Lia Lee, Anne Fadiman and Lessons In Narrative Nonfiction

I couldn’t let more time go by without mentioning the obituary I saw last weekend in the New York Times, for Lia Lee, the central character in Anne Fadiman’s narrative nonfiction near-classic, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

It’s surely an inspiration for freelancers working in longer-form pieces.

The book chronicles the story of Lia Lee, the child of Hmong immigrants in California. Lia has epilepsy, and through a series of miscommunications between her parents and the generally well-meaning doctors, is left in a vegetative state at a the age of four. She died in July, aged 30, still lovingly cared for her by her family.

Fadiman’s book is widely assigned in medical schools (and in narrative nonfiction classes in universities, which is where I encountered it).

“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,” said the Times obituary.

Fadiman’s book is remarkable for the intensity of its research — for me, it was a good reminder of the way narratives can be built out of documentation. In addition to doing many interviews and delving into the culture and history of the Hmong, Fadiman read Lia’s voluminous case file, and was able to draw conclusions and parse meanings from the doctors’ notes. The medical history, in fact, forms the narrative backbone of the book.

I’ve found a similar wealth of inspiration as I’ve been working on my book about my great-grandparents. After I found out that my great-grandfather was a customs inspector, I wrote away to the National Personnel Records Center, which keeps files on all federal employees. (That is a slightly frightening idea, but I’ll leave that aside).

I found an incredibly valuable report in one of the files, which said my great-grandfather had been rated ineligible on a test because of his “drinking, temperament, officiousness, antagonism and tactlessness.”

Nice, right? In the age of Internet research, it’s too easy to be satisfied with research that skims the surface. Anne Fadiman’s book is an example of the way that if you have a story worth telling, as Lia Lee’s was, you should leave no document unread.

(By the way, here’s a great narrative piece (Debt May Crumble Their Cookie) that ran in Crain’s New York by Elaine. It won a SABEW award.)








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