by William Kenower
In October of 2008 I shot an interview with Somaly Mam following the release of her memoir The Road of Lost Innocence. I had never heard of Ms. Mam or her organization. I was the Editor-in-Chief of Author, then a fledgling online magazine for writers and devoted readers, for which I conducted three to four interviews a month. Her publicist called me directly and asked if I could fit her into my schedule. I had already booked my interviews for that month, but, after hearing the skeleton of her story, agreed to squeeze her in.
I received my copy of her memoir and read it quickly. The book describes her experience of being sold to a Cambodian brothel at the age of twelve by a man she describes as an uncle, surviving unthinkable conditions and treatment, and then leaving the brothels and founding her organization, which now rescues other girls from Cambodia’s brutal sex industry. After reading yet another account of the torture and rape Mam endured in the brothels, I thought, “I can’t believe I’m actually going to be talking to this woman. She should be dead.”
The interview was to take place in her suite at her Seattle hotel. There were security measures; my identity had to be confirmed. My cameraman and I were greeted at the door by one of her assistants, Sylar, a Cambodian woman who began apologizing immediately. Somaly was not ready for the interview. She explained that Somaly had dreamed of her time in the brothels the night before, an experience – meaning the dream – from which she was still recovering. Would I be willing to wait in the suite until she was ready? I said I would be happy to.
While we waited, Sylar began telling me about the Somaly Mam Foundation, about the girls they rescued, and about the dangers of their work. Her own daughter, she confessed, had recently been abducted by one of the brothel owners. She began to cry as she told me that there was no word yet as to her daughter’s whereabouts, but that they were holding out hope that she was alive. At this point there was a small commotion from the other end of the suite. A woman emerged from the bedroom. She introduced herself as Somaly Mam and thanked me for my patience. I had seen pictures of Somaly, both on the cover of her book and online. This woman looked nothing like those pictures. The woman I was talking to was a like a ghost, her face was drawn and colorless, and wearing that shocked and drained expression I sometimes saw on panhandlers. Somaly began to apologize, but I thought of her memoir, of Sylar’s daughter, and told her to take all the time she needed.
Thirty minutes later she returned. It was a remarkable transformation. There was the beautiful woman I had seen in photographs. It was not only that she had put on some makeup and combed her hair – life had returned to her face. The difference was so stark that I would have had no problem believing that the first woman was actually Somaly’s sister or cousin.
We began our interview. She talked about her name, how she had chosen it herself, and that she didn’t know her real name. She talked about her work with the girls, about how much she loved them, about how much love they needed – how much love she needed. That was what the girls needed more than money, she said. They needed love. She told the girls they shouldn’t hate the men who had abducted them and raped them. When you hate them, it’s like a knife in you, she explained. You need love. Our interview complete, I stood to shake her hand as I would any author, but she had already opened her arms to hug me. She was crying and I held her briefly and told her what great work she was doing.
The combination of the nightmarish story of her time in the brothels and her message of love during our conversation seemed to complete the answer to a question that had been quietly following me all my life. My feeling had always been that there was no circumstance, no matter how grisly, no matter how depraved and unthinkable that actually demanded and required hatred, war, violence, or revenge rather than love. Nothing, it seemed to me, was unforgivable. But I had led a life relatively free of cruelty. I had never been raped or tortured. I had never survived death camps or genocide, never been enslaved.
As I climbed back into my car after the interview with Somaly, I actually said aloud, “That’s it. If she can forgive that, anything can be forgiven.” The interview was all I could think about for days, and then weeks afterward. I wrote an essay about it for the magazine. I told all my friends and family about the experience. As I began to have the opportunity to do public speaking, her story became a regular part of my teaching and lectures. The narrative was beautifully clear: She had suffered unthinkable cruelty, and yet her message remained one of love and forgiveness. If Somaly could choose forgiveness, we could all choose forgiveness. Love is not some flower that grows only in clement conditions. Love’s only condition is forgiveness, which can be chosen anytime, anywhere.
Six years later, I awoke one morning to a fresh cluster of comments on the YouTube page where I’d posted Somaly’s interview. All the comments were calling Somaly a fraud. I soon found the Newsweek cover story. which called into question nearly all of Somaly’s dramatic story. It seemed likely to me after reading the article that some, if not all, of Somaly’s memoir was fictitious. It was disappointing at first. Her story had felt like incontrovertible evidence of something precious. I was like a scientist who had based his work on an experiment whose data, unbeknownst to him, had been falsified.
I had to make a choice, a choice I suspect Somaly herself had to make once upon a time. The truth is either that everyone needs love and everything can be forgiven or that they don’t and it can’t. I could not lean on a story of a woman sold into sexual slavery who still believes in love and forgiveness so that I might believe in love and forgiveness, anymore than Somaly needed to invent such a story to help save girls from that slavery.
It is not hard for me to forgive Somaly for whatever deception she has woven. It is easy to imagine feeling too small for the job at hand, and to then create a larger version of yourself for the spotlight. I believe Somaly told me the truth that day in the hotel whether she intended to or not, and I remain grateful for it. How nice to learn that I gained this lesson not from a forgiveness superhero, but from someone just like me.