About the Author
Anne Fadiman, the daughter of Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman, a screenwriter and foreign correspondent, and Clifton Fadiman, an essayist and critic, was born in New York City in 1953. She grew up in Connecticut and Southern California. She graduated in 1975 from Harvard College, where she began her writing career as the undergraduate columnist at Harvard Magazine. Her first job after college was at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, where she taught mountaineering and wilderness skills. For many years, she was a writer and columnist for Life, and later an Editor-at-Large at Civilization. She has won National Magazine Awards for both Reporting (1987) and Essays (2003), as well as a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, a collection of first-person essays on books and reading, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1998. Fadiman was the editor of the intellectual and cultural quarterly The American Scholar from 1997 to 2004. She now holds the Francis chair in nonfiction writing at Yale. Fadiman lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, the writer George Howe Colt, and their two children.
Fadiman was introduced to the Hmong community in Merced, California, when an old college friend, the chief resident of the local county hospital, mentioned that he was working with some especially interesting and challenging patients, a group of refugees from Laos called the Hmong. Fadiman went to Merced, spent time with the local doctors and with Hmong leaders, and heard about Lia Lee, a little Hmong girl with a seizure disorder whose parents and doctors had waged an epic struggle over her care. What originally began as a magazine assignment turned into an eight-year project: Fadiman's first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which won several literary awards and is now required reading at a number of medical schools and in many anthropology, journalism, and writing classes.
Getting to know the Hmong was not an easy task. There were a dozen clans in Merced, each with a different leader. In 1988, when Fadiman arrived, many Hmong preferred not to invite Americans into their homes without the permission of their clan leader. If it was a traditional home, a visitor did not endear herself if she shook a Hmong's hand, looked into the eyes of an elder, patted a baby on the head, crooked a finger, spoke in a loud voice, or did any of a multitude of other things Fadiman had no idea were taboo. After she got to know two well-educated, multilingual Hmong leaders who served as her mentors, Fadiman's learning curve began to steepen. Finally, with the interpreting help — and expert cultural brokerage — of a twenty-year-old clerk named May Ying Xiong, she met the Lee family.
Over the months she spent visiting the Lees, Fadiman was struck by the skillful way Lia's mother, Foua Yang, raised her children, seven of whom were still living at home at the time. The attention Foua lavished on them was particularly remarkable considering that in the view of the American medical system, she was an unfit mother. During the period that Fadiman was researching and writing her book, she had two children of her own, and she found herself applying many of the lessons in child-rearing she had learned from Foua. From Foua, too, and from the Hmong in general, she gained new respect for non-rational ways of solving problems; from Lia's doctors she acquired a curiosity about medical culture that would accompany her through a number of family medical crises. Years later, what she wrote in the book's preface still holds true: "I am sure that if I had never met Lia's doctors, I would be a different kind of patient. I am sure that if I had never met her family, I would be a different kind of mother."