A man out to save young, innocent lives in Asia

My following book review appeared in last Sunday’s Sydney Sun Herald newspaper:

The Grey Man
John Curtis
(Macmillan, $34.99)

Al-Jazeera reported in 2008 that the child sex trade in Cambodia was rampant, fuelled by local interest and Western tourism. In 2007, Cambodian authorities arrested only 21 people for sex crimes with children and many brothels shut by authorities reopened weeks later.

John Curtis isn’t a man to accept such grim statistics.

A former Australian commando (he was thrown out during training for being “ineffective” – code for ambivalence towards the required tasks – though he eventually joined them successfully) he drifted through various jobs over the years. He was looking for meaning in life.

Curtis expresses outrage with Australia’s acceptance of Indonesia’s brutal take-over of East Timor in 1975 and Canberra’s re-engagement with that country’s elite troops in the 1990s.

“I was disillusioned with the Australian government’s lack of balls and their duplicity,” Curtis writes. He left the force in disgust.

His dedication to helping people extends to setting up his own home as a safe house in case the former Howard government kicked out East Timorese refugees. His partner becomes pregnant and fatherhood consumes him. Curtis explains movingly of seeing his five-year-old sleeping daughter and hearing a voice in his head: “There are children her age being abused in south-east Asia.”

He soon dedicates himself to infiltrating the Thai underground and saving children experiencing abuse. His transformation is written like an almost religious experience, a moment of clarity that led Curtis to find real purpose: “It sounds a bit melodramatic, I know,” he writes. “But I think it was fatalistic, and I think my mindset was a symptom of my depression.”

He tells his daughter, Emma: “There are girls like you in Asia who are suffering, honey … What I’m going to do is rescue five of those little girls for you.”

He throws himself into meeting like-minded groups and “the unpleasant business of hanging around in bars and brothels, looking for a kid or kids to rescue”.

He could be accused of naivety, ignorance and obsession but this would grossly undersell his achievements. This book reads like an adventure story with a very serious purpose.

Curtis sets up The Grey Man, “an organisation dedicated to eradicating the trafficking and exploitation of children. Our main role is the rescue of children from traffickers. However, early on we realised that rescuing children was not enough. We realised that we needed to stop them from entering the sex trade in the first place”.

This is an ultimately uplifting tale of one man’s dedication to making the world a better place. The book is written in workmanlike style about a person unafraid to challenge established power.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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