Most people don’t think about writing their life’s story before they turn 30.

But Marpheen Chann started to sense in his early 20s that his story could resonate with a lot of people and that he could grow from exploring it. He was born to a Cambodian refugee, lived in poverty and neglected as a child in Portland and was taken from his mother by the state. He was separated from siblings and lived in foster and group homes. He eventually found stability with an adoptive family in the Lakes Region town of Naples.

He became a studious and active Christian, following his adoptive parents’ lead. But he struggled emotionally and spiritually as he came to realize he was gay. He later went to law school and became a community activist. He currently sits on both the Portland Charter Commission and the city’s Planning Board and is community impact manager for the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which works to eliminate hunger across Maine.

His biography, which he began writing about eight years ago while much of his story was still evolving, is called “Moon in Full: A Modern-Day Coming-of-Age Story.” Published by Islandport Press in Yarmouth, it went on sale this month.

Instead of writing bitterly about his struggles and setbacks, Chann writes about what he learned about others and himself. He hopes the book will be an homage to acceptance.

“I had the honor and privilege to live with different families with different beliefs, my Cambodian family with Buddhist beliefs, foster homes and then my adoptive parents with evangelical Christian beliefs,” said Chann, 31, of Portland. “I don’t ascribe to all those beliefs, but I have an appreciation for why those people have them. It’s deeply personal for them to have them, and they are all part of my identity.”


Marpheen Chann’s memoir “A Moon in Full” was released this month. Photo courtesy of Islandport Press

Chann has several events scheduled in the next two weeks to talk about his book, including Tuesday at the Kennebunk Free Library. He’ll be at Mockingbird Bookshop in Bath on June 27, at Print: A Bookstore in Portland on June 28 and at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick on June 30. The use of the word “moon” in the book’s title is a play on Chann’s last name, which means moon in Khmer, the main language in Cambodia.

Chann’s attitude about finding common ground and seeing both sides does not surprise people who know him or work with him. Shay Stewart-Bouley serves with Chann on Portland’s Charter Commission, which is charged with making recommendations on ways the city’s governmental structure might be changed. When the 12-member board seems split on a proposal, even one he favors, Chann often works to tweak it in such a way as to build a larger consensus, instead of being content to have it approved by the commission by a narrow margin, Stewart-Bouley said.

“He’s really methodical and measured and always trying to build consensus,” said Stewart-Bouley, who read an advance copy of Chann’s book. “I didn’t know much of his story before I read the book. The fact that he went through so much and is not bitter is impressive.”

Chann says the eight years he spent on the book allowed him to grow. He said he learned a lot about what his bioligical mom, Mum Chum, went through in Cambodia and how she struggled with alcohol and mental illness.

He also came to reflect more deeply on what his adoptive parents, Bob and Tracy Berry of Naples, have gone through in their lives. The couple adopted Chann when he was 14 – after he spent six years in foster homes – along with his three younger siblings, to keep them together. The couple expanded their home – Bob did much of the construction – and provided the siblings stability and togetherness.

The Berrys are members of the Tree of Life Church, Assembly of God in Windham and enrolled Chann in the Windham Christian Academy. The couple both found strength in God. Bob Berry says he had struggled with alcohol and drugs before his relationship with God helped him turn his life around.


But coming out as gay to the Berrys was difficult, Chann said, because of what they believe. Bob Berry said he told Chann that he’s not gay, “only confused.” He also told Chann, “Whatever you choose, I’ll love you no matter what. You’ll always be my son.”

Chann says he understands why his adoptive parents believe what they do and how important their faith has been to their lives. He is grateful they let him be part of their lives, and the feeling is mutual.

“I love the guy,” said Bob Berry, 62, woodworker who also does maintenance for his church. “He’s got a really good heart.”

Marpheen Chann, center in second row from the bottom, with members of his biological and adoptive families at Christmas in 2019. His adoptive parents Bob and Tracy Berry are on the bottom step. Photo courtesy of Marpheen Chann


Chann was born in Stockton, California, to Mum Chum, an 18-year-old Cambodian refugee whose family had fled the terror of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which murdered up to 2 million Cambodians in the 1970s in an effort to hang on to power.

Chann moved with his mother and extended family to Portland in the mid-’90s, and lived for a while in Riverton Park, a low-income housing development near the Westbrook line. He said his mother struggled with mental illness over the years and that included a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Her life was not stable. Chann’s younger siblings have different fathers than he does.


He remembers being the apartment in Riverton Park being “super dirty” and inhabited by cockroaches. His mother was often not around, so he learned to cook eggs, at age 7 or 8, for him and his younger siblings. He often sought refuge at his grandmother’s apartment in downtown Portland.

When he was about 9, the state placed him and his siblings in foster homes, in pairs. For the next few years, he lived in several foster homes in rural Maine, including in Acton and Windham. Some families made him feel welcome and comfortable, others not as much.

“I could have been angry at my biological mom, letting the state come and take us. But I’ve researched some of what happened to her in Cambodia, and I know about her issues with alcohol and domestic abuse,” said Chann.

He says his relationship with his biological mother has been difficult over the years, at least partly because she speaks almost no English, and he’s lost his command of Khmer after years of living in Maine, but he is still in touch with her.

In 2003, he and his sister Tanya were taken in as foster children by the Berrys, who had been fostering Chann’s youngest siblings, Seyya and Brandon, for about four or five years. Bob Berry also had two daughters from a previous marriage.

Berry said a woman at the couple’s church had prayed with them years earlier and said she saw Asian children in their future. Several years later, they decided they wanted to share their home with young children in need. So they got their license from the state and were told of the opportunity to foster Seyya and Brandon. They learned about Tanya and Marpheen and saw how they had been moved to different foster families after short stays. Berry said, by his count, Marpheen probably lived in more than a dozen different places after being taken from his mother.


The Berrys decided they needed to take in Tanya and Marpheen, to keep the family together, and they formally adopted Chann in 20o5, when he was 14.

“Family is very important to us, and we didn’t want to see those kids separated,” Bob Berry said.

Marpheen Chann, left, at age 13 celebrating Christmas with his siblings in Aroostook County, where his adoptive mother grew up. Photo courtesy of Marpheen Chann

While living with the Berrys, Chann got very involved in their church. Prayer, bible study and church groups were all part of his routine. But as a teenager, he was also starting to think he might be gay, which countered so much of what he was being taught in school and in church.

During his high school years, Chann said he was “deep in the closet” and decided to overcome his feelings he would throw himself “110 percent into being the best Christian kid I could be.”

So when he graduated from high school, he felt the best next step was a Christian college, specifically University of Valley Forge in Pennsylvania.

“I thought if I pursued God hard enough and prayed hard enough God would finally heal me of this sin,” said Chann.


The more he studied Christian philosophy and theories, the more Chann said he started to doubt some of what he’d learned about his faith. He said he had one professor who talked about how the roots of Christianity come from different cultures and religions. He started to question some of the rules he’d been taught, especially those that seemed to contradict basic concepts about God and love.

“If God is love then how can his followers hate the love that looks different,” said Chann. “It’s the same kind of deep love they feel for their partners. Everyone should have that.”

By the spring of his first year, he transferred to the University of Southern Maine. That summer, he started to come out as gay. Though it wasn’t easy talking to his parents about it, he knows they love him.

“I really needed to be my authentic self,” Chann said.

After going to USM to study political science, he earned a law degree from the University of Maine Law School in Portland. He hasn’t taken the bar yet but says he plans to. Much of what he learned comes in hand working in city government and on public policy issues, he said.

Chann said he started writing his book in 2014, after Gov. Paul LePage proposed cutting off state aid to asylum seekers. At a rally supporting asylum seekers in Monument Square in Portland, he gave a five-minute speech about his parents and grandparents coming to America from Cambodia, seeking safety and stability.

Giving that speech and having people say they connected with it had a profound impact on Chann. He said he got a burst of energy and wrote 30 pages of his life’s story. Every few months, he’d write more, in between law school and work commitments.

He says he hopes the book might make people think a little more about ways to connect with each other, even when it seems easier to let obvious divisions keep us apart.

“One of my hopes is that it may cause people to dig a little more below the surface of each other and find more empathy,” said Chann. “I hope people can think about pathways to staying engaged with one another.”

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