It sounds like a fairy tale: a beautiful young woman with long dark hair and skin like a lily, locked in her home for seven years.
But this story is true. This young woman is her own jailer. And mental health workers say that while fairy tales are romantic, she probably has a phobia that can be treated.
Chan Then, 21, has not left her home since she quit school at 14.
“We haven’t seen her since she was a little girl,’’ said Yus Yeab, who sells boiled rice across the rutted lane from Chan Then’s house. “They say she doesn’t talk to any males, not even her father and brother.’’
Chan Then is tall, slender, and very pretty, the neighbors say. Ask 10-year-old Khoch Kamanin, who like other neighborhood urchins has been trying hard to sneak a peek.
He says he spotted her the other day as she helped with the laundry. “Oh, she is very beautiful!’’ he said proudly.
People at first thought her family was following an old-fashioned Khmer tradition of secluding attractive young women from puberty until marriage.
But it is Chan Then herself who refuses to come out, and nobody knows why.
“She won’t say why, and she gets angry when we ask,’’ her 28-year-old sister, Ruang Hah, said Thursday. No one else in the family, she says, “has ever done anything like this.’’
Ruang Hah spoke to reporters on the porch of the family’s home in Nirot commune, Meanchey district. The traditional wooden house sits on stilts in a cool leafy glen east of the Mekong River.
She sat at one end of the porch, against the wall of the room where her sister hides whenever strangers come too close.
Chan Then had to hear every word, but she did not make a sound.
“Sometimes, when nobody’s around, she will come out and play with the children,” said Ruang Hah, who has 18-month old twin sons and an older daughter.
But if any outsider approaches, Chan Then flees to her room, her sister said. Their father has not seen her face for many years, as she covers it with a piece of cloth on the rare occasions when he tries to confront her.
Ruang Hah says the family has tried everything to lure her back into society.
When she first refused to go to school, her father tried to force the issue, going so far as to rent a motorbike with a wagon to carry her to school.
It didn’t work, her sister says.
Chan Then is not idle, Ruang Hah says. She sews, and helps with household chores. She reads magazines and listens to music—she likes Khmer love songs. She has pretty handwriting and loves to draw. Her skin, untouched by the sun for so many years, is fair.
In recent weeks her parents have tried various treatments. They consulted a monk and a Chinese fortune-teller. Then news of her plight was reported in the Khmer-language press, and commune chief Try Narin stopped by to see if he could help.
“We tried to call her to come out from her room by saying loudly, ‘You cannot keep staying in this room. We have come to visit you, so you should come out,’” he said. “But it did not work at all.’’
She got so upset at the commotion that she has not eaten for two days, her sister says, and now their parents are worried about her health.
“I hope sometime in the future, she will come out and talk to people,” she said. “I don’t know when, but the family needs it to be soon.’’
The Transcultural Psychosocial Organization is one of the very few agencies providing mental health care to Cambodians.
Dr Mustafa el Masri, a psychiatrist who works with the organization, said it sounds as if they can help.
“We can send one of our psychiatrists to her home and she can be assessed in one visit,” he said. “If the case is an agoraphobia, which is what it sounds like, it can be treated.”
Agoraphobia, which stems from the Greek word for “market,” means a fear of crowds or strangers; other common phobias include fear of the dark, or of enclosed spaces.
El Masri said phobias are unusually common in Cambodia, affecting an estimated 15 percent of the population, or about triple the rate of developed nations.
“Most phobias are related to trauma,” he said.
“In the older generation, those traumas stemmed from the Pol Pot time. In this new generation, it’s more likely to be community violence.’’
One of the saddest things about agoraphobics, he said, is that families often have no idea anyone else suffers the same symptoms, as the victims are by definition hidden from view.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood waits and wonders.
“It’s not a good idea to [hide away],” says Toung Maya, 13, her gold earrings catching the light. “She will never see friends or relations, or go for walks.”
Yus Yeab’s 15-year-old daughter, Puth Sousadei, shook her head in sympathy.
“She won’t get an education, because she didn’t go to school much.”
And how will she ever marry? asked Yus Yeab. “It is quite difficult. No [suitor] has seen her face.”