Author: Somaly Mam
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
First Published: 2005
Genres: Autobiography, Memoir
Born in a village deep in the Cambodian forest, Somaly Mam was sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather when she was twelve years old. For the next decade she was shuttled through the brothels that make up the sprawling sex trade of Southeast Asia. Trapped in this dangerous and desperate world, she suffered the brutality and horrors of human trafficking—rape, torture, deprivation—until she managed to escape with the help of a French aid worker. Emboldened by her newfound freedom, education, and security, Somaly blossomed but remained haunted by the girls in the brothels she left behind.
Written in exquisite, spare, unflinching prose, The Road of Lost Innocence recounts the experiences of her early life and tells the story of her awakening as an activist and her harrowing and brave fight against the powerful and corrupt forces that steal the lives of these girls. She has orchestrated raids on brothels and rescued sex workers, some as young as five and six; she has built shelters, started schools, and founded an organization that has so far saved more than four thousand women and children in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Her memoir will leave you awestruck by her tenacity and courage and will renew your faith in the power of an individual to bring about change.
I didn’t know a thing about Somaly Mam or her NGO, AEFSIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) when I picked up this little book at the library. Human trafficking has been a well-known issue in Southeast Asia that is still prevalent today despite humanitarian efforts. It is a horrible industry that continues to grow and affects even my home country, the Philippines.
This memoir details Somaly’s upbringing as an aboriginal girl in the years following the end of the Khmer Rouge. Mam was abandoned and eventually picked up by an abuser that sells her. The book continues on through Somaly’s life of slavery, eventual freedom, meeting her husband, and the founding of AEFSIP. It is an inspirational story not just because Somaly is a survivor, but that she decided to use her experience to help other women going through the very same things that she did. It was interesting also to get a look at how difficult it is to found an NGO and the continual struggle to get funding.
The story was of course as sad as I expected it to be, but something about it felt a little weird and I suspected it was because of the translation, so I looked up the author. I was surprised to find a great deal of controversy surrounding her and her story. News articles were published claiming that she was inconsistent during interviews about her past, high profile raids, statistics, and a few other items. It was an explosive cover story and a hit piece aimed at taking down a well-known figure in the anti-trafficking community, causing Somaly to step down from the Somaly Mam Foundation. Knowing this information gave me a lot to think about and consider as I was reading.
This book was written before the media backlash against Somaly. The timeline appears not long after her divorce from her husband and a major split with her foundation. It becomes clear near the end of the novel what Somaly’s aim was for this book; an inspirational story to bring attention to the NGO for fundraising. She notes in the epilogue how much she loathes journalists because they will only pay attention to a story that is “sexy.” She became the face of the organization, so it makes sense.
“My story isn’t important. The point is not what happened to me. I write my story to shed light on the lives of so many thousands of other women. They have no voice, so let this one life stand for their stories.”
The way she talks about herself and her accomplishments at the end of the book also slightly bothered me, as she has a tone about herself like she’s a martyr. Mam’s ex-husband Pierre spoke out about the novel and how it did not properly portray the partnerships that went into founding AEFSIP. At times she could also be extremely repetitive and paints a grim picture like every girl has been sold into slavery, everyone is a rapist, and every girl in the brothels is under the age of 10. Now statistics on all of these things say otherwise, and as a victim, it’s normal to view everyone around you as a monster as well.
It is really difficult to judge a personal story like this, in light of the controversy and possible factors that went into Somaly’s fall from grace. I have no doubt that bitterness from the divorce and the raid on a high profile hotel would contribute to the media smear on Somaly, and part of it is undeserved. I also choose to believe that at least some of the events in her book are true, the way she speaks about home and culture feels authentic and I was actually able to relate since the Philippines has some of the same troubles, attitudes, and customs. Do I believe everything that happened in the book is true? I’m not entirely sure, and memory history is difficult because it can only be told from one perspective. I have no doubt that some things may have been fashioned in a way to create an image.
Despite all the controversy, it is a shame what has happened with the media frenzy because it takes away from the main issue at hand – that human trafficking is still a monstrous issue in Southeast Asia. That there are still millions of women and children that need help. That there is a sickness in the world that would cause people to do unspeakable things, and that there is no easy solution. Human trafficking is a complicated beast with a lot of money behind it.
Somaly Mam and AEFSIP have done a great deal of work helping women get out of slavery. Even to this day Somaly Mam still continues to be involved in anti-trafficking efforts. I think in the very least that she should be forgiven for her missteps and thanked for the things that she has done and continues to do for these women; that this smear story doesn’t destroy fundraising efforts to help these women, that her story doesn’t become their story.
It’s difficult for me to rate and recommend this book because of the questions of validity. However for folks wanting to learn a little more about post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia and the trafficking industry in Southeast Asia this book is a good place to start.
Warnings: sexual assault, rape, child abuse, violence against women and children