Road of Lost Innocence

Last month I received an invitation to review a very special book, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” by Somaly Mam. It’s a memoir from an amazing woman who was sold into the sex industry around the age of 12. I jumped at the chance to read it, for several reasons. Many of you may know I spent six weeks in Cambodia in the summer of 2002 after my first year of medical school. I stayed at a guesthouse in Phnom Penh, the capitol city, and traveled down the Mekong River every week with a group of doctors, providing medical care at different clinics by the riverside. My last few weeks in the country, I was able to work at an organization called the White Lotus, a Christian house set up for girls who had left lives of prostitution. At this home the girls were fed and clothed and taught basic skills: literacy, cooking, sewing. Ways to earn a living. I gave a series of talks on health care, topics like hygiene and nutrition and basic diseases. Working, even briefly, with those girls was an experience that I have not forgotten. Human trafficking has gained more awareness in the media in recent years, and for good reason. It is a multi-billion dollar industry second only to drug trafficking in terms of global profits. Over a million children under the age of 18 are sold into sexual slavery every year.
Somaly Mam is able to write a powerful book on this subject because she has lived it. She was abandoned by her parents and grandmother at a young age, and was eventually adopted by a man claiming to be her grandfather, who beat her, enslaved her, and eventually sold her into prostitution. The sad thing about prostitution in Southeast Asia is that it is never a choice of the woman/girl. Families will sell their daughters to a brothel or a pimp for as little as $20. Some claim they think it will provide a better life for their daughter; some just need the money. But as girls as viewed as little more than property, they have no say in their own “sale.”

In “The Road of Lost Innocence,” Somaly relates how she was chained, beaten, raped, and abused for many years. She was thrown into cellars with snakes, or tied to a bed while maggots were poured over her body and into her mouth. After several years of this she eventually met a Frenchman who bought her out of prostitution and married her. She describes her transformation into a more confident young woman, one who eventually found the courage to come back to Phnom Penh and begin buying other girls out of sexual slavery. She founded an organization called AFESIP, which over the years has set up a number of homes and centers throughout Southeast Asia for young girls to come and find healing, and to stay until they can support themselves by some means other than prostitution. The organization recently started a nonprofit foundation, the Somaly Mam Foundation, part of which the profits of this book go towards.

The book is sad and eye opening and powerful, all at the same time. I would highly recommend it as a way to learn about the depravity of humankind, but also the possibility of transformation, and difference that one person can make in changing a seemingly insurmountable problem.

One thing the book does not address…I noticed early on that the book’s title is the Road of Lost Innocence, not the Road to Lost Innocence. For me, it’s an important distinction. She chronicles how she lost her innocence, how many young girls in such a situation lose their innocence, in so many ways. But is there a way back to that innocence? Is there healing, true healing, or just an experience that causes rage and anger and a desire to change things for future generations? I want to say, however naïve it may seem, that there can be a return to lost innocence. There is hope for healing, for newness. “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” (Rev 21:5) “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17)