by Shoshana D. Kerewsky
Like many readers, I was deeply moved, and very distressed, when I first read the Cambodian memoir The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam. Mam’s tragic experiences as a trafficked girl inspired me to donate even more to anti-trafficking causes. I assigned her book to my students. It seemed that every new film on trafficking included a segment on Somaly and her foundation. I was inspired by her courage and tenacity. She made me a better donor, educator, and advocate for human rights.
Also like many readers, I was shocked by allegations, soon substantiated, that important parts of her story were untrue. I felt emotionally manipulated and taken advantage of. I had been lied to. Now I questioned where my all of my charitable donations went, and what I was advocating for. My first impulse was to be cynical and disgusted.
In some ways I was lucky. I had already read Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and I, Rigoberta Menchu, both memoirs alleged to include inaccurate depictions of some events in the authors’ lives. I’d read Three Cups of Tea, and A Million Little Pieces. I’d had time to think about and learn more about these distortions. Now I had an opportunity to reflect on Somaly Mam’s possible motives.
When I’m angry at someone who has behaved like Mam, I tend to start with my negative assumptions—she’s avaricious; she’s power-hungry; she’s self-serving. I might even assume that she thinks of me and other credulous readers and donors with contempt. From there, I could make a quick jump to reducing my donations and voluntarism. It’s natural that we respond to our vulnerability with anger and a sense of betrayal when a person or cause we believe in misrepresents something important to us. Stopping here, however, may lead us to an overgeneralized mistrust that doesn’t help us to support real people with real needs. Stopping here distances us from our best natures.
Instead, we need to consider some of the reasons why memoirists (and organizations and governments) might exaggerate or lie. This helps us to become more informed and sophisticated donors with better skills for separating fact from fiction and evaluating where we want to put our money and time. Yes, some people, and some organizations and governments, lie for their own gain or protection. But not all of them, or even most of them.
It’s also true that disaster and misery sell. I’ve read a lot of memoirs from around the world. Many that are translated into English are about surviving wars, genocides, famines, droughts, and other disasters or extreme adversity. It’s no secret that publishers, and sometimes writers or media producers, may opt for a dramatic narrative over an accurate one. An “escape” that is billed as “harrowing” attracts more readers than a calm departure. To give a domestic example, James Frey first proposed A Million Little Pieces as a novel, not as a memoir. However, true-life stories are more compelling to readers, and the book was repackaged and published as a memoir.
There are other reasons that a life story might be unwittingly or intentionally distorted. A number of disaster memoirists, including Beah, have responded to assertions that they fabricated material by stating that they presented the story as best they could recall it, but that at the time they were trying to stay alive, not memorize or account for every objective fact. This may be particularly true of children giving retrospective accounts. Chun-Won Kang’s memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag includes two contradictory statements about a physically arduous task the child prisoners were forced to engage in. While neither of his versions seems likely, one is simply impossible. I understand this to be an error of memory (or math), not an attempt to deceive the reader. In another story from the Khmer Rouge genocide, a then-child Cambodian memoirist recounts seeing bodies on the ground, frozen and blue, in a locale that online weather records show has never been below 70°. However, I have seen Vietnamese and Cambodian teenagers shivering, sneezing, and miserable in down jackets and mittens at 76°, so I don’t doubt that to a child, this could seem to be “freezing.” This form of unintentional inaccuracy is like me misremembering my third grade teacher’s name. It’s wrong, but unintentional.
Sometimes memoirists condense events to increase the drama or tighten the “plot” for storytelling reasons, but again, not as an attempt to mislead. More experienced writers and more scrupulous editors often include a note stating that the order of events may have been changed, for example, or that some conversations or events depicted are representative but fictional. The intention of this note is to be sure the reader knows that at points, the story takes precedent over the truth.
In the more problematic form of this style of autobiography, however, memoirists sometimes add fictional events in order to tell a “better,” more illustrative story. The intention is not to deceive the reader, but to tell a story that is compelling and representative. The big caveat here, though, is that in postindustrial Western cultures we place a high value on the “reportage” form of truth in which facts are to be accurate and verifiable. This is not always how “truth” is understood cross-culturally. For example, Menchu has acknowledged that she described some events in her life inaccurately because this made her story more persuasive and more characteristic of the experiences of people in her circumstances. In her biography Buddha, Karen Armstrong points out that historically, biographies of religious or political figures were not intended to present factual truth, but to tell iconic or archetypal stories attributed to those figures’ lives. The biography was not meant to report actual life events, but, for example, to teach moral precepts, demonstrate points of doctrine, or show lines of spiritual succession.
For me as a contemporary North American raised with an expectation of verifiable, supportable, evidence-based “truth” in personal accounts, this is hard to accept. Ultimately, wrestling with this concept opens me to the idea of different forms of truth as the storyteller understands it and uses it to make her argument or tell her story. It gives me a way to recognize my own values and storytelling preferences, as well as to recognize that the memoirist may have good intentions and may have a world view different from my own. For me, this is not just about cultural proficiency, but about compassion for and valuing of people who may not think and believe the way I do.
Knowing why a memoirist may, with all sincerity, misrepresent her story helps increase our understanding and broaden our perspective, but it doesn’t answer the question of what we should do in response. Fortunately, the same processes and tools that we use when first deciding to donate are useful for responding to this dilemma as well.
Starting from the emotional end, it’s important to be aware that showing a picture and a presenting a brief life story are effective techniques for soliciting donations. They associate a face with a need. This is a reasonable and humanizing fundraising approach, but as a donor, you need use your research skills as well as your heart in order to be sure that the organization is honest. When you hear a moving or inspiring story, make your preliminary decision about donating based on the representativeness of the story, not the particular, individual memoirist or poster child. Learning that the story is typical of a group of people, and that the general circumstances are reported accurately, you can feel confident that your donation responds to the verifiable needs of a real group of people. Work through reputable organizations, using online tools such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar to have a better understanding of the organization’s mission, accountability and transparency, and use of funds. A good rule of thumb is to look for organizations that have both in-country and international oversight and governance, with periodic visits to evaluate the agency’s work and legal/ethical compliance. Keep yourself up to date on the work and reputation of NGOs, governments, and spokespersons. This can be as simple as reading The New York Times or going to BBC online, or setting Google alerts for topics of interest.
To summarize: by all means be moved, and also, do your research.
Has Somaly Mam told her story for her own gain, to help others, or for some combination of these goals? I don’t know, though I hope to know more in time. What I do know is that while The Road of Lost Innocence includes some elements that are not true of Mam’s life, they are representative of the brutal experiences some girls and women have in Cambodia and the world. Trafficking is real. Coerced sex and labor are real. People’s suffering is real.
My privilege and resources are also real. I strongly encourage you be an informed and sophisticated donor. Make a difference to respond to big needs and big truths, not to the details of one person’s story.
Shoshana Kerewsky is a former Board President of Friendship with Cambodia and is Director of the Family and Human Services program at University of Oregon.