The Last Gathering: May 1978 

Food rations diminish again and Luong falls ill. She manages to get a pass for the infirmary and discovers the rest of her family, except Khouy, is there. They have arrived separately but spend several days together, sharing the details of their lives. Living under the Khmer Rouge has taught them that many things are best left unsaid, so they avoid subjects that could cause pain. Even though they receive full rations, Luong is still hungry and steals a rice ball from a sick elderly woman. She realizes that she likely has sealed this woman’s fate but eats the rice. 

The family spends a week at the hospital, taking care of one another, talking, and laughing. Luong dreams of Keav, which proves partially comforting and partially horrifying. As the infirmary is very crowded, however, they are soon made to leave and Luong returns to the camp. 

The Walls Crumble: November 1978 

Six months elapse, filled for Luong with military training and additional food. Met Bong’s dummies provide an outlet for Luong’s ceaseless anger. She attacks them, yelling “Die! Die!” One day, powerful and uneasy feelings make her yearn to see Ma and she slips out of the camp without permission. As she walks toward Ro Leap, she recalls Pa telling her that she possessed extrasensory perception, and she now hopes this is not true. When she arrives, Ma’s hut is empty and a neighbor says soldiers took them away the previous day. Luong screams in the hut as her mind torments her with images of what happened to them. 

The chapter follows Luong’s mind as she grapples with the horror that Ma and Geak have been murdered. In an italicized section Luong imagines a group of people, all labeled enemies of the Angkar, walking along a muddy field. Carrying Geak on her back, a terrified Ma is near the back of the group. Luong imagines that she thinks about Pa, wondering if he was similarly scared. At the edge of a field, the soldiers make everyone kneel and Ma hugs Geak to her body, cradling her head so she cannot see. After a long pause, a soldier steps behind her and grabs Geak. Ma and Geak both scream, trying to cling to one another. Their fingers slip apart and the soldiers fire. Geak runs to her mother’s lifeless body and screams until a soldier comes over and she too falls silent. 

The narrative returns to Luong on her way back to the camp. But she has no memory of her trip or the three days that follow. When she returns to training, she stabs the dummies viciously, imagining she is attacking Pol Pot. She now has no need to pretend she’s an orphan, she realizes sadly. 


These two chapters juxtapose the love of a family against the devastation of loss, providing a clear sense of what the Khmer Rouge seek to destroy. The infirmary is not at all welcoming but love transforms it into a haven, as most of the surviving Ungs find comfort in being together. Luong describes her mother’s careful efforts to remove lice from her children’s hair. It is an unappealing activity, but it involves a loving touch and a sense of care that is central to the scene’s power. Ma combs the blood-sucking insects off her daughter, we see an act of maternal care that could take place in any home, although the presence of the parasites serves as a reminder of the family’s grim reality. It is also possible to imagine Ma as combing away the hate that Luong is surrounded by at the camp. Home, in this scene, is where the Ungs can be together. 

The family’s security is short-lived because they are evicted from the infirmary and because Ma and Geak disappear at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Although six months elapse between the chapters, Ung opts not to narrate the intervening time. While we can assume this is because Luong’s life at the camp passes monotonously, it also heightens the emotional impact of Ma and Geak’s execution. When Luong feels a powerful pull to see Ma, the paired chapters make it easy to imagine that love is what warns her that something is wrong. Despite Luong’s training as a child soldier, she is still deeply connected to her family. Their time together at the infirmary has reinforced the kind of love that can survive the horrors of the Killing Fields.  

These scenes of care and togetherness come only pages before the italicized narrative that describes Ma and Geak’s imagined execution. That scene haunts Luong. Again she feels intense guilt for stealing rice, and she imagines how Ma felt walking toward her death. Most of the italicized episode reflects Ma’s likely thoughts, especially her feelings for Pa and her concern for Geak. After Ma’s death, Geak is briefly the narrative focus. Although she was unable to imagine Pa’s death, Luong envisions Ma and Geak’s murders again and again. Consumed by this vision, Luong cannot  remember the three days after she leaves Ma’s house. Back at the camp, Luong can feel nothing but rage, channeling all of her energy into attacking the dummies, imagining she is murdering Pol Pot. 

These chapters suggest that the moral danger threatening Luong is that she could lose herself to anger and her drive to survive. In “The Last Gathering,” Luong steals rice from an elderly woman. She is fully aware that the woman is dying and needs the food to survive. Even though she recognizes the implication of her actions, Luong decides to eat the rice. The connection between theft and death was first established before Pa’s death, when Luong stole from the family’s store of rice. This link reappears when Luong arrives at Ro Leap and learns her mother and sister have been taken away, forming a thread that binds two chapters and connects them to earlier events. At this point in the memoir, it is uncertain whether or not Luong will find the kind of strength that allows her to put others first.