Somaly Mam lost her parents at a young age in Cambodia. Having no idea of what her name was or her age, Mam grew up in war torn Cambodia as an ethnic minority. The Khmer Rouge discriminated against the Pnong tribe and other ethnic minorities, and being half Pnong, Mam had darker skin than the rest of the villagers and was taunted and reviled by people because of it. Mam’s grandmother wandered away from the village, never to return, and Mam observed that it was not uncommon for people to just up and leave- she figures that her grandmother assumed that she would be better off in the village. I wasn’t anymore than a few paragraphs into this book and I was absolutely stunned. My jaw dropped and I didn’t close my mouth again until I got to the the end of The Road of Lost Innocence.
Mam is left totally at the mercy of her wits as she eats where she can among families in the village and supplements her slim pickings with the nuts and berries that she finds in the surrounding woods. When a man arrives claiming to be acquainted with her family young Somaly quickly surmises that she would be better off having someone to look after her than to continue living the haphazard existence that she has been living. The little girl thinks that she has finally found her family, and she calls the man “Grandfather”, but her dream quickly turns into a hellish nightmare as he treats her as an indentured servant and forces her to do his cooking and cleaning, and backbreaking work for other families in the village- hauling water and working in the rice fields to earn money to support him. Her “Grandfather” first sells her virginity when she is sent to a store owner under the pretense of running an errand only to be brutally raped, and later he sells her into sexual slavery in order to pay off his debts.
After years of horrendous rapes, beating and cruelty, Mam is able to escape from her horrific life when Cambodia opens up to tourism and aid workers from Europe and the United States. She meets wealthier patrons who are able to provide her with some stepping stones out of sexual slavery despite the dubious beginnings to their relationships (after all she does meet them as a prostitute). Mam goes on to rise above her circumstances, but she can never forget where she came from, and using the little money available to her she founds AFESIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances) and dedicates her life to helping as many girls as she can escape their harrowing situations. Her own circumstances have left her struggling to trust and connect with people, especially men, and it affects her capacity for trust in her relationships but she does all that she is able to for her girls. She sees herself in each of the girls she encounters and while she can’t forget her pain or what she endured, she wants the girls to not feel ashamed of themselves and know that they can make better lives for themselves.
I picked this book up at the library about four months ago and kept extending the return date. I knew that I wanted to read this book, but I also figured that it would be an intense read, and one for which I would need to prepare. Finally, I couldn’t renew it anymore and it was either time to read it or take it back, so I took the plunge and started reading.
Somaly Mam tells her story directly, simply and without displaying any pity for herself. She is remarkably restrained and controlled in her storytelling. She sets out to explain what she thought were the worst moments of her life and the result is incredibly shocking and moving. Even though the circumstance Mam endured were brutal she is of the opinion that the girls being sold into slavery today have it even worse. They are found chained and tortured in despicably grim living situations, lacking cleanliness and protection from disease. The trafficking of very young girls- as young as 5- has exploded into big business, and tourist hotels have been so that men who travel to Cambodia on vacation can spend time with young girls.
Somaly Mam’s work is much needed, and never ending. The Road of Lost Innocence strikes a fragile balance between horror and inspiration. This haunting memoir is a must read.