Author:  Somaly Mam
Title:  The Road of Lost Innocence:  The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine
Publisher:  Spiegel & Grau

By far the lowest statistic for the number of prostitutes and sex slaves in Cambodia is between 40,000 and 50,000. It can be expected that at least 1 in 40 girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sexual slavery.

— Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence

These numbers have no faces for most people. Not so for Somaly Mam. Her memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, quietly narrates her terrifying journey from sexual slavery to rescuing others caught in the same trade. Gripping, compelling, and intensely human, Somaly shows readers a world they have never seen—but simply can’t ignore.

An orphan sold by her grandfather, Somaly faced the daily tortures of rape, abuse, and feelings of worthlessness in Aunty Pueve’s brothel. Yet Somaly describes the incidents she survived without graphic detail, relying on a simple narrative to convey the raw horror of life as a sex slave.

Although her physical ordeals nearly killed her, the most searing pain came from Somaly’s deep anger and loneliness. The brothel’s punishments taught her to hate. She writes, “I cried, but it was because I had no parents, because I was helpless, because I had been raped and beaten, and because I was hungry and exhausted. I cried from emotion, not from pain. I cried from frustration, because I couldn’t kill them. … There was no love in my life.” But the future of an escaped prostitute is grim. With no skills or trade, there is no way out.

When Mam was still in her early twenties, her road out of prostitution came to Cambodia. She met and married a French aid worker who brought her to France, where Somaly earned steady employment and an education. Her new self-confidence, however, couldn’t push back the nightmares from her past life. When she and her husband returned to Cambodia, Somaly began her modest health activism among the brothels.

But what Somaly saw in the brothels was even worse than what she had endured: AIDS had crept into Cambodia with all its implications. A belief persisted that sex with a virgin would cure AIDS, leading to the use of prostitutes as young as five to ensure their chastity. Knowing she had to do more than pass out condoms, Somaly’s efforts led to the first rescue center for prostitutes in Cambodia. In 1996, AFESIP—a French acronym for “Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances—began helping girls escape the brothels and learn to support themselves.

Support for AFESIP grew slowly, but its enemies appeared overnight. “We have laws in Cambodia, but everyone ignores them,” Somaly writes. “The law of money prevails. With money you can buy a judge, a policeman—whatever you want.” Somaly’s faced off corruption in multiple encounters. AFESIP and police stings often found empty brothels thanks to advance warning from insiders; Somaly’s daughter was kidnapped; her adoptive parents’ house burned. She received death threats and faced wildly slanted stories from the Cambodian press.

But slowly, Western attention brought more funds to shelter more girls. Somaly herself received humanitarian awards that shone light on Cambodia’s horrific trade. Today, the organization that started in Somaly’s little apartment has rescued and sheltered more than 3,400 girls and women.

Though her memoir often meanders from any linear timeline, Somaly’s journey—and her inward wounds—show the human side of the sex trade that doesn’t materialize in statistics. Somaly confesses her overwhelming anger at injustice and those who perpetrate it, wondering what power will make them account for their exploitation of helpless girls.

“I’m a Buddhist—just an ordinary Buddhist,” she writes. “I go to the temple sometimes. I give rice to feed the elderly at the village temple in Thlok Chhrov. But the men who torture girls also go to the temples. Are they Buddhists?”

Somaly’s desire for justice burns in almost every page. AFESIP, her work, and her own children carry her through each day’s challenges, as she constantly labors to free other women in her homeland. But readers have to wonder—though her cause is just and her motivation strong, does Somaly find peace in what she does? Or is she still smoldering in her anger? In a story about freeing others for second chances, readers might wonder whether Somaly herself ever truly escaped the heartache.