Book Review: The Road of Lost Innocence
Sometimes I cannot forgive,
and these days mercy cuts so deep...
Oh My God, Jars of Clay
I imagine myself sitting at a table in a folding chair in the shade of Pol Pot’s infamous S-21 prison. A dark young woman sits down across from me and we have a cup of tea. She is a slender, graceful figure and carries herself with a dignity that I don’t normally see, from anybody. It is not the carriage of malignant hubris, but of a quietude and a belief that human life is sacrosanct. Somaly Mam has come to tell me a story, the story of her life. The Khmer Rouge is neither the subject nor the scapegoat, but its role in her life makes the location of our interview an appropriate one if I am to, in some personal measure, comprehend the gravity of her tale. We sip our tea and exchange pleasantries, and then, in the spare language of a deeply scarred refugee, she begins to outline for me her descent into the grotesque and malicious underworld of Cambodian and Southeast Asian prostitution. She did not enter this hellish world, as women often do in the West, out of necessity or to make spare change or on a badly timed whim. As difficult as it is to hear, Somaly Mam was given first to a Chinese merchant by a man who called himself her Grandfather. He owed the merchant money, and as payment of the debt, he gave the man Somaly Mam’s virginity. She was twelve.
I imagine myself as a sort of reporter, sitting down with her to write out her story, because that is the bald-faced way that she tells it. But as her conversation with me progresses, I find that I can no longer write these things down. I can no longer comment. I simply read on, because, for the time being, at least by listening, I can somehow bear a small part of this burden. I say that to spur myself on toward bearing more of it or more of something like it later in life.
Somaly was further raped and crushed by her first “husband,” a violent soldier under the new socialist Vietnamese government. She was given to this man without her choice or consent or consideration. He was no better than her Grandfather or the Chinese merchant, and, in order to provide for herself while her husband was off fighting the Khmer Rouge, she worked the night shift in an abysmal clinic where war casualties poured through the doors and the doctors raped the nurses. This was all as a fifteen-year-old. Eventually, after her husband had been gone for many weeks, her Grandfather came back and took her to Phnom Penh and sold her outright to a brothel.
At this point in the book, I think I read on just for the sheer motion, because the overwhelming darkness that had chased this woman from her childhood builds and builds in your mind and heart with the weight of quicksand on your chest. That anyone could survive, could be capable of mercy, could keep from wasting away with bitterness and murder in their heart – this much is a miracle. That someone could give their lives to bring that mercy to others, that life might be restored, that people might understand this grace – that is the blessing of Jesus.
I can't distance myself from the suffering of these girls. We carry the same wounds. I share their suffering, their horrors.
After a decade or so of rape and torture, and after her escape with the assistance of a French humanitarian worker, Somaly began to construct ways to help the prostitutes still in the system through her contacts in French relief organizations. This became the seed of what is now AFESIP, which today helps to rescue these girls, and sometimes boys, who are often as young as five (to ensure virginity), and to rehabilitate them in a safe environment. The genesis of this project was a struggle in itself, as Somaly Mam and her friends battled entrenched corruption in high levels of both organized crime and the government in order to force the hands of politicians and police in exposing and arresting pimps, brother owners, and investors in the brothels and the trade. Her organization has also been committed to educating men about prostitution, AIDS, and also the pure side of sex, and debunking the widespread beliefs that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS and make you stronger and more youthful. They have not simply stigmatized or blamed the clients, but have listened to them. One of the biggest cultural barriers to overcome is the Cambodian manner of silence. Because these things are not proper to speak of in public, it is difficult to spread the education about this touchy subject.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, people...learned not to trust their neighbors, their friends, their family, their own children. To avoid going mad, they shrank to the smallest part of a human, which is "me."
I am not usually one to take many recommendations from friends. When someone tells me that I should read a book or see a movie, my initial response is to refuse. Nevertheless, because this is so important, I am asking that you discover a way to hear this story. You can order the book from the Somaly Mam Foundation website (which I recommend, as some of the proceeds go to the foundation’s work), or, if you’re in the Knoxville area, you can certainly borrow my copy. Read it and pass it along.
And also, let me encourage you. Since we not only live in a world where little girls and sisters and wives and daughters are sold into sexual slavery to men who are not men, but also where "Activism" and "Awareness" are the new WWJD bracelets, this is something in which you should be involved if it strikes that chord in you. If it doesn't, then you should pray about that, too. I know that I must.
If the world was how it should be,
maybe I could get some sleep.
Oh My God, Jars of Clay
Purchase the book from Amazon