“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”
Hmong cultural understanding about epilepsy
In the Hmong culture, qaug dab peg is typically translated as epilepsy. The Hmong look at epilepsy with caution and ambivalence, for they considered it a potentially dangerous and serious condition. Epileptics were not necessarily looked down upon or shunned from society. For example, Coelho, a well-known figure in many Hmong societies, was an epileptic. Before entering politics, Coelho wanted to become a Jesuit priest but because of his illness he could not. Nonetheless, what was seen as a shameful outcast by his church was seen amongst the Hmong as a sign that he was the necessary figure for divine office.
So, unsurprisingly, many Hmong epileptics become txiv neebs or shamans. Shamans do not voluntarily choose to become one, it is a vocation. Hmong epileptics who become shamans are venerable in Hmong society, for their seizures are perceived as evidence that they have the special ability to see things other individuals cannot see, and a prerequisite for their mission into the world of the unseen. In addition, epileptic shamans hold emotional credibility, for they are seen as intuitively sympathetic for the pain of others as they have undergone the same pain.
Based on these Hmong cultural understandings about epilepsy and the value of the epileptic shaman, the illness can be viewed as playing a distinct role in Hmong society. In the novel, Fadiman presents a case study of a child named Lia Lee, a Hmong who was diagnosed with severe epilepsy. Her parents view her seizures with both concern and pride. They were naturally worried about the illness compromising her health and happiness, however, at the same time viewed the illness as an honor. They believed that Lia was very special in their culture because she had these spirits in her body and may grow up to be a shaman.
Lia’s parent’s cultural understanding of epilepsy contributed to their...