Activist Somaly Mam earned international acclaim and a spot on Oprah's book list by brandishing tales of horrific sexual slavery and abuse—many of which she seems to have made up. Now the Somaly Mam Foundation has announced that it has accepted its founder's resignation.
In March, the Foundation hired an independent law firm to look into Mam's personal history. "As a result of Goodwin Procter's efforts, we have accepted Somaly's resignation effective immediately," it said yesterday.
Last week, Newsweek profiled Mam, who is also the co-founder of Cambodia-based anti-sex trafficking organization Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP):
Mam is one of the world's most compelling activists, brave and beautiful, and her list of supporters is long and formidable. Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and actresses Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon and Shay Mitchell, as well as New York Times Pulitzer-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof, have all toured AFESIP centers in Cambodia. Queen Sofia of Spain has for years promoted Mam's cause and even visited her in the hospital last year when she fell ill.
[…] Mam has raised millions with a hectic schedule of meetings all over the globe with the good, the great and the super-rich—from the U.N.'s Ban Ki-moon to the pope. One day she will be speaking at the White House, and the next day she'll be enthralling schoolchildren in a remote corner of Cambodia.
So, she's kind of a big deal. And she claims to have rescued thousands of girls and women from sexual slavery, inspired by her own experience being sold first to a violent husband and then to a brothel by her grandfather when she was a teenager. The 10 years of abuse Mam suffered in that brothel are detailed in her internationally bestselling autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence.
But Newsweek's Simon Marks began digging around after noting some inconsistencies in Mam's story and those being told by women AFESIP "rescued." He found that Long Pross—a girl whose terrible story of sexual slavery and torture has been told in The New York Times and on Oprah—was making her story up.
Another of Mam's biggest "stars" was Meas Ratha, who as a teenager gave a chilling performance on French television in 1998, describing how she had been sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave.
Late last year, Ratha finally confessed that her story was fabricated and carefully rehearsed for the cameras under Mam's instruction, and only after she was chosen from a group of girls who had been put through an audition. Now in her early 30s and living a modest life on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Ratha says she reluctantly allowed herself to be depicted as a child prostitute: "Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well."
Mam's own story has holes as well: Marks' interviews with Mam's childhood acquaintances, teachers, and neighbors turned up no one who had met or even saw Mam's grandfather or the man she was allegedly forced to marry. They say she lived with her parents and was a happy, well-liked kid.
And "Mam's confusion isn't limited to her book, or the backstory for some of 'her girls,'" Marks points out. In 2012, she admitted to making false claims in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly about an alleged Cambodian army attack on one of her shelters that killed eight girls.
Countless acquaintances, colleagues, and former employees offer up horror stories about Mam, who comes across as utterly sociopathic in the article. Many of them offer some variation on the same sentiment: People want to believe Mam is good and honest because of the work she's doing, so they do. Most people simply won't question the motives of alleged do-gooders—why would someone lie about child rape?
But people lie about tragedy for the same reasons they lie about anything: money, attention, some perceived greater good, etc. Maybe Mam thought the ends justified the means; maybe she just wanted to party with Gwyneth Paltrow.
Perhaps the story is indicative of nothing more than how motivated, mentally ill manipulators can really thrive if they find the right angle. But some say it highlights the downside of nonprofits using tragedy porn to raise funds. "If your goal is fundraising, you actually have an incentive to pull out the most gory story," one activist told Marks, "and so we get completely false realities of the world."
These false realities are then used not just to tug at the heart and purse strings of potential donors but to launch initiatives and make lawmakers weepy-eyed at Congressional hearings. They inspire policy, and that's scary. Boogeymen make frighteningly good lobbyists.