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Iris Chang, 1968-2004
From The Asian Reporter, V17, #42 (October 16, 2007), page 15.
Iris Chang lost and found
Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind
By Paula Kamen
De Capo Press, 2007
Hardcover, 281 pages, $26.00
By Jeff Wenger
I met Iris Chang once, but interviewed her twice. She was a singularly imposing presence.
She was lovely and successful, but that wasn’t the main thing about her. It wasn’t just that she was intense and focused, though she was certainly those things. Mostly she was a great, towering intellect, and even people who had some game realized they weren’t in Iris Chang’s league. Perfect isn’t a word to be tossed out loosely, but she was close. She was to brains what Michael Jordan was to basketballs.
Iris Chang’s suicide in December 2004 hit me with disproportionate force. In a way that defied explanation, I was staggered.
And, as it turns out, I was not alone. People as disparate as young Asian-American protesters and patrician World War II veterans described a similar sense of sorrow from the periphery. Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking and The Chinese in America, meant more than I ever realized.
It’s therefore with some anticipation that Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind comes to us. Author Paula Kamen, author of three previous books, was a friend of Chang, a colleague, and a competitor. Finding Iris Chang is a peculiar amalgam of biography and memoir, journalistic inquiry, and treatise on Chang’s social significance.
Kamen provides an intimate and respectful consideration of Iris Chang that gives the reader a better grasp of Chang’s flawed humanity. This is important, because Chang seemed perfect like Superman; better than us, but in a good way. It was a privilege to have her around. By her mere presence, she inspired us to be better.
It was a vision of perfection, but not, of course, reality. (Of course it wasn’t reality, of course nobody’s perfect, we all know that, but we never seemed to think it all the way through about poor Iris Chang.) Her vision of perfection was nevertheless carefully cultivated.
This patina of perfection was a tragic flaw of Shakespearean proportions. It kept the people who loved her ignorant of how sick she’d become.
Beyond that, Kamen provides some context to Chang’s life and slide into mental illness. For instance, in the last year of her life Chang seemed to demonstrate an extreme concern about personal security. But it was post-9/11 and she had, after all, received death threats from extremist Japanese right-wingers. Anyway, as far back as college she showed concern about her personal safety, choosing to live in a sorority house rather than by herself in an apartment. So her actions all seemed plausible until she was overcome by a paranoid psychosis.
Everyone who has lost someone to suicide is familiar with the guilty re-evaluations of attitudes and behaviors that might, through the grief, provide some plausible understanding to the event.
Kamen’s guilt at not taking Chang’s penultimate phone call is familiar and profound.
"I was relieved to let it ring into voice mail, knowing that if I picked up the phone, the conversation may take hours and I no doubt would be late."
Not until their final conversation a few days later did Kamen ever have to confront a less-than-perfect Chang. The tone of Chang’s voice during that last phone conversation was missing her customary bounce and energy.
She told Kamen that she’d been sick and that she was concerned about "external forces." Chang was filled with regrets about her son, that she’d made dreadful mistakes as a mother. The conversation foreshadowed finality: "If anything ever happens to me ..."
Kamen, who’d kept other friends waiting an hour while she took Chang’s call, said she had to go. Chang "plummeted into a deep sadness, sounding worse than she had when she had first called."
Kamen hesitated to conclude the call, but she knew they’d talk again soon. As it turned out, they never would.
Finding Iris Chang is a valuable book because of its handling of mental illness in general, and specifically for its insight into mental illness in the Asian community.
Kamen quotes Dr. Aruna Jha, a scholar on the issue of Asian suicide: "Even when white people do recognize extreme behaviors in Asian friends or coworkers, such as nonstop work for days, they may accept that as a normal characteristic of the Asian super achiever or ‘model minority.’" According to Jha, Asians’ typical range of accepted behavior is much narrower than that of Caucasians. "Reckless" behaviors such as promiscuity or shoplifting that are typically associated with mania would be unthinkable even for the most unhinged Asians.
Finding Iris Chang also examines the link between madness and genius, reminding that mood disorders aren’t required for great accomplishment (and that you can be sick without accomplishing any particular greatness) but "that the creative are disproportionately affected by these conditions."
All this and more Kamen explains: There was a history of mental illness in Chang’s family, fertility treatments can blow a woman’s hormones through the roof, acute stress (like multiple miscarried pregnancies, grueling book tours, and death threats) can aggravate mental illness such as bipolar disorder, which Chang almost certainly had.
Kamen also explains the forensic evidence concerning Chang’s death and is satisfied that it was, in fact, a suicide, and that she was not assassinated by extremist elements and that, while we’re at it, the U.S. government was not out to get her. (Not that Kamen’s argument will satisfy anyone with a predilection to believe conspiracy theories.)
Kamen gives us a peek behind the curtain and reveals, hardly a humbug, but still a more real human being than we ever expected. It shows all the signs that everybody missed and reminds us that, tragic flaw or not, this was not inevitable. Finding Iris Chang reminds us how sad it was that Chang died young and at her own hand, but the book does not leave the reader devastated.
Chang, for a young person, had quite a grasp of her own place in history. She left boxes and boxes of her personal papers to three different institutions. Finding Iris Chang will not be the final word on this extraordinary mind. In the meantime, Finding Iris Chang gives us an appreciation of what was lost when we lost Iris Chang.
Paula Kamen will present Finding Iris Chang at events in Portland and Seattle. She will be at Powell’s City of Books, located at 1005 West Burnside Street in Portland, on Sunday, October 21 at 7:30pm, and at the Seattle Public Library Beacon Hill Branch, located at 2821 Beacon Avenue South, on Monday, October 22 at 7:00pm. To learn more, call (503) 228-4651 or visit <www.powells.com>, or call (206) 386-4636 or visit <www.spl.org>.