We didn’t ask those questions.”

Fadiman’s book, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997, chronicled the struggles of the Lee family, their daughter Lia with epilepsy, and their cultural struggles with American hospitals, doctors and treatment plans. The book has had a lasting effect on physicians views on cross-cultural treatment, and is still used as a teaching tool for doctors and medical students to help bridge the gap between deeply-held spiritual and cultural beliefs and Western medicine.

In the video above from NYU’s Journalism Institute in February 2009, Fadiman talks with author Ted Conover about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and the process of self-discovery that comes with following a journalistic lead down unexpected paths.

About the Book
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down explores the clash between a small county hospital in California and a refugee family from Laos over the care of Lia Lee, a Hmong child diagnosed with severe epilepsy. Lia’s parents and her doctors both wanted what was best for Lia, but the lack of understanding between them led to tragedy. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest, and the Salon Book Award, Anne Fadiman’s compassionate account of this cultural impasse is literary journalism at its finest.

 

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