Book Review: The Spirit Catches you and you Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman


 

I graduated high school in 1971, as  the ‘Viet Nam War’ was winding down.  It had been a good part of my life since my earliest memories of watching news on TV.  My uncle was in the navy then,  serving just off the coast.  Everyone knew someone either serving or who had been killed.  We were fighting communism, or so we were told.  We were fighting there so it didn’t spread to here.  What did we know of communism except the Soviet Communist bloc—which of course was very repressive…and China?

We didn’t really know  how much racial discrimination affected  non-white people in the USA.   At that time, we still believed everything our government told us.  Our government would never lie to us, because we had the best government in the world.

That mindset is relevant because we also believe that  our educational system is the best on the world, too (in spite of evidence that it is not).  We believed  things were black and white, and whether you went to a private or a public school, you were shaped to be a good American.  My country right or wrong.

Of course, developing my adult self, I became a more cynical and skeptical teenager. I heard Rennie Davis speak about the Viet Nam war, and was a follower of the Conspiracy 7 trial—held right here in Chicago.  In the underground press, we were getting reports of soldiers in Viet Nam not knowing who the enemy was, and finding the South Viet Namese arrogant  and prissy.

We knew nothing of covert operations in Cambodia and Laos until we exited the war, and it wasn’t really until the 1980’s that we found that we were  fighting all over southeast Asia.  After the war, Viet Nam and Southeast Asia faded from our collective interests.

There were rumors that turned out to be true:   that the CIA was  helping the south Viet Namese sell heroin to our own American soldiers.   Yes, we were and remained on the wrong side of history.

I was mentally ill for years, and plodded through my own life….marrying for the wrong reasons and later divorcing.  I took a break from grooming dogs  to coordinate a project to provide free English classes to immigrants and refugees.  It was then that I started learning about different ‘world views’.  I went to Africa, and everything changed for me because  traveling broadens you so much. I returned to college to study anthropology.    I learned more about myself and how to know  other people.  I became less sure of what the truth was , and, if possible, even more cynical.

My geographic concentration was always Africa, but but I realized I knew nothing about India or Southeast Asia. This book was suggested by a tour guide when  I visited Viet Nam (as a tourist) in early 2014.

Heart breaking.  That is my gut reaction.  This story involves a little girl, her family and  community, and medical anthropology, and  our our history manipulating a society not really for freedom, but for capitalists markets. Embarrassing.

Fadiman does an outstanding job of not just narrating what happened to Lia Lee, but the context.  Misunderstanding after misunderstanding, but also horribly cruel exploitation of a whole society, in the name of fighting communism..

We are all so sure of what we know, what is true.  What is real.    We resent immigrants who don’t learn English, or who refuse to mix. They don’t learn to be Americans.  You read what this family has to say about how their lives got turned upside down, and how they had to adjust, and you just have to cringe.  Could YOU handle all this if it happened to YOU?  I don’t think I could.

This book should be required reading for every high school student born and raised in America, and every ‘medical pr9ofessional’, and anyone who  may need care for a chronic illness.   It’s a well written and edited history.

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