Excerpted from The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam. Copyright © 2008 by Somaly Mam. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. The theme of silence–both cultural and personal–runs throughout Somaly Mam’s story. “People learned from [the years under Pol Pot] that they couldn’t trust anyone–friends, neighbors, not even their family,” Mam writes. “The more you let people know about yourself–the more you speak–the more you expose yourself to danger. It was important to see, not to hear, not to know anything about what was happening. This is a very Cambodian attitude toward life” (p. 14). Indeed, in this context, the fact that Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman, wrote a memoir is itself an act of courage and defiance. What helped Somaly to find her voice in a culture that suppresses the cries of the individual? By what methods does she combat this conspiracy of silence?
2. Compare the Cambodian tradition of silent forbearance in the face of unthinkable adversity with the explicit repression found in political regimes that do not permit free speech and individual expression. Which do you think is a more insidious and dangerous form of repression?
3. In chapter 10, “New Beginnings,” Somaly returns to Phnom Penh as a married woman and encounters an old man who lives in a small house with a beautiful, orchid-filled garden. He was “an intellectual and he’d been through every kind of revolution and change and suffering too.” He tells Somaly, “In Cambodia we’re like frogs in front of the king. When the king orders it, we poke our heads above water and sing . . . But if we poke our heads out without having been invited to, the king cuts them off with his sword. I’ve seen everything and lived everything . . . It’s all useless. When you’re young . . . you want to understand a great many things. It’s no use. I fought all my life and for nothing; now I wait for death. The only thing to hope for in this world is the peace you need to look after your own garden” (p. 128). Somaly writes that she understood him and thought about his words often, but, she says, “I don’t feel like I can change the world . . . I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me, which is suffering. I want to change this small real thing that is the destiny of one little girl. And then another, and another, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself or sleep at night” (pp. 128—29). Compare Somaly’s life experience with the old man’s. Somaly reached adulthood without a formal education, while this man is described as an intellectual who has seen and experienced much. What do you think accounts for their different views of personal responsibility, when arguably, a person such as Somaly, who has experienced and witnessed the most violent and depraved acts of man, has a greater right to feel self-protective and hopeless about humanity? Why does the old man advise keeping one’s head low and tending one’s garden, while Somaly risks everything to save one little girl’s life?
4. Somaly writes about the status of women in Cambodia and their sense of self-worth: “There is one law for women: silence . . . We’re taught when we’re little to be like the silkcotton tree: dam kor. Deaf and dumb. Blind too, if possible. Your daughters will look after you, because that’s their duty. Other than that, they’re not worth much” (p. 185). From a young age, girls are taught service and submission. They learn to expect violence instead of tenderness from men. Even Somaly, when she writes about her husband, Pierre, the father of her children, speaks with a frank pragmatism about her marriage: “I may not have loved Pierre, but I thought I could live with this man. He was simple, like a Cambodian. He ate rice and prahoc sauce . . . Pierre wasn’t rich, but of all the people I had ever met, he was the only one who was attentive to me–not to my body, but to me” (p. 76). Her marriage ended in 2004, shortly after the birth of her son. Do you think Somaly’s sense of selfworth played a role in the demise of her marriage?
5. When Somaly was carrying her first child, she confides, “I felt paralyzed by the thought of being a mother to someone. I had never had a mother and I painfully felt that hole in my life. To be a mother myself felt impossible” (p. 123). And yet, after giving birth, Somaly’s fear instantly dissipates. “Something happened to me that night. It was almost like my life began again, a whole new life” (p. 124). What do you think Somaly felt after giving birth that transformed her into a mother? How do you think she finds the tenderness and compassion within to become the mother to those she rescues when also confronted with the most grim and desperate view of humanity?
6. In the chapter entitled “The Victims,” Somaly writes, “Most [Cambodian parents] do know their children are going into prostitution. To avoid paying commissions, they take their daughters to the brothels themselves . . . But these parents do it anyway. They care only about themselves” (pp. 168—69). Is it possible to understand the actions of these parents and find compassion for them in view of the mass trauma and psychic scarring Cambodians suffered during the many years of war and dictatorship that ravaged the country?
7. In Nicholas D. Kristof’s foreword, he describes Somaly as “the Harriet Tubman of Southeast Asia’s brothels, repeatedly rescuing those left behind.” Compare Somaly’s brand of activism and confrontational style with that of Tubman’s Underground Railroad. Which is the greater scourge–the ignorance and prejudice that allowed slavery to proliferate in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century or the cultural acceptance and capital that makes human trafficking one of the largest criminal industries in the world today? What forces must an antislavery activist of today confront that were not in place in the nineteenth century? What tools does Somaly have in her arsenal that Tubman did not? Whose challenge is greater?
8. Arguably, when people act inhumanely they rely on a community of people who make excuses for their actions, demonize and disassociate from victims, deny wrongdoing, and look the other way when they are confronted with the truth. The very forces that are meant to provide safety–most notably the government, policemen, religious leaders, and parents–work in concert, either knowingly complicit or unwittingly, to foster this dangerous climate in Cambodia and other Asian countries where sexual slavery proliferates. And yet, human trafficking is not confined to Asia and the developing world. In fact, in a Newsweek editorial, the actor and activist Emma Thompson reveals that sexual slavery is prevalent in most Western countries, including the United States and the very section of London where she was raised. “Some 120 nations are routinely plundered by traffickers for their human raw materials, and more than 130 countries are known as destinations for their victims.” What do you think we can do as individuals to combat this issue, both at home and abroad?
9. Why is it important to tell stories? Can you think of other true-life stories that had the effect of changing cultural attitudes? What books can you think of that have had an impact on society in the time they were published and served as agents of change? Do you think Somaly Mam’s memoir has the power to effect change on a global scale?
10. In his foreword Kristof writes that Somaly’s “is a hopeful story. She may describe killings and torture, but the larger story is of triumph, love, and rehabilitation.” How does a story like Somaly’s, full of such unfathomable sadness, inspire hope? How has the experience of reading her story changed you?
11. Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in her introduction, “Somaly Mam is my candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is living proof that one woman can change the fate of others.” Past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Do you think Somaly’s struggles and achievements are on par with those of these winners?