American writer Iris Chang has become a mythical figure on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Like many legendary tales, her story offers up numerous interpretations. The daughter of Taiwanese-immigrant academics, Chang blossomed into a best-selling author in her late 20s with a shocking 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, which chronicled an unimaginable slaughter by the Japanese imperial army in 1937. According to her detailed research, between 260,000 and 350,000 people perished in the Chinese city. Torture and gang rape of civilians were commonplace.
Chang’s exploration of this sordid and little-known history began after she saw a 1994 photo exhibit in Cupertino, California, on Japanese war crimes in China in the 1930s. Because she could speak Mandarin, Chang was able to interview numerous survivors in the city now known as Nanjing. In the Yale University archives, she also discovered a 500-page diary by an American missionary named Minnie Vautrin, who set up a refugee camp for thousands of Chinese women fleeing the massacre. In addition, Chang made numerous visits to other archives in China and the United States. The cornerstone of her research was a detailed diary by a German Nazi who was stationed in Nanjing and who tried to stop the carnage.
She made the cover of Reader’s Digest; her book was excerpted in Newsweek, and she met then–U.S. president Bill Clinton. However, The Rape of Nanking’s publication caused an uproar in Japan. After writing an op-ed piece in Newsday entitled “Japan Must Pay for Its War Crimes”, Chang received hate mail and, according to her mother, an envelope containing two bullets.
Seven years later, she committed suicide by shooting herself in the head. Chang was only 36.
Japanese right-wingers have since cited mental illness to support their arguments that Chang’s book should be dismissed. Conversely, there has also been speculation among some of Chang’s fans on the Internet that she was murdered. Others have suggested that the depth of depravity she recorded caused her to take her own life. This, in a peculiar way, echoed the experience of Vautrin, who committed suicide back in the U.S. after witnessing the horrors of the Nanking massacre.
Now Iris’s mother, Ying-Ying Chang, has decided to set the record straight with a new biography of her daughter, The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond The Rape of Nanking (Pegasus Books). Ying-Ying, a 70-year-old retired biochemist, has proposed a new theory: the side effects of antidepressant drugs triggered her daughter’s suicide.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from her home in San Jose, California, Ying-Ying emphasized that her daughter was never mentally ill until her breakdown in 2004. Over three months, she was put on several medications, including Celexa, Abilify, and Risperdal, before she took her life.
While researching her book, Ying-Ying visited Harvard Medical School clinical psychiatrist Martin Teicher, who has linked some antidepressants to suicide ideation (imaginings) in some patients. He supplied her with research showing that side effects may differ depending on racial, ethnic, and gender differences.
Ying-Ying also told the Straight that one drug her daughter was taking contained a warning for children and adolescents but never included any cautions for adults. She emphasized that she’s not opposed to people taking antidepressants, but she said that people of different racial backgrounds should be aware that these medicines sometimes have horrible side effects. Moreover, she said, clinical trials often involve Caucasian men, who may be able to handle larger doses without as many consequences. “I also want to educate the psychiatrists, too,” she added.
With a PhD in biological chemistry from Harvard University, Ying-Ying is no slouch in evaluating scientific literature. She did postdoctoral research at Princeton University and has been published in several journals, including Science. Her husband, Shau-Jin, is a retired physicist who taught at the University of Illinois.
Ying-Ying’s book contains numerous letters written by Iris. They reinforce her mother’s argument that she was never mentally ill while researching The Rape of Nanking and her two other books, Thread of the Silkworm and The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. This correspondence reveals a brilliant and often work-obsessed young woman who loved her mother. “People have asked me what kind of relationship I had with my daughter,” Ying-Ying volunteered during her interview. “I said at the beginning: mother-daughter. But later on, she was a friend, and then she was my mentor.”
In an emotional aside, Ying-Ying confessed that she could never have written her book had it not been for her daughter’s constant refrain that one person can make a difference. “I gave her birth, but she gave me so much that enriched my life.”
In one note written to her mother in 1997, Iris mentioned two authors who had committed suicide. Iris quickly added that compared to most writers, she was “relatively well-grounded”.
Ying-Ying speculated that her daughter’s mental breakdown in 2004 was caused by physical exhaustion brought on by overwork and the challenges of raising an autistic son. As for the root cause of her daughter’s suicide, Ying-Ying concluded: “I really believe it was the medication.”
Ying-Ying Chang will speak at 2 p.m. on June 5 in the Alice MacKay Room at the Vancouver Public Library central branch. This will be followed at 3:30 p.m. by a screening of the docudrama Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.