Like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father is the kind of book that leaves an indelible mark on each and every one of its readers, a book which contains a story too horrific to believe but too terrible to be a product of mere imagination. I first learned of Loung Ung when Mary Pipher made note of Ung’s other book, Lucky Child, which my library did not have in stock. I’m so glad that I decided to give Ung’s other work a try, for as difficult as First They Killed My Father was to read, it is a story that, as the San Francisco Chronicle says, “those who have suffered cannot afford to forget and those who have been spared cannot afford to ignore.”
Ung’s story is of Pol Pot’s takeover of Cambodia which initiated a brutal genocide from 1975 through the end of the decade. When Pot’s Khmer Rouge army invaded Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and the Ung family’s city of of residence, Luoung, her six siblings, and her parents were forced to flee to the country’s rural villages. The Ung family was initially lucky; though Luong’s Pa was a high ranking official of the Lon Nol government, he saved his life by successfully lying about his prior position with the government that the Khmer Rouge had overthrown. Their luck didn’t last for long, however, as the family was soon sent to work fourteen hour days at a labor camp, living in near-starvation and laboring under hostile conditions and brutal heat. Things only grew worse from there as the various members of the Ung family were separated, sent to other camps, and some were never seen again.
The Ung family struggle is not atypical of that suffered by the vast majority of Cambodians during the mid to late 1970s. What is incredibly remarkable about Luong’s story in particular, however, is that she was a mere six years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her family to flee the city. All of the suffering, the horrific scenes she witnessed, and the brutality she experienced are expressed in her book with impressive clarity and extraordinary detail through the eyes of a young girl. Luong’s decision to share her story from the perspective of her younger self makes this story truly riveting. As Luong details the violence and murders to which she bore witness, it is impossible to forget just how young she was – a mere child – when all of these experiences took place. Though the horrors of the Khmer Rouge are affecting no matter what age their victims, these events became exponentially more harrowing when seen through a child’s eyes.
Luong’s story is one that needs to be shared and, fortunately, is incredibly captivating from the first page. As she introduces you to her beloved Pa, her graceful Ma, and the wide array of personalities belonging to each of her six siblings, it is easy to imagine the privileged childhood she would have otherwise led. Luong came from a rowdy but loving home, one whose memories she cherishes all the more for how brief her time in its warmth and joy. Luong’s fondness for her Phnom Penh childhood is easily impressed upon readers, as is the devastation she felt when she realized she would never seen her old home in her native city again.
Ung’s book is also a rarity in that she outlines the political conflicts underlying the Khmer Rouge takeover with great clarity and simplicity. Luong offers enough background to provide readers with an understanding of how the Khmer Rouge came to power without causing undue confusion or offering excessive detail. After all, her story isn’t about the politics behind this episode of Cambodian brutality but the way in which it was experienced by the people, the deep mark it left on the families, communities, and individuals of a country torn by unbelievable violence, devastation, and genocide.
And though I don’t believe Luong attempts to do so, she paints herself as quite a remarkable and uniquely heroic child. Her demonstrations of bravery and courage, traits that are barely formative in most six-year-old children, force readers to play out their own hypothetical reactions to the multiple situations in which Luong finds herself. From stealing away to visit her family after she is relocated to a new camp to independently traveling to a jail with the express purpose of watching a Khmer Rouge soldier’s murder after the army’s downfall, it is hard to imagine most children of her age making the kinds of decisions which Luong chooses again and again. Her narrative is equally marked by a constant childlike hopefulness, for Luong places deep faith in the strength of her family’s love to carry each of them through this genocide so they can be together when it’s all over. The unique character of the story’s narrator is one of the book’s most compelling assets and, I’m convinced, one of the reasons why Luong was able to endure.
First They Killed My Father is easily one of the most important books I ever have and ever will read. Ung shares a tragedy that far too few people know about, a story of Cambodian genocide that eradicated 20% of an entire nation’s population. Over 2 million individuals, out of a population of 7 million, lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge army. Luong sheds light on the forces that created such a horrific episode in Cambodia’s history as well as the daily reality of a Cambodian living during this time. Her story is hard to tear yourself away from, impossible to ignore, and undeniably difficult to endure. While I don’t know that I have ever cried as much while reading a single book, no amount of sadness is worth skipping Ung’s First They Killed My Father. Luong’s book tells a remarkably hopeful story in the face of absolutely harrowing circumstances, a story that desperately needs to be shared and never to be ignored.