Spirit of Survival

Phat Mohm was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to a middle-class military family. She was six years old when her comfortable world was shattered: The Cambodian government was overthrown by Pol Pot and his army, and within a short time thousands of city dwellers were forced into the countryside, ostensibly to establish a classless society of agrarian workers. Phat Mohm and her family left with others from Phnom Penh to begin what actually was a life of forced labor in the fields.

Soon, Pol Pot’s army, which included large numbers of young peasant boys, began a systematic campaign of torturing and murdering the educated urban population. Mohm’s parents were victims of this genocide. Orphaned and alone, she struggled to survive in an insane world. She adeptly hid her urban, middle-class background, and when escape was finally possible, she left with other displaced Cambodians, over the mountains into Thailand.

As Phat Mohm struggled to exist, Gail Sheehy was facing several crises in her own life. During a vacation to Thailand, Sheehy heard about the Cambodian children in refugee camps and decided to pursue a story on their plight. It was during her visit to one of the camps that she met Phat Mohm, and, nine months later, Sheehy began the process of adopting her.

As their relationship developed, Sheehy began to reevaluate her own life and philosophy. She concluded that the crises caused by changes in our perception of ourselves as we move through the various stages of adulthood are merely “elective” or “luxury” crises for those in affluent societies, and that they are not universally shared by members of other societies.

SPIRIT OF SURVIVAL offers an eye-opening look at the human capacity for cruelty and its effects on people, especially children, but ultimately its message is an inspiring one.