The 42nd Cambodian Victory Day was recently commemorated on January 7.
Some may have believed that once Cambodia’s civil war was over, the Kingdom would then enjoy nothing but prosperity, growth and happiness.
The bloody conflict’s impact, however, went well beyond the physical side and continued to cause both mental and emotional suffering.
Kao Kyle decided to reveal the post-civil war hereditary trauma from his own life story through his book – Black – the writing of which he says saved his life.
“I do not think anyone can completely heal from trauma, we just learn to live with it as part of our identity,” says Kyle, now a senior trade officer at the British embassy in Cambodia.
“At 21, trauma may be one of the reasons I had depression, anxiety and alexithymia [an inability to identify and describe emotions]. And those disorders made me the person I am today,” he says.
He picked up a pen and began to revisit his life – from the childhood that he felt he never fully had to the trauma that felt so good to leave behind with the completion of his memoir as an adult.
Kyle says writing helped him to process the convoluted mixture of humiliation and love that influenced him when he was just a boy and stuck in the middle of it all.
“Writing was like travelling back to my childhood, something I never thought, for a second, I would ever do. It felt like I stopped running and started looking into my past more peacefully. Even though it took me 23 years to reach the point of having enough courage to do it,” he says.
According to Kyle, his 243-page memoir Black was titled after his birth name. This appellation was given to him by his mother as his very first penalty for being born.
Kyle says he was born into a strict Chinese-Cambodian family in Ratanakkiri province in the northeast of Cambodia in 1994.
He told The Post that he was born to a couple that married early and struggled with poverty. His parents often left him with his grandparents while they were off trying to make ends meet on the other side of the country.
“My parents were always doing everything to make sure that I was at the top of the class during my secondary school and high school,” Kyle says.
He says his family believed that the only way for a child to grow up strong was for him to be able to handle harsh physical punishment and verbal abuse.
“They moulded me to follow the rules and abandon my childhood as well as my emotions,” Kyle told the The Post in an email.
Kyle says he was raised in a verbally abusive family where he endured an endless barrage of harsh words, curses and threats to disown him. He was called disgraceful and all manner of the worst words imaginable.
“Every mistake was met with the [verbal] equivalent of a rattan stick whipping my naked body in public and every time I [spoke up for myself it was met with] a slap in the face,” says Kyle.
Kyle, now 27, says that when he came to Phnom Penh to attend university he was facing a number of financial and mental challenges, but began working and relied on scholarships to pay for school.
“I faced a lot of failure before I was granted scholarships to study abroad, but most of the setbacks were [due to] me dealing with my depression with medication and alcohol,” he says.
Kyle still cannot recall everything that happened to him when he was punished by his parents in his childhood.
Corporal punishment, he says, is very common in Cambodia and can range from a kick to a slap or even flogging.
“I think the strict rules and punishments used to raise children, my own parents’ practices in this case, were a result of both cultural norms and societal pressure from the civil war.
“Most of our [behaviours] and perhaps the way we live our lives is a reflection of what we saw in our parents,” Kyle says.
He says his parents were no exception to this dynamic having grown up during the civil-war period.
His grandmother forbade his mother to go to school and forced her to earn a living for the family from a young age as they prioritised education for their sons over their daughters, Kyle recounts.
“She was also forced into marriage at an early age and was told to raise a family by herself without any help. A great deal of physical and mental pressure was put on her generation at a very young age.
“Without even realising it, the trauma from their childhoods then became a hereditary trauma and so they raised their children following the same patterns, leading to the same effects as the traumas deriving from the civil war, but without being aware of the root causes,” Kyle explains.
The violence of corporal punishment, he says, was the main cause of his depression from a very young age that had eventually pushed him to the brink of suicide.
While mental illness is still one of the many topics that are considered taboo in Cambodian society, a large portion of the population is suffering from various forms of mental health issues according to Kyle.
Kyle cites the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Cambodia report that estimates that about 40 per cent of Cambodians suffer from mental health and psychological problems.
“This hereditary trauma affects children in so many ways, and the most visible are the deterioration of mental health and [the occurrence] of physical abuse.
“Growing up in a society that uses strict [punishments] on children can make them too aggressive or too withdrawn,” Kyle says.
He says the repercussions of these practices can include social anxiety wherein one becomes afraid of being involved with anyone or anything, as well as depression that can cause a person to abandon their dreams or even their life altogether.
“I started to withdraw from my school, my friends and even my own family. I was barely speaking because I was afraid I would say the wrong thing. I began to isolate [from others] and to pity myself,” he says.
It didn’t take long for him to lose his emotions and abandon his dreams.
“I remember vividly when I was young, maybe five or six years old. I was [care-free], fun and eager to learn. I wanted to be an artist. I liked all sorts of art – drawing, sketching and most of all writing.
“That was up till my parents came to take us from our grandparents, and then it was forbidden [for me] to draw, write or even read books, because my parents didn’t think it’d help me achieve anything in life,” Kyle says.
Kyle blames the civil war for casting a dark shadow over his parents. Many people who lived through that period have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in addition to having had their educations disrupted. And all of that was followed by uncertainty and poverty during the post-conflict rebuilding period.
“I think that without the civil war I might have been raised differently and my parents might have learned different approaches to their parenting style. Most of it has to do with poverty and education.
“I remember my mom said she watched two of her brothers die during the civil war and to this day she still refuses to go to the town where they were killed. No child should have to witness that, and no one would be the same had they witnessed that.
“Without a proper education and a stable living environment, I think we start to learn from what we see in front of us – war and poverty [and the resulting trauma] are surely contributing to severe mental disorders.”
Kyle says he started writing because self-expression was the only way he could stay alive and breathing.
He would transcribe the memories that still tortured him into words that he locked away in a notebook that, for a long time, he says he felt certain he would never open again.
For 10 years he says he filled these notebooks and each time he saw a boy who was going through something that reminded him of his own childhood he would remain speechless as the words stuck in his throat and were still trying to find a way out.
It wasn’t until he finished his book that he says he understood that his coming-of-age story was one that had been experienced by many people, in Cambodia and throughout the world.
Kyle says he has realised that these experiences that he used to find shameful, frightening and traumatic to even think about were quite common in Cambodian society.
He says he decided to publish Black hoping that he could raise awareness about mental illness in Cambodia, especially the passing of hereditary traumas from parents to their children.
Kyle observes that writing the book was the only form of therapy available to him though now it is becoming increasingly common to see news stories about society having fallen under the shadow of mental illness.
Kyle says: “I think there are many ways to deal with trauma, scientifically or therapeutically. However, the first step that anyone needs to take is to face up to it and accept it.
“When I started writing, I acknowledged my truth and started looking at my past with much kinder eyes. I started to see the patterns of trauma that also happened to my parents and I started to understand the situation and be more conscious [of my whole identity] rather than just looking at myself as a victim or a patient,” Kyle says.
Kyle believes that people need to advocate for and help one another because one shouldn’t have to be on the brink of death to seek help.
He also feels that Cambodians will have to move beyond the traditional societal norms set hundreds of years ago for there to be widespread validation and acceptance of these stories.
“Not everyone has to go to such great lengths as to write a book in order to relieve their trauma, but I think we all just need to be able to talk about it and be listened to without judgment or prejudices.
“That is why I think psychologists and therapists can be of great help to anyone who is dealing with these issues,” Kyle says.
Kyle is currently a senior trade officer at the Department of International Trade at the British embassy in Cambodia.
His memoir Black is available at Monument Books & Toys Cambodia, Swarng Cafe & Bookstore, Kinokuniya Books in Aeon Mall Sen Sok City (Aeon 2) and Le Story Books & Cafe.
For more details visit the official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Black-a-Memoir-106208054719095.