Before you open Somaly Mam‘s astonishing memoir, you need to be prepared to bear witness to some of the most horrific acts a human being can commit against another, especially helpless young girls. Once you begin, the frank, unmitigated writing will not allow you to turn away. Once you’re finished, Mam’s miraculous resilience will draw you in to join her fight – for life.
Somaly Mam doesn’t know when she was born. She doesn’t remember her birthparents, who left her to be raised by her maternal grandmother in a remote forest village, home to “an old tribe of mountain people” – an ethnic minority group in Cambodia. At 9 or 10, a man claiming to be her grandfather took her away, eventually arriving at what he claimed was her father’s ancestral village. ”Grandfather” proves to be cruel and abusive, keeping her as his servant slave.
But in the new village, Mam finds temporary refuge with the kind village schoolteacher who tells her that she is his brother’s daughter. He is the person who gives her her name: ‘Somaly’ meaning “The Necklace of Flowers Lost in the Virgin Forest,” and ‘Mam’ because he claims her – and, unlike almost everyone else, always treats her – as his valued, respected, true family.
In spite of a bond with the Mam family that remains strong even today, Mam’s childhood respite does not last long. At 12, she is sent to be brutally raped to pay Grandfather’s debts. At 14 she is married off to a violent soldier with whom she experiences only misery. When he disappears, Grandfather sells her to a brothel where submission in the only way to survive the endless hell.
A Swiss humanitarian worker is the first to help Mam out of sexual slavery; while Mam writes about him with nothing but admiration, the fact that he initially hires her as a teenage prostitute is one disturbing fact impossible to overlook. Through sheer will and impossible energy, Mam not only gets out … she miraculously helps many, many others to freedom, rehabilitation, and new life.
Mam wrote this book in hopes that “it will stop me from having to tell my story over and over again, because repeating it is very difficult.” In it are people, places, memories that she “never want[s] to have to talk about … again … [i]t makes me vomit.” And yet because “one day I may no longer be here … I want everyone to know what is happening to the women of Cambodia.”
She insists, “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. On their behalf, I would like this book to serve as a call to the governments of the world to get involved in the battle against the sexual exploitation of women and children.” Join her call to (open, waiting, hopeful) arms: www.somaly.org.
Published: 2008 (United States)