Then small cracks in the pervasive restraint began to appear, and I found real connection. The first opening occurred when a man allowed his anger to flow with such poetic beauty, I was awestruck. He was a taxi driver, the most spontaneous interview we collected––and one of the most powerful. This man described his revenge fantasy with such intensity and detail that I felt hypnotized, moved by his emotion and deep, brutal honesty. His was the only interview I wanted to confirm before publishing, needing to be sure that he understood the danger of his words and to make sure we had been clear of possible countrywide distribution. Yes, he understood and, yes, all he wanted––in fact ever since he lost his family to the Khmer regime––was for his words to be heard.
Another interview broke my own defenses. It wasn’t just the telling––a story of one mother trying to keep her two daughters alive, of touching their legs as they slept to make sure they hadn’t died in the night. It was that she reached out and touched me on the leg. It was a simple gesture, but all of her pain, memory and terror was embodied in that touch. She could see it enter my body and she smiled, still holding my leg as my tears began to flow, as if to remind me that I was the one who needed comforting.
Her touch changed me, and changed the way I viewed the project. The previously incoherent dichotomy of restraint and bursting trauma merged into a real sense of a beautiful, strong and resilient people. Those who shared with us were brave beyond comprehension, some of them revealing their experiences for the first time ever. For them, it was the process of speaking that was more important than what they detailed. The act of coming forward and asking for help was like a rocket lifting to the moon: one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
I redoubled my commitment to the practice of testimony. It wasn’t just the transfer of factual and practical knowledge, but the space it provided for the voices of those usually unheard—the poor, the illiterate, the marginalized and those left out of any political or legal process. I wanted “truth” to document Cambodia and other war-torn countries, but I came to accept that not all testimonies need to be “factual.”
The oral historian Allessandro Portelli once wrote that “the importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to facts but rather in its divergence from them, where imagination, symbolism, desire break in. Therefore there are no ‘false’ oral sources…The diversity of oral history consists in the fact that ‘untrue’ statements are still psychologically ‘true’ and that these previous ‘errors’ sometimes reveal more than factually correct accounts.”
For me it was an awakening moment, of love and acceptance, of fatigue and accomplishment. Alan and I could worry over logistics and organization later, but we had found the right path. Our work as witnesses to testimony was merely to stay open––and openhearted—enough to hear.