Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Loss of a Hero

I admit I was crestfallen last night when I received a letter from the Somaly Mam foundation announcing the resignation of their beloved co-founder, Somaly Mam. The foundation is dedicated to eradicating the trafficking and sexual exploitation of girls and women in Southeast Asia. Their vision is breathtaking: a world where women and girls are safe from trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Somaly Mam is charismatic and beautiful, and she has raised millions of dollars for a cause she believes in. She is a magnet for celebrities. She has been instrumental in educating the public about the pervasive crimes and atrocities of sex trafficking in Cambodia and elsewhere.

Why she resigned.

An article this week in Newsweek questioned the truth of Somaly Mam’s inspiring personal story about being sold into a brothel for ten years, by a man she knew as “grandfather.” She told this story hundreds of times at fundraisers and educational events and she wrote about it in her memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence. More disconcerting are the accusations and evidence that Somaly Mam encouraged young women to lie and fabricate stories of their own sexual slavery, in service of media exposure and to help get attention for the foundation and to raise funds. After an investigation of these charges, Somaly Mam resigned.

So do we need to care about her story?

Feminist writer Amanda Marcotte’s article “Somaly Mam and the Cult of Glamorized Victimhood,” in The Daily Beast says that this story “should be a wake-up call, an opportunity for people in the feminist and non-profit world to seriously consider some troubling trends that may hamper the long-term ability to enact change. Namely, there’s way too much emphasis being put on heroic figures overcoming adversity and too little attention paid to systems of oppression.”

Her point is well taken. She invites us to see this story in a larger context: “it’s important not to give into the urge to see the Somaly Mam ouster as an anomaly, so much as the inevitable result of a culture that puts more emphasis on heroic tales of triumph than on bigger picture questions of health and inequality. Mam made up tales of woe because she knew it would attract attention and fundraisers that a more sober assessment of realities would not. That she was right should give us all cause to wonder about reorganizing our social justice priorities.”

Now What?

Amanda Marcotte’s thoughtful and compelling comments should give us all pause. I wonder now do we immerse ourselves in these reflections about the larger context, a context that we who care deeply about oppression, captivity and sexual exploitation of young women, might need to understand?

Or is the answer that we need to pay more attention to how we turn away from the ordinary, pervasive and less glamorous silencing of screams and the devastation of girls, and women’s disempowerment and abuse, in our own back yards?


Somaly Mam’s contributions should be honored.

But Somaly Mam is not just another writer who, like James Frey, fabricated a memoir. Somaly Mam fooled many donors and celebrities with her stories. But more important are the hundreds of girls she misled, girls who loved her, believed in her and admired her. She was their hero in a world where betrayal and abuse was all they had known. She gave them a place to go, a sanctuary. Her life was a testament and her story gave them hope. She asked girls, girls who were in her care, to tell false stories too. She was beloved and she has fallen. She betrayed those she had promised so much. That is hard to overlook and we must not.

-Laurie Kahn LCPC, MFA
Director of Womencare Counseling Center

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