Memoirs are not to be trusted. They are best read as fiction until proven otherwise. Some made-up stories designed to glorify the author or amuse readers are harmless enough.
But others are not so innocent. For many years, Somaly Mam was the global icon against sexual slavery and underage prostitution in Asia, especially Cambodia. She has been championed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and The New York Times' influential columnist Nicholas Kristof. Now she has been exposed as a fraud.
In her book The Road of Lost Innocence, she described how she was kidnapped as a child and forced to work in a Cambodian brothel, and how traffickers abducted her teenage daughter as revenge for her work. It turns out she made up all those stories, as well as exaggerating the number of women she and the foundation named after her saved, according to an investigation by Newsweek magazine. Actually, The Cambodia Daily started questioning her stories back in 2012; it took the American press - which has lionised the woman - a long time to catch up. She has now resigned from her multi-million-dollar foundation.
Partly thanks to her influence, tremendous international pressure was brought on Cambodia, resulting in tough laws against commercial sex as well as brutal raids and detention of sex workers. Human and labour rights groups including the International Labour Organisation and Human Rights Watch found the levels of sexual slavery and violence were vastly exaggerated and that the government crackdowns violated human rights and victimised the prostitutes to a far greater extent.
This sorry tale is reminiscent of Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea, who was famous for building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His efforts helped humanise the brutal American invasion and military operations in the region. But he too made up crucial stories in the book and was found by the Montana attorney general in the US to be using his charity foundation like a personal ATM.
Both memoirs are inspiring tales of redemption and hope, told against countries and governments with which the US has had difficult relationships. Too bad they weren't true.