Spirit of Survival

About the Book

“I keep trying to think of the reason my mother and father die.”  Phat Mohm was six years old when her comfortable urban world was turned upside down by the takeover of Cambodia by Pol Pot. She and her family joined millions of others forced from their homes into a countryside wrecked by the spillover of the war in Vietnam. Four years later Mohm emerged, alone, to run barefoot for months under Vietnamese bombs and cross the border, only to be confined in another sort of limbo–refugee camps–where she stopped trying to remember why her parents died.

Halfway around the world, Gail Sheehy, a successful journalist and bestselling author, found herself going through a mournful passage that she had written about but could not control. Her daughter, Maura, was going off to college. Her long-standing romantic relationship was deadlocked, and she felt as though everything around her were drying up or losing color or breaking down.

Then, on a journalistic assignment to do a story on child refugees, Gail Sheehy met Phat Mohm. Nine months later, Mohm undertook yet another journey–this time landing on a terrace overlooking Fifth Avenue and stepping right in the middle of Gail’s fast-paced life. But as Gail realized, it was not enough to create a home and a safe presence for Mohm; together they had to re-create her tragic past to discover who she really was–and what price the survivor had paid.

Combining solid historical research with an intensely felt personal record, this story of one woman and one child illuminates larger questions of history and nature: How could a few thousand revolutionaries grow into the grotesque butchers who beat, axed, starved, or worked to death two million of their own people? How, after surviving, does one go about repairing the wounds of shame and loss, to dare again the trust and love one knew in more innocent times?

Finally, how does a survivor move beyond guilt? Following Mohm, the author arrives at a new concept–survival merit–and explores the nature of evil and the qualities of those who transcend trauma and tragedy to become among the most successful and resilient adults.

The answers, exemplified in this book, will inspire all who read it. It is an unforgettable story beautifully written: strong, sensitive, intimate, and graced by humor. But Spirit of Survival is more than a story, it is one of those rare books that changes the way we look at ourselves.