On the cover of her memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine, Somaly Mam sits in a field, surrounded by laughing children. “I came to know Somaly Mam, who was enslaved herself but managed to escape and then became the Harriet Tubman of Southeast Asia’s brothels, repeatedly rescuing those left behind,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in the book’s introduction. “As a local person with firsthand experience in the red-light districts, Somaly has a credibility and understanding that no outsider does.”
That was in 2009. This past spring, Simon Marks’s Newsweek article on Mam charged the anti-sex trafficking activist with fabricating her past as a child prostitute. In the fallout, many readers faulted Kristof for lauding her as a heroine; others pointed fingers directly at Mam. Hardly any called out the publishing houses that distributed her book.
Mam’s story gained a mass following with the release of her best-selling memoir, first published in France in 2005. The book’s success helped the activist launch the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007. Mam was also featured in Mariane Pearl’s In Search of Hope that same year.
In a Politico post, Kristof cited the fact that Mam’s story had been the subject of two published books as part of what made it so credible. Addressing the issue in the Times, he wrote, “We journalists often rely to a considerable extent on people to tell the truth, especially when they have written unchallenged autobiographies.”