My brother-in-law Mark let me borrow The Road of Lost Innocence and I read it all in one sitting. In this memoir, Somaly Mam recounts her childhood in Cambodia as an orphan sold into child prostitution. Her first memories are of living mostly on her own in a destitute village in a Cambodian forest. Orphaned children were not uncommon due to violent political regimes in the country and parents also often left their children behind to seek a better life or sold them into sexual slavery to pay off debts.
When Somaly was 9 or 10, a man came to the forest and took her away with the premise of finding her relatives but instead he kept Somaly, calling himself her grandfather, and made her clean, cook and do errands in his village to earn money. He beat her often and in order to pay off a debt, arranges for her first sexual encounter with a village merchant. Her grandfather eventually arranges for her to be married to a soldier who also abuses her. When her husband leaves for a month, her grandfather returns and takes her into the capitol city, Phnom Penh, and sells her to a female brothel owner to continue to pay off his debts.
The books describes her horrifying experiences in the brothel, the deplorable conditions she’s forced to live in and her attempts to escape. Miraculously, years later, her grandfather passes away and his debt to the brothel owner eventually is paid in full and Somaly is allowed to leave.
The rest of the book details how she meets a French man, Pierre, who helps her leave her past behind and find work outside of Cambodia. But Somaly isn’t able to forget the brothels and the young girls who are still imprisoned. She decides to spend the rest of her life saving as many girls as she can, helping them to recover, attend school and learn trades in shelters that she builds and helps to fund. Among her efforts is the Somaly Mam Foundation, which aspires to end human trafficking and help its victims. Many famous women, like Hilary Clinton and Susan Sarandon, and corporations like The Body Shop, have partnered with her to help her efforts.
It’s almost not enough to say that it’s hard to believe that Somaly lived through such a violent childhood–you don’t expect anyone to recover from such horror. But not only did she overcome it, she’s moved on to become an internationally-known advocate for ending human trafficking. Somaly’s courage and spirit are unmatched. It’s an engrossing and inspiring story but not so easy to read because of what Somaly has lived through.