On Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl, and Why Memoirs of Trauma Are Vital

Cover Detail from The Last GIrl by Nadia Murad

In 2014, men and livestock began disappearing from Kocho, a small village in Northern Iraqi occupied by members of the religious minority Yazidi. The culprits only took a few animals at a time – a hen and some of her chicks; a ram; a lamb. In August that same year, the Islamic State invaded the region. They killed most of the Yazidi men, and sold the young women as sex slaves, or sabaya. While rounding up the Yazidi to send them to their deaths or torture, one militant told a village woman she shouldn’t be surprised; they had been warned. “When we took the hens and chicks, it was to tell you we would be taking your women and children. When we took the ram, it was like taking your tribal leaders, and when we killed the ram, it meant we planned on killing those leaders. And the young lamb, she was your girls.”

One of those girls symbolized by the young lamb, survived the ordeal. Nadia Murad was twenty-one when Islamic State invaded her village. She watched her brothers be murdered, and lost her mother to the genocide. She was sold as sex slave and was raped repeatedly by the man who bought her, and, when she tried to run away, by his guards as well. She finally escaped, and went on to testify about her experience, and the experience of all the Yazidis who suffered under the Islamic State. In her new memoir, The Last Girl, she writes that her hope is to be the “last girl in the world with a story like mine.”

Murad begins her memoir with gentle, evocative scenes of life in her sweet, quiet village with her family and beloved mother. It is only when her town is rounded up and forced into a school that she realizes how tiny her village really is; when Islamic State takes her and the rest of the young women to Mosul, it is the first time many of them have left their village. But soon the lovely, lyric passages about bread warming on a tandoor, or picking onions in the field with her siblings, are replaced by the stunned reportage of the horrors Murad experienced and witnessed at the hands of her captors. The book is difficult to read, as time after time, Murad’s hopes for mercy, for salvation, are reversed. She is forced to confront the worst of human nature – the guard who removes his glasses before raping her, more concerned about their safety than the woman he’s about to violate; the man who beats her and treats her so brutally she prays simply to be sold to someone else.

In the end, Murad manages to escape and find a sympathetic family who help her make her way to a refugee camp and, eventually, Germany. Knowing that her particular story ends in personal triumph doesn’t make the journey to the end any less harrowing, and readers, learning of the subject of the book, may be tempted to pass it by, thinking it’s too tough a read. All memoirs of captivity, torture, rape, and abuse can raise similar questions: Do I really need to read this? Do I really want to read this? The more skillful the writer is in evoking the terror and hopelessness of their experience, the more visceral the experience of reading about it is. And with terrorism, murder, and torture a staple of the news, it can all feel like too much at times. It can be especially tempting to seek escape, or at least some solace in stories of happier places, less troubled times.

But books like The Last Girl are important. In addition to classic books by witnesses of war and atrocity, these testaments tell us what is happening in our world, right now, in a way news stories can’t. They provide the details that might seem irrelevant to a journalistic report – the “slap, slap, slap” of a mother’s bread dough and the “grassy smell” of sheep’s butter; the pictures of brides a young Yazidi girl collects in album; the mementos and photographs a family burns as Islamic State approaches, so the militants won’t be able to violate their precious family memories. Murad tells us not just what happened, but what it smelled like, sounded like, and felt like. At times the intimacy is difficult, but it is necessary, just as books like hers are necessary, if we believe the purpose of reading is to learn about the world and ourselves.