Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 33, December 2013

Peg LeVine

Love and Dread in Cambodia:
Weddings, Births, and Ritual Harm Under the Khmer Rouge

Singapore: NUS Press, 2010
ISBN 978-7791-69-472-2 (Paper); xx + 219 pp

reviewed by Courtney Work

Finding the Future

  1. This is an important book that challenges what Michael Vickery refers to as the standard total view (stv) of life under the Khmer Rouge and rethinks the practice of 'forced marriage' during that era. LeVine's treatment centres on the family and the ways that marriage and especially childbirth for many were not always the coerced and humiliating experiences recounted in much of the literature, but were often opportunities to connect the disordered present to the continuity of past traditions and to extend imaginative reality into the future. Her discoveries critique the western-biased literature on psychiatry and patient treatment in Cambodia, arguing that attention to spirit traditions informs an important aspect of individual and community healing largely ignored by mental health professionals. This piece also complements the growing body of English language literature that foregrounds religious and spirit traditions integral to Cambodian modern life,[1] as well as the literature on the powerful work of landscapes in creating social and personal spaces and enlivening memory.[2] DeVine's insights came through a decade of interviews conducted in private homes and at sites of former marriages and births. During these intimate interviews, couples shared with the author their experiences of marriage and childbirth under the Khmer Rouge. What emerges is a nuanced story of intimate family ties that span the divide between the living and the dead and also the divide between the disruptive traumas of the Khmer Rouge and the restorative rhythms of family life. The long-term engagement with people and their stories gives LeVine's work a uniquely compassionate quality. There is no pity here, only an empathetic, measured and thoughtful rendering of experiences and voices.
  2. The author has a strong voice and takes a place in her narrative. Through this she complicates Cambodia's entanglement with the genocidal underpinnings of modernity and makes important contributions to the literature on the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian studies more broadly. The author grapples with the disconnect between the stv of Khmer Rouge atrocities and the stories she heard from the people she came to know. The widely accepted notion of 'forced marriage' and 'forced sexual relations between couples' during the Democratic Kampuchea period proved to be an inaccurate rendering of what happened to the people in her sample. People described their unions in very positive ways and most of the couples she interviewed remain happily together into the present. I found this to be true in my own research as well. The author's surprise at this discovery drives the research of this book. She is not an apologist for Khmer Rouge atrocities; on the contrary, she does not contest the horrific stories from this era and adds some chilling details from her interlocutors. What she does, however, is to interject the voice of scholarly investigation, which concludes that 'images of horror, based on single-case testimonies [which comprise much of the literature], have interfered with the completeness of historical accounting' (p. 87). One does not need to question the hardship and trauma people experienced during these years, but one is asked to shift focus away from the tantalising trauma of modernity and toward the lived experiences of people in communities and the working-through of trauma.[3]
  3. LeVine offers a view of marriage and childbirth that not only illuminates the years of extreme revolutionary social control, but also connects with the rhythms of Khmer families through time—from the past, into the present, and projecting into the future. She discovers how for many, their marriage was what saved them from the empty and frightening world under the Khmer Rouge. Through marriage, and especially childbirth, people returned to the flow of life and community. The strength of family units reconnected individuals to ancestors and parents and also exerted a restructuring force on the rigid spaces of social life erected during the Khmer Rouge years. LeVine recognised a pattern of accommodation that seeped into the communal structure as private space was created for couples and the need to care for infants created circles of care among new wives and mothers. LeVine's research suggests that the physical creation of space that accommodated new families in regions of high live birth rates softened the rigidity and accompanied the terror of childbirth under the totalitarian system. One important aspect of this was how spirits, ancestors and horoscopes figured in the individual stories. The spirits were important for all of her subjects: for some because of their inability to perform important and necessary rituals and for others because of the danger and culturally intimate performance of forbidden rituals. For all, however, this connection was strong.
  4. This brings out LeVine's second, and I think more important contribution to the literature on Cambodia. Her work not only uncovers, but attends to local engagements with spirits and ritual. She spent extensive time with her subjects and through this she realised that maintaining relationships with ancestral and tutelary spirits deeply informed the life-cycle events of marriage and birth for the couples in her study. Further, she finds that the loss of these important relationships, with ancestors and with protective spirits of the land, was a source of anxiety for many of her subjects. Through this insight, she firmly establishes relationships with the dead and with the powerful forces of nature as constitutive of psycho-social health, and also critiques the literature on trauma in Cambodia, which ignores this important dimension of Cambodian reality. Beyond a critique of the psychiatric literature on Cambodia, her insights into spirit practices lead her to suggest another and quite potent effect of Democratic Kampuchea. She calls this effect, ritualicide. Offering a nice counterpoint to the contested accusation of genocide,[4] DeVine notes how disruptions to individual relationships with spirits and people's inability to perform important rituals were defining features of life under the Khmer Rouge that are intimately entwined with individual traumas.
  5. The stories of hardship and fear that DeVine gathered from her subjects speak of their dangerous and disrupted lives. Individual fears of disconnection from their emaciated bodies coupled with fears of disconnection from the protective spirits of their home villages. In new areas people were adrift and could not seek protection from the local spirits or find sustenance from the unfamiliar local plants.[5] This disconnection to place is interestingly counterbalanced in DeVine's narrative as she returns to the sites of wedding ceremonies and births with her respondents. In these places, captured on film, people experience forgotten memories and reorient themselves to the present in ways that pull the traumatic memories of the past into the present through the buildings and people that continue to inhabit the space.
  6. LeVine's book is a useful, reflexive, and ethnographically rich resource for scholars and aid workers in Cambodia and for anyone working with traumatised populations. Engagement with the future is not an explicit component of LeVine's study, but I find it to be an underlying current for both her interlocutors and for continued scholarship in Cambodia.


    [1] Earlier French scholars devoted much ink to Cambodia's structure of ritual and myth. Indeed, LeVine notes that much of the writing on spirit traditions and ritual is written in French (p. xvi). Maurice Eisenbruch, however, does write in English about spirits and traditional healers and their psycho-social importance for Cambodian subjects—a body of literature that would add depth to LeVine's treatment. Especially, 'The uses and abuses of culture: cultural competence in post-mass-crime peace-building in Cambodia,' in After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities, ed. Béatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman and Albrecht Schnabel, Tokyo; New York: United Nations University Press, 2007, pp. 71–96; and 'The ritual space of patients and traditional healers in Cambodia, Bulletin De l'Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient vol. 79, no. 2 (1992): 283–316. Other English language treatments of spirit life are beginning to emerge. Notably important for LeVine's story are, Erik W. Davis, 'Between forests and families: a remembered past life,' in People of Virtue: Reconfiguring Religion, Power and Morality in Cambodia Today, ed. Alexandra Kent and David P. Chandler, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008, pp. 129–44; Penny Edwards, 'Between a song and a prei: tracking Cambodian history and cosmology through the forest,' in At the Edge of the Forest: Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler, ed. Anne Hansen and Judy Ledgerwood, Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 2008, pp. 137–62; and the recently published piece by Yvonne Anne Guillou, 'An alternative memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide: the dead of the mass graves and the land guardian spirits [Neak Ta], South East Asia Research vol. 20, no. 2 (June 2012): 207–26.

    [2] I am thinking especially of Heonik Kwon, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008; Greg McCann, 'Bioregions and spirit places: taking up Jim Dodge's long lost suggestion,' The Trumpeter vol. 27, no. 3 (2011): 10–26; and Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

    [3] See Dominick LaCapra, History and its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence, Ithaca: Cornell, 2009, especially the chapter titled, 'Traumatropisms.'

    [4] Because none can explicitly confirm the Khmer Rouge intention to eliminate a particular ethnic group, the term genocide is difficult to apply, see Michelle Caswell, 'Using classification to convict the Khmer Rouge,' Journal of Documentation vol. 68, no. 2 (2012): 162–84, for a discussion of how this problem is addressed in the current trials of Khmer Rouge leaders.

    [5] For more on the important connection between geographical location, spirits, traditional medicines and traditional healers see Eisenbruch, The Ritual Space of Patients and Traditional Healers in Cambodia; and Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell, Cambodians and their Doctors: A Medical Anthropology of Colonial and Postcolonial Cambodia, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2010.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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