A Common History

I mentioned that part of my novel will be set in China in the 1930s and ’40s. While the book isn’t historical fiction, I still want it to be accurate (for instance, would it possible that the grandmother character would run into Japanese soldiers in her village?) and so I’ve been doing some research.

I’ve been using this timeline, which has been very helpful so far. The timeline mentions Iris Chang, the author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.

Chang wrote the book at least partly inspired by her grandparents’ stories of having escaped the Nanjing Massacre. My grandparents weren’t in Nanjing at the time, but I grew up hearing about how my grandfather had been imprisoned by the Japanese, and that there were two kinds of people my grandmother hated: the Japanese and the Communists.

I remember when the book came out. I kept hearing that it was important but very hard to read. I think I glanced through it once, saw a couple of the pictures, and decided I couldn’t handle it.

Then several years later, Iris Chang killed herself.

It was November 2004, and I was going through my own shit at the time. It had been four months since my husband confessed to his affair; his mistress was six months pregnant. He had decided he wanted a hand in raising the child but still wanted to be married to me. Although I was miserable, I couldn’t let go. I was afraid to be alone again, afraid to tell my parents, and most of all, I couldn’t let the mistress win.

I remember thinking Iris Chang had it all. A loving husband, a child, a best-selling book. What possible reason would she have to commit suicide?

It’s said that Chang may have had bipolar disorder. She’d work at a frenzied pace for days, then crash for days. Right before she killed herself, she had a nervous breakdown. She had been up for three days straight and was hospitalized. She became very depressed and, it seemed, delusional. At the time she was working on a book about the Bataan Death March of World War II, and thought that the government was watching her, had something to do with her hospitalization, and was tampering with her mail. She had been given medication, but took it sporadically. She refused to believe that something was wrong with her. Her friend Paula Kamen wrote:

[Iris’s] current vaguely described problems were “external,” she kept repeating, a result of her controversial research. They weren’t a result of the “internal,” that is, they weren’t all in her head. I asked her about what others in her life thought about the cause of this apparent depression. She paused and said, “They think it’s internal.”

There’s still a stigma around mental illness in the Asian American community. Asians are generally less open emotionally (in my opinion), don’t want to share problems with strangers, and don’t want to admit to problems as this means losing face. Also, as the linked article says, “Asian immigrants who suffer from mental illness will assume it’s a physical ailment and consult a physician instead of a mental-health professional.” In the article about Chang, her mother says she was worried because her daughter never ate or slept very much, as though those were the causes of her mental illness, rather than symptoms. Still others blamed the disturbing subject matter of her book.

The news of Chang’s suicide hit my parents and their friends hard. Iris could have been any of their kids. She was Chinese American just like us. Her parents were just like my parents and their friends: they were born in China but had escaped to Taiwan in 1949 during the Communist Revolution, and then had come to the U.S. for grad school.

“Your daughter’s a writer too, right?” one of my parents’ friends said. “You should watch her carefully!”

I know this was only out of concern, but I was annoyed. While writers may be at greater risk for depression, that didn’t mean I was going to off myself. Again, people were ignoring or overlooking mental illness and focusing on external factors.

But I was annoyed for another reason. Nobody, save for a few close friends and my brother, knew about the shit that was going on in my life, and how I was struggling to hold it together day by day. I was proud of myself for holding it together, for going to work although I was mentally not there, for being “strong.”

Strong but miserable.

That stigma again.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to bring myself to read Chang’s book. It’s steeped in so much darkness, in many ways.

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