Anne Fadiman is an author, essayist, and editor. She has won National Magazine Awards for both
reporting and her essays. For seven years she edited
The American Scholar.
In 2005 she began as
the first Francis Writer in Residence at Yale. She is the author
of Libris: Confessions of a Common
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors,
and the Collision of Two Cultures,
which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for
nonfiction, as well as other awards.
Do Doctors Eat Brains?
In 1982, Mao Thao, a Hmong woman from Laos who had resettled in St. Paul, Minnesota,
visited Ban Vinai, the refugee camp in Thailand where she had lived for a year after her escape from
Laos in 1975.
She was the first Hmong-American ever to return there, and when an officer of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which administered the camp, asked her to speak
about life in the United States, 15,000 Hmong, more than a third of the population of Ban Vinai,
assembled in a soccer field and questioned her for nearly four hours.
Some of the questions they
asked her were: Is it forbidden to use a
to heal an illness in the United States?
American doctors take so much blood from their patients?
After you die, why do American doctors
try to open up your head and take out your brains?
Do American doctors eat the livers, kidneys, and
brains of Hmong patients?
When Hmong people died in the United States, is it true that they are cut
into pieces and put in tin cans and sold as food?
The general drift of these questions suggests that the accounts of the American health care
system that had filtered back to Asia were not exactly enthusiastic.
The limited contact the Hmong
had already had with Western medicine in the camp hospitals and clinics had done little to instill
confidence, especially when compared to the experiences with shamanistic healing to which they
might spend as much as eight hours in a sick person's home; doctors
forced their patients, no matter how weak they were, to come to the hospital, and then might spend
only 20 minutes at their bedside.
were polite and never needed to ask questions; doctors
asked many rude and intimate questions about patients’ lives, right down to their sexual and
could render an immediate diagnosis; doctors often demanded samples
of blood (or even urine or feces, which they liked to keep in little bottles), took X-rays, and waited
for days for the results to come back from the laboratory—and then, after all that, sometimes they
were unable to identify the cause of the problem.
never undressed their patients; doctors
asked patients to take off all their clothes, and sometimes dared to put their fingers inside women's
Fadiman, Anne. "Do Doctors Eat Brains?" in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, pp. 32-37. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.