Author Jan Wong triumphs over workplace depression

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      Jan Wong, once one of Canada’s most feared reporters, was in a cheerful mood when reached by phone at her Toronto home. She told the Georgia Straight that she had just seen the documentary Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, which reveals how its Swedish director, Fredrik Gertten, was harassed by Dole Food Company.

      The film resonated with Wong, who also took on a powerful corporation, the Globe and Mail newspaper, which fired her after she suffered a major depressive episode. Despite the terrible toll that the disease took on her, she refused to capitulate to what she deemed a wrongful dismissal. Eventually, she won an undisclosed cash settlement and an admission that she had been ill and unable to work over a five-month period in 2007.

      Wong also spurned her former employer’s demand that she sign a gag order. And this month, she exposes the sordid details of her mental-health ordeal in a compelling and sometimes amusing new self-published book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness.

      “If it means I never work for them again, so be it,” Wong said. “I never have worried about what happens as a consequence of any story I have done. If the story is worth doing, I want to do it.…That’s part of the territory when you’re a journalist. If you’re always worrying about what’s going to happen if you say something, then don’t be a journalist. Go into government. Right? Don’t go into journalism if you’re afraid.”

      During her reporting career, Wong earned a reputation for bravery. In 1989, she tenaciously covered the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square. After the 9/11 attacks, she smuggled a box cutter, penknives, and scissors onto an Air Canada flight and reported on how she wasn’t hassled when she left the box cutter on the tray in front of her seat. Later, she humiliated wealthy Toronto-area residents by going undercover as a maid and writing a series of stories. For that, she was called a “journalistic egomaniac” by the Financial Post.

      She sees a parallel between her “case study” in workplace depression and what she observed in Big Boys Gone Bananas!*. “It was just riveting for me because I had just finished taping CBC Sunday Edition,” she said. “It [the film] was all about that: the big people going after, like, one little, lonely journalist.”

      Wong’s troubles at the Globe and Mail began after she was assigned in September 2006 to cover a deranged gunman’s shooting spree at Dawson College in Montreal, where she was born and raised. Within a day, she turned around a 3,000-word article—an astonishing accomplishment for any journalist—and the piece was cleared by her editors. According to her account in Out of the Blue, it was also read by then–editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon.

      She noted in the feature article that Montreal was the site of the only three postsecondary-school shootings of bystanders in Canada. All were perpetrated by men whose ethnic heritage differed from that of the francophone majority in Quebec, where immigrants don’t always feel very welcome.

      Deep in the piece, there was an incendiary paragraph that caused a national uproar: “To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for ‘pure’ francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial ‘purity’ is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

      Following publication, she writes that she received “hundreds of hate emails”, describing her as a “racist pig”, a “stupid cunt”, and “vomit”, among other insults. The premier of Quebec wrote a letter to the editor condemning her. The Parliament of Canada unanimously passed a motion calling on Wong to apologize for the “pure laine” remark. And her father, a successful Montreal restaurateur, was falsely labelled on a website as a criminal, and customers began boycotting the family’s establishments. She felt that a nasty cartoon in Le Devoir highlighted her racial features.

      In a subsequent interview on CBC Radio, Wong said that she was criticized by the Quebec premier and the prime minister because they needed votes in Quebec.

      A torrent of angry letters continued appearing in the Globe, and Greenspon wrote a piece claiming it was an error to publish the section that offended many Quebecers. According to Wong, publisher Phillip Crawley chastised her for hurting the Globe’s brand in Quebec. At the time, the paper’s major shareholder was BCE Inc., a communications behemoth headquartered in Montreal.

      Wong claims in the book that Greenspon had earlier coached her about how to give interviews in response to the story. She reports that Crawley, however, insisted during a meeting that she had been ordered not to talk to the media—and that she had violated this instruction. She maintains that she was never interviewed during the subsequent “investigation” by the human-resources manager, which led to a disciplinary note being added to her personnel file. Her crime? She had gone beyond talking about the personal attacks and had used her position at the Globe and Mail “to question the Prime Minister and the Premier of Quebec”.

      In conversation with the Straight, Wong said that prior to this incident, she was on exceedingly friendly terms with Crawley. According to her, the publisher would sometimes stop by her desk and chat with her when he walked through the newsroom. On occasion, he gave her a lift home because they lived not very far from one another. And she attended Christmas parties in his home.

      “He only invited managers and, like, three journalists,” she recalled. “So I thought, stupidly.…maybe we were friends. Or at least we were cordial. But it meant nothing. As soon as this happened to me, I was a piece of dirt.”

      Crawley didn’t return a call from the Straight by deadline to comment on whether or not he spoke to BCE management during the controversy. After her meeting with Crawley, Wong writes, she broke into tears and slid into a deep depression. But she told the Straight that management must have interpreted it as her being in a “snit”, even though her medical condition was diagnosed by her family doctor and later by both her psychiatrist and an insurance-company-appointed psychiatrist. Manulife Financial did not pass along an independent psychiatric assessment to her employer, according to Wong, and denied her disability claim.

      Based on medical advice, she took trips away from Toronto—she refers to this as a recommended “geographic cure” in the book—only to run into editor-in-chief Greenspon at an airport baggage carousel after they had both returned on the same flight from Europe. Her book focuses a fair amount of attention on how insurance companies put sick workers, like her, under surveillance and have, on occasion, cited trips abroad as justification for rejecting claims.

      Jan Wong discusses how she was put under surveillance during her illness.

      During her illness, the Globe and Mail demanded that she return to work before she and her doctor felt she was ready. “I have no idea why they did what they did,” Wong said. “But once it started, there was no turning back. And I, at first, thought maybe he [Crawley] doesn’t know what the editor-in-chief is doing. Maybe.”

      When asked about her former workplace, Wong bluntly called it “depressing”, “alienating”, and a place where people are “punished” for errors. “Newspaper culture should be one of freewheeling dissent, where you’re allowed to make a few mistakes,” she said. “Because if you don’t allow people to make mistakes, they’re not going to do anything creative.”

      She recalled that in the Toronto newsroom, “people literally hunch over their desks, literally keep their heads down.” She then alleged that “management keeps lowering the cubicle walls so they can watch you”. She said there’s a cost to increasing the level of surveillance in the workplace.

      “For a journalist, it’s actually not helpful to have a lot of distractions,” she commented. “You always want to do anything but write, so you will procrastinate before you have to sit down because writing is so hard. Everybody tries to postpone the pain.”

      Wong refuses to shut up because, she said, she doesn’t believe in hiding behind anonymity. She also mentioned how she has witnessed brave Chinese dissidents sometimes risking their lives by speaking to her. “I speak on the record not because I’m a pain in the ass,” Wong declared. “It’s because I believe in freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”

      The company cited “excessive absenteeism”, “public activities”, and “lack of interest” in returning to work as some of the reasons for her dismissal.

      Some of the book’s most dramatic sections deal with the impact of depression on her life. She admits that she didn’t even know the symptoms of the disease before she became ill, nor how prevalent it is. She later discovered in Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide that one in five people suffering from major depression will attempt suicide, and 10 to 15 percent will die this way. Scientists, composers, and business executives are particularly prone, killing themselves at five times the rate of the rest of the population.

      “I didn’t know the treatment for it,” Wong said. “And I didn’t know the different variations of depression. Some are lifelong and recurring. And some are episodic and situational.…I didn’t pay any attention because I never thought I would be vulnerable or prone.”

      After the flap over her Dawson College article, she lost the ability to write and lost her short-term memory, which filled her with fear. At one point, in a Toronto subway station, she came close to taking her own life. Later, during a trip to China, she lost hearing in one ear, which is what convinced her that she should quit her newspaper job.

      In Out of the Blue, Wong chronicles how most of the medications she took weren’t effective—at one point, she suffered heart palpitations as a side effect. She tried to recover by playing music and by spending more time with her husband, Norman, her sister Gigi, and her two teenage sons. To this day, she’s amazed by their efforts to help her heal. Her sons, Sam and Ben, took over cooking and cleaning duties and accompanied her around the neighbourhood.

      “I know that some other mothers were very envious because they would see my sons going for a walk with me and think, ‘Gee, I wish my son would go for a walk with me,’ ” Wong recalled. “But they were doing it because they understood I was sick. My husband was even better because he helped them—like when they couldn’t stand me anymore.”

      She made remarkable progress with the help of a psychiatrist, Bruce Menchions, who helped her become more aware of the nature of her illness. This gave her the strength to challenge her employer and gain an acknowledgment that she was truly ill. “It’s simple,” Menchions states at one point in the book. “You wrote a story. There was a big backlash and your paper didn’t back you. All the rest stems from those events.”

      Wong, who teaches journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, now believes that depression is a product of evolutionary biology. If this weren’t the case, she doubts that it would be so prevalent in society. “It’s a safety mechanism,” she states. “It makes you withdraw from the danger that is present.”

      Her long-time publisher, Doubleday, refused to print Out of the Blue after it had already been edited. According to the author, Doubleday tried to keep this decision confidential by having her agree to a gag order. In characteristic fashion, Wong refused to be silenced.

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      cranky mom

      May 10, 2012 at 4:51pm

      Thank you Jan Wong for sharing your experience and showing us what real bravery looks like.

      V Critchley

      May 11, 2012 at 5:13pm

      Jan's story about the newsroom is eerily reminiscent of the pre-sale massacre of journalists at the Calgary Herald in 1999. Look at publisher and ownership at the time. Publisher made a brief pitstop at Vancouver Sun/Province during the transition before he took over things for the Calgary Flames. Ugly Times.

      Gail Starr

      May 15, 2012 at 8:21am

      Good for you, Jan Wong. We missed you and your fearless journalism. Welcome back.

      Patricia L Morris

      May 27, 2012 at 4:58pm

      Unfortunately Jan Wong's experience is all too common. Fortunately Jan Wong is willing to exercise her freedom of speech unlike others. Thank you Mrs. Wong for living in Canada, we need your leadership and example for living.

      Nadine Lumley

      Sep 25, 2012 at 6:28am

      Hey Globe & Mail... Karma is a beyotch:

      The charge is Margaret Wente isn't just a one-off careless plagiarist, she's a serial offender. Judging from the public editor's column, the newspaper is going to do very little about it. This defies belief. Why is the mainstream media saying nothing about this? Another good question.