As Yeon-mi’s “collaborator” – a publishing term for a writer who helps an author find her voice and turn her story into a narrative – I was immediately taken with the power of Yeon-mi’s testimony, as well as the warmth of her personality and her playful sense of humor. It was hard to fathom how this vibrant young woman could have suffered such an ordeal.
As soon as we began working together, I noticed there were some minor discrepancies in the articles written about Yeon-mi, a jumbling of dates and places and some inconsistent details about her family’s escape. Most of these issues could be explained by a language barrier – Yeon-mi was giving interviews in English before she was fully fluent. But Yeon-mi was also protecting a secret, something she had tried to bury and forget from the moment she arrived in South Korea at age 15: like tens of thousands of other refugees, Yeon-mi had been trafficked in China. In South Korea – and many other societies – admitting to such a “shameful” past would destroy her prospects for marriage and any sort of normal life.
She had hoped that by changing a few details about her escape she could avoid revealing the full story. But after she decided to plunge into human rights activism, she realized that without the whole truth, the story of her life would have no real power or meaning. She has apologized for any discrepancies in her public record, and is determined that her book be scrupulously accurate.
With Yeon-mi’s cooperation, I have been able to verify her story through family members and fellow defectors who knew her in North Korea and China. Sometimes Yeon-mi had forgotten or blocked out graphic details from her childhood, only to have the memories return in all their horror as we reviewed her recollections with other witnesses. It seemed that she wasn’t just remembering these things, but actually reliving them.
Dr Judith Herman, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard tells me: “Traumatized people don’t give you a perfect, complete narrative on the first go-round. You see this all the time with refugees seeking asylum. That doesn’t mean their story isn’t credible, because the gist of their story is consistent.”
[Journalist Maryanne Vollers, writing in The Guardian]