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Can Telling a Story Heal the Hurt?

  • Soeung Khmer

The simple act of telling a story could be one way of healing trauma. At least that’s what Poeuv Socheata, a Cambodian-American who is gathering the stories of many of her countrymen, thinks. And not just for an individual, but for an entire community.

Poeuv Socheata, who is 29, runs a program through Yale University to collect narratives from Cambodian survivors, and she said this has taught her the power of a story.

“I interviewed one older gentleman who was a survivor [and] who said the one thing that kept him going during the Khmer Rouge time was this idea that he would survive and then he would tell the world about what happened,” she told VOA Khmer in a recent interview. “That it was essential for him to tell the world. I think there are more and more people like him.”

Trauma-related illnesses are a major social problem for Cambodians, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms and depression as a result of Khmer Rouge traumas.

Poeuv Socheata, who wrote and directed a documentary, “New Year Baby,” following the effect of the Khmer Rouge on her own family, said a personal narrative can heal because it is empowering.

“What happens is you can become the controller of that story as opposed to being [a] victim that’s being acted upon,” she said. “And so by telling the story, you can actually regain some shred of control and power over your own narrative. And that’s a really important step in terms of healing, I think.”

However, the notion of personal narrative as a healing mechanism is a Western idea, she said, while other cultures, like Africa’s Burundi, may deal with trauma through silence.

“In the Burundian culture, there is this idea of gusimbura, which is to say that you cannot even speak the name of the person who died and you can only talk about them indirectly,” she said. “And it is very rude to bring up these tragedies.”

“I don’t know of a similar concept in Cambodian culture,” she said, “but there is certainly this idea in Cambodian culture that expressing your emotions at all in a way that’s strong is negative, and everyone should be very serene and placid and always be very neutral in their emotions, and that’s what is best for a person and that’s what is best for a society.”

Chhang Youk, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has interviewed thousands of former Khmer Rouge cadres and their victims, called storytelling an important source of healing, but he said the concept was not necessarily Western.

“Whether a person is Jewish, German, Rwandan, or Iraqi, we are all humans, and when we become victims, we maintain our humanity,” he said. “When a person loses a loved one, we all suffer, whether we have lighter or darker skin, or wherever we live.”

Survival stories are compatible with Cambodian culture, because oral history is an important part of the culture, he said. It is rare for Cambodians to downright refuse to talk about their pasts.

“There have been those refusing to be interviewed, but not in a negative way, but in the context that they they’ve already told their stories for 30 years but haven’t seen any results,” he said. “And we understand their feeling. And we consider this a method to healing if they can forget these tragic memories, which we respect and want them to utilize.”

Whether or not these narratives are compatible with Cambodian culture, Poeuv Socheata said she believes many people want to tell their stories.

So she is now recording survivor testimonies for Khmer Legacies, at Yale, to “provide a healing opportunity for survivors by witnessing their testimonies.”

The program is taking individual testimonies in the US, but she would like it to grow into community testimonies both here and in Cambodia.

Khmer Legacies expects to send two researchers to Cambodia this summer to record testimonies. Poeuv Socheata said she hopes Cambodian people, especially younger Cambodians, will become involved by interviewing survivors in their families or communities or through the group’s ongoing transcription process. She can be contacted at