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Review: First They Killed My Father

First They Killed My Father Book Cover

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
Loung Ung
April 2006

The Short of It:

A young girl’s heart wrenching tale of her family’s struggle for survival during the Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979). Hard to stomach at times but beautifully written.

The Rest of It:

Ung’s tale begins in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Once known at “the pearl of Aisa”, Phnom Penh is the home of the Ung family which consists of her mother and father, and her siblings, Meng, Khouy, Keav, Kim, Chou, Loung (the author) and Geak. Life in Phnom Penh is quite pleasant for Loung. Her father (Pa) works for the government and is highly respected in the community.  Due to his class standing, they live in a nice house and Loung’s mother (Ma), does not need to work. However, as the Khmer Rouge invade Cambodia, the Ung family is forced to leave their home. This is Loung’s story of what happened to them on their way to Thailand.

As you can imagine, this is a very tough story to read. Loung is so young when her family is forced to move. She is only five-years old. Caring for her younger siblings and sometimes even the older ones, must have been very tough for her. As her family makes their way from one work camp to another, their fight to stay alive becomes more difficult as food rations dwindle, and violence abounds all around them.

This is from page 149/50 of the paperback. Loung is referring to her younger sister’s emaciated body:

My eyes stay on Geak. She does not talk anymore. She is so thin it is as if her body is eating itself up. Her skin is pale yellow, her teeth rotten or missing. Still she is beautiful because she is good and pure. Looking at her makes me want to die inside.

Ung’s story is quite compelling. Her relationship with her father comes through as being strong and solid, so much so, that when the soldiers take him away, her world falls down around her. Since it is impossible to know exactly what happened to her father, she fills in the gaps with visions she has of the event. These visions seem plausible and serve as closure for her, and I found them to be quite effective. She uses this technique again towards the end of the story and although I saw it coming, it was just as effective and shook me to the core.

What was particularly poignant for me, were her memories of life in Phnom Penh. The clothes they wore, the food they ate. She never realized how good she had it until all of it was taken away. Those moments seemed so small to her at the time, but in reflection, they end up being the cement that holds her together.

My book club chose this book for May. We meet to discuss it next week. I didn’t know too much about the Cambodian Genocide before reading it. Although it is a tough read and hard to stomach at times (it took me a really long time to finish), I am glad I read it. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about this topic.

Source: Purchased.

Review: Prayers For Bobby

Prayers For Bobby: A Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of her Gay Son

By Leroy Aarons
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date: September 1996
ISBN-13: 9780062511232
Here’s the blurb from Barnes & Noble:
Bobby Griffith was an all-American boy …and he was gay. Faced with an irresolvable conflict-for both his family and his religion taught him that being gay was “wrong”-Bobby chose to take his own life.

Prayers for Bobby, nominated for a 1996 Lambda Literary Award, is the story of the emotional journey that led Bobby to this tragic conclusion. But it is also the story of Bobby’s mother, a fearful churchgoer who first prayed that her son would be “healed,” then anguished over his suicide, and ultimately transformed herself into a national crusader for gay and lesbian youth.

As told through Bobby’s poignant journal entries and his mother’s reminiscences, Prayers for Bobby is at once a moving personal story, a true profile in courage, and a call to arms to parents everywhere.

The Short of It:

A tragic story of a young boy, trying to find himself and the Mother that realized too late that her son was not evil and was in fact, desperate for the love and acceptance of a supportive family.

My Thoughts:

Bobby realizes at a very young age that he is different from the other boys. As he grows older, he begins to experiment with sex and realizes that he is, in fact, gay. Unfortunately, his Mother, who is very religious believes that Bobby’s “affliction” is caused by the Devil and that he is being lured into this lifestyle and that God will heal him.

Although Mary continues to believe that God can heal all, Bobby’s other siblings have learned to accept Bobby for who he is and try to support him but at this point Bobby is frustrated and confused and not sure what to think. He believes himself to be evil and ugly and notes this in the journal that he keeps.

After Bobby commits suicide, Mary begins to read his journals and it’s only then that she realizes her mistake. Bobby was not “healable” because there was nothing wrong with him to begin with. After this revelation she goes on a mission to save other kids like Bobby and through her efforts, many congregations begin to incorporate gay references into its liturgy.

I had to stop reading this a few times because the subject matter was very depressing. As a mother, I cannot even imagine what Mary went through when she realized her mistake. I mean, this is a true story and Bobby’s journal entries are so wrought with pain that it just tugs at your heart.

However, towards the end of the book, I felt as if it fell out of balance a bit. The last third of the book focuses on Mary’s cause and getting the church to acknowledge gays and lesbians. This was a bit tedious for me and I skimmed a lot of it.

Overall, this isn’t really a book you’d pick up on your own. My book club selected this book for June and we are discussing it this Thursday so I am looking forward to seeing what issues are discussed and “how” they are discussed because of the touchy subject matter (homosexuality, religion, suicide).

Lifetime aired a movie version based on the book. The trailer for it looks pretty good but I haven’t seen the movie yet.

What do you think of the trailer? We are watching a movie during our discussion of the book but not this movie since many of the members had already seen it. Instead we are watching For The Bible Tells Me So.