Friday, August 27, 2010

More on Story-Telling: The Cambodian Healer

Phaly Nuon is a Cambodian survivor of Pol Pot’s killing fields of the 1970’s. An educated woman who managed to disguise her origins and her learning in order to survive the mass murder of the educated classes, she witnessed the rape and murder of her teenage daughter and the starvation of her baby. She survived for three years in the jungle, trying to protect her two surviving children, living in isolation, hiding and eating only what she could forage in the jungle. She and one child walked out of the jungle. Her baby died.

While in the refugee camps following the war she noticed many women whose mental state made them virtually inert, unable to care for themselves or their children. Their PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) was going to kill them and their children. She set out to help them and developed her own system of psychotherapy which was remarkably effective. This woman has been on the short list for the Nobel Prize many times for her work with these depressed women as well as the development of an orphanage (the Future Light Orphanage), which the recovering victim/survivors run.

Phaly Nuon has a three part system of therapy (which actually has at least 5 parts).

1. She teaches the women to forget their atrocities. 2. Then she teaches them to work. Some of the work is with orphans who have lost their parents in the war. 3. Then, she says, I teach them to “love.’

Interestingly both she and Andrew Solomon (¬The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression ( ). fail to notice that the first step is not the first step. The first step in her system of therapy, as Solomon recounts this, is the telling of the story of their ordeal. And then the re-telling.

I quote Solomon:
"First, she would take about three hours to get each woman to tell her story. Then she would make follow up visit to try to get more of the story, until she finally got the full trust of the depressed woman. "p.36

"Forgetting,"  involves getting them involved in their present life.

Step two, work, is an important part of that. And step three, teaching them to love, is all about focusing on relationship. The women that Phaly Nuon has ministered to have formed a healing community. Just as a footnote, Freud thought the ability to love and to work were the hallmark of mental health.   Evidently Phaly agrees.
There is another step, by the way. This is teaching the women to give manicures and pedicures to each other (!) This is the final phase and as a lover of pedicures myself, I can testify to the healing potency of this process, which is both intimate and impersonal.

This step, perhaps, represents the importance of engaging the body, in the healing process

This story, I believe reinforces the importance of story-telling in healing. Phaly took it as a starting point and created something truly amazing.

I first heard Andrew Solomon tell this story on the Moth broadcast on WNYC. Here’s the link:

For more on Phaly:


  1. I heard this story on the Moth too. I love Andrew Solomon, he has the magical ability to make reading about depression rather enjoyable.

  2. Great posts, Dr. May. Your blog is thought provoking; this entry is especially profound. I am struck by a few things, not the least of which is Phaly Nuon's horrific story. I simply cannot comprehend her ordeal or what it must have been like.

    Her tailored therapy for these refugees is an incredible story, in and of itself. I wonder to what extent her education informed that process, and how much of it was intuitive. (I suppose I could check out these links to learn more.)

    I also was interested in the detail about the "intimate and impersonal" act of sharing manicures. I've never thought much about it, but I suppose those types situations stimulate a sense of social connectedness, even among strangers.

    I look forward to reading more.

  3. I'm a big believer in storytelling, of course, and I love having some "data" to back this up. (And I will certainly be referring back to this post the next time I find myself justifying a pedicure.)

  4. My rabbi recently asked members of his congregation to tell him a story about a relative, his/her compassion, faith, generosity, courage, etc., that he could incorporate in his sermons for the High Holidays.
    I e-mailed him a story about my grandmother Fanny:
    I would like to tell you about my maternal grandmother, Fanny, who came to this country from LIthuania and married my grandfather, Peter Somers, a tailor. Fanny tried to be very modern and wanted me to call her Nana, instead of Bubbe, what I called my paternal grandmother. She went to night school to learn English and was very proud that she could speak to me in English. To her, education was everything, and the education of her children and grandchildren was of tantamount importance. Fanny was the most kind, loving, generous, self-sacrificing grandmother imaginable.
    My grandfather worked long hours as a tailor at a store in Boston and brought home clothes to make extra money. They somehow managed to save enough money to send my Uncle Louie, her first born, to college, but not enough to send their younger daughter, Lillian, my mother to college. After all, the education of a son was so much more important than that of a daughter! I know that Fanny always felt bad about that.
    My grandparents lived in Dorchester, MA, in a small, two-bedroom, immaculate apartment which was on the third floor, with no elevator. After I was born, my grandmother continued to save money, this time for my education. Fanny had several heart attacks and cancer but refused to move to a more expensive apartment with elevators in order to keep squirreling away money for my college education. I don't think my grandfather ever knew about her stash. I remember her giving money to my mother, but I never knew why. I remember visiting her, going to a park, and then her huffing and puffing while climbing the stairs. I huffed and puffed, too, behind her and kept suggesting that she move to a building with an elevator, but she wouldn't. She would just tell me to do well in school, go to college, and become whatever I wanted to be. And so I did. I named my daughter after her.
    I forwarded this story to my daughter who asked, "Why didn't you ever tell me this story?"
    I had, but she had forgotten it. I forwarded this story to my daughter who asked, "Why didn't you ever tell me this story?"
    Telling her this story brought us closer and made her proud to have such a generous, loving great-grandmother. What a wonderful role model she was!