Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine

Posted by nliakos on March 18, 2012

by Somaly Mam (Spiegel & Grau 2008)

Somaly Mam’s story should have been in Half the Sky (which I just discovered I neglected to blog about). Like many of the stories in that book, Mam’s story is at the same time appalling and inspiring. Parentless in a forested region of Cambodia, she spent her earliest years like a feral animal (but retains a love and knowledge of nature and forests from that innocent time).  Taken as a servant by a man she knew as “Grandfather” (not a relative), she knew a life of hard work and beatings without cause until her master sold her, first sporadically, and then permanently, into first a kind of marriage and subsequently prostitution (or, as it is known today, sexual slavery, to distinguish it from a woman’s own decision to prostitute herself) in Phnom Penh. She was sixteen at the time.

Mam’s description of her years in the brothels of Phnom Penh is sickening.  But when foreigners began to return to Cambodia in the 1990s, she “met” several foreign relief workers–first “Dietrich,” a Swiss, and subsequently “Pierre,” a Frenchman. From these men, who were clients but were less abusive than the Cambodian clients she had had before them.  Pierre eventually offered to marry her and take her with him when he returned to France. While she did not love or trust him (he was a man), she finally decided to go with him.

France changed Mam in very significant ways. Most importantly, she gained some self-esteem, and she learned how to be assertive: “I had proved that I wasn’t stupid, and I no longer felt worthless.” (p. 107) When her husband took a job with another relief agency and then with Médecins sans Frontières, Mam felt herself compelled to begin to help the young prostitutes like herself–first by providing them with condoms and soap, and eventually by helping them to escape the brothels. She founded an organization (AFESIP) and raised funds, and she managed to build several centers which could house the young women and children whom she rescued in relative safety as they began their healing process (which, according to Mam, has no satisfactory end: after so many years, she still endures horrific nightmares about her years as a slave). Along the way, Mam learns about such strange things as showers, airplanes, elevators, and escalators; she adopts her sister’s child, and has two children of her own. She is reunited with the family who took her in for a period during her servitude to the man she called “Grandfather,” and she braves death threats to advance her work saving prostitutes, one at a time. This is truly an inspiring story.

The website of Somaly Mam’s foundation in the United States is here.

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