“To give a voice to the voiceless and to live her life for others” was the essence of Iris Chang’s life. In her beautiful memoir The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond “The Rape of Nanking,” Dr. Ying-Ying Chang, Iris’ mother, used her intimate knowledge of her daughter and extensive collections of letters, emails, and conversations between mother and daughter to reconstruct Iris’ short but courageous life and her tragic death. Iris’ book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II almost single-handedly retrieved the Rape of Nanking from the forgotten attic of history and placed it in the forefront of international political discourse. She gave voice to the thousands and thousands of victims who either died forgotten or survived in shame and misery. She endured suffering in her own life and unjustified attacks from the ultra-right wing in Japan, as well as in the U.S. Ultimately she gave her own life so that others’ lives can be enriched.
Iris’ great accomplishment with her book The Rape of Nanking did not happen by accident or luck, but it was a culmination of talent, hard work, ambition, and passion. All of these characteristics she already exhibited at an early age. For example, Ying-Ying recollected in her memoir that in Iris’ third-grade project on “American Hero,” Iris chose to report on Clara Barton, who was a dedicated woman caring for wounded soldiers in the American Civil War and later became the founder of American Red Cross. Iris told her mother that she chose Clara Barton because of “her courage” and because “she cares.” Iris started writing down her goals when she was only 15 years old. It was a turning point in her life, because to her astonishment, she had achieved all her goals. Iris told her mother that “it was as if the words themselves were possessed by magic.” Ying-Ying recalled that Iris was a voracious reader devouring books starting as a small child, and organized and edited her high school and college literary magazines and newspapers, as well as writing numerous essays and poems.
Iris did meticulous research for her Nanking book, spending countless hours in various libraries and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as well as libraries, museums, and archives in China. She also interviewed numerous survivors and eyewitnesses to gather first hand recollections. In spite of her detailed and careful research, she was attacked by various right-wing extremists and even from the Japanese ambassador to the U.S., Kunihiko Saito. On April 21, 1998 (less than half a year after The Rape of Nanking was published), the Japanese ambassador in a press conference criticized that her book “contain many extremely inaccurate descriptions and one-sided views.” On June 12, 1998, a group of Japanese “academics” in a conference in Tokyo accused Iris’ book of being misleading and exaggerating the Nanking Massacre. They blamed the killings on the Chinese themselves. How can any reasonable person deny the existence of the rape of Nanking and blamed the Chinese for the killings when there were so many well documented eyewitness oral, written, pictorial, and film archives recorded at that time by numerous foreign journalists, businessmen, missionaries, college professors/administrators, and diplomats.
Iris was so outraged and asked “Can you imagine what would happen if a German ambassador to the U.S. made a parallel statement about a book on the Holocaust?” Iris challenged Ambassador Saito to a public debate. After several months, this debate finally occurred on December 1, 1998 in the PBS MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour when Iris challenged and asked Ambassador Saito “Can the ambassador, himself, say today on national TV live that he personally is profoundly sorry for the rape of Nanking and other war crimes against China and the Japanese responsibility for it?” Ambassador Saito did not apologize and offered the often-used Japanese response that “… we do recognize that really unfortunate things happened, acts of violence were committed by members of the Japanese military. …” People watching the debate saw first hand the Japanese government’s reluctance to acknowledge and apologize for Japan’s past war crimes.
The Japanese political and economic power structure also influenced developments in the U.S. Several months before The Rape of Nanking was to be published, the publisher Harper-Collins already sold the first serial rights of the book to Newsweek magazine, and an excerpt of the book was scheduled for the November 17, 1997 issue, coinciding with the appearance of the book in the bookstores. However, due to pressure from Japanese advertisers, Newsweek at the last minute almost backed out of their contract. Because of the threat from Iris to expose Newsweek caving in to Japanese advertisers’ pressure, Newsweek finally published the excerpts two weeks later on December 1, 1997. Ying-Ying and her husband Shau-Jin Chang did an analysis of the number of Japanese ads in Newsweek. They found that on the average there were four-to-five Japanese ads per issue, but there was not a single Japanese ad in the December 1, 1997 issue and the number of Japanese ads was doubled in the November 17, 1997 issue!
In the spring of 1998 the Japanese publisher Kashiwashobo acquired the rights to translate Iris’ book into Japanese. Under tremendous pressure, including death threats, from Japan’s right-wing ultranationalists, Kashiwashobo wanted basically to include a second volume to be published together that contained many fabricated events and accounts to refute Iris’ book. Iris told Kashiwashobo that she would not give permission to have a “supplementary volume” attached to the Japanese edition of her book, but if they want to publish a separate book about her book, that was none of her business, as long as it was not part of her book. The end result was that there was no Japanese edition of her book until another 10 years later.
All these criticisms and controversies took a toll on Iris. She had to spend long hours through weeks and months to refute these unfounded criticisms, which sometimes were accompanied by threats to do her harm. Ying-Ying wrote that during many of Iris’ talks and book signings, many people came up to her to tell her of their own terrible experiences suffered under the hands of the Japanese during WWII. On the one hand it was satisfying that she found additional evidence to substantiate her book, but on the other hand she was mentally and emotionally drained after hearing all those horrible experiences. The long hours of hard work and sleep-deprived life, together with the constant reliving of the horrific tragedies of the Nanking Massacre, contributed to her health decline and the start of her depression.
The passion, dedication, and vision shown in Iris’ work and life inspired many people. Among them was James Bradley, author of the best-selling books Flags of Our Fathers (which was also made into a movie by Clint Eastwood) and Flyboys: A True Story of Courage. In his eulogy at Iris’ funeral, Bradley directed his remarks to Iris’ two-year-old son Christopher and said “For two years I had tried to find a publisher. Twenty-seven publishers wrote me rejection letters. My spirits were low. Then one Sunday I felt a beacon of hope. A book about World War II was on the New York Times “Best Sellers” list. It was The Rape of Nanking. And it was on that day that I first saw those two beautiful words Iris Chang. Somehow I got up the courage to write a letter to your mother. She responded with a picture postcard encouraging me. The picture on the postcard was a photo of her. I hung the postcard photo of Iris on the wall in my study. Every day, as I wrote through my fears, I said to myself, “If she can do it, I can do it.” Flags of Our Fathers became a New York Times #1 best seller. Twenty-seven publishers had said “no.” Your mother had said “Do it.”” In the eulogy, Bradley went on to explain how Iris also provided pivotal help to him in his second best selling book Flyboys: A True Story of Courage.
In a graduation speech she gave on June 5, 1998, at her alma mater University Laboratory High School, also known as Uni High, in Urbana, Illinois, Iris told her young audience “… First of all, please, please, PLEASE believe in THE POWER OF ONE. One person can make an enormous difference in the world. One person – actually, one IDEA – can start a war, or end one, or subvert an entire power structure. One discovery can cure a disease or spawn new technology to benefit or annihilate the human race. You are ONE individual and can change millions of lives. Think big. Do not limit your vision and do not EVER compromise your dreams or ideals. …” Iris was clearly one who believed and fulfilled THE POWER OF ONE.
Ying-Ying was not only Iris’ mother, she was also her best friend. This memoir also described the love and pain of a mother, and the close relationship between mother and daughter. Many lessons learned in their lives are also worthy lessons for all of us. For example, one day when Ying-Ying went to pick up Iris at Iris’ baby-sitter’s house, she noticed that Iris liked to frown and did not smile as she had before. Ying-Ying asked the baby-sitter why. The baby-sitter said, “Have you smiled yourself lately?” Then Ying-Ying realized that she and Shau-Jin had been troubled by a number of issues in their professional lives, and were unhappy at the time. The baby-sitter’s question enlightened Ying-Ying, and she practiced smiling in front of the mirror. What a difference that made. What Iris saw was a smile on her mother’s face, and she imitated it.
This memoir also shed light on the cause of Iris’ suicide. Of course, no one can say for sure what caused Iris to take her own life. Ying-Ying made the following observations:
- Iris always had a positive outlook on life. She had ambitions and visions of what she wanted to achieve. She was able to achieve most of her goals, and she was looking forward to achieving many more.
- In the last two years of Iris’ life, she was engaged in exhaustive month-long book tours for her best selling Nanking book. She was also finishing her third book The Chinese in America, and then engaged in another set of exhaustive book tours after this book was published in March 2003. At the same time, she had to spend a huge amount of time refuting those who were fabricating reasons to attack her Nanking book, while also doing research for her fourth book on the Bataan Death March. All these activities led to a highly stressful life of deprived sleep and many skipped meals, resulting in a deterioration of her health.
- Reliving the lives of the victims of the Nanking Massacre and constantly hearing additional grim testimonies from her audience definitely led her to a depressed mood. This was probably compounded by again the grim subject matter of her fourth book on the Bataan Death March.
- Iris was the first person who wondered whether her 22-month-old son Christopher was autistic when everyone else did not detect any problem. The fact that her young son might be autistic (later confirmed that Christopher has a mild to moderate autism disorder) led her question whether she had done the right things for Christopher, including whether she had allowed too many vaccination shots for Christopher and whether she was spending enough time on him. This led to a feeling of guilt and adding to her depression.
- On several occasions she had received or was warned by her associates of threats, although we don’t know the exact nature of the threats because Iris did not disclose the details. One such incident occurred during her five-week, non-stop book tour (March 31-May 6, 2004) after the paperback version of her Chinese in America book was published. Ying-Ying observed that after this book tour, Iris not only looked tired and seemed to have lost her energy, but she became exceedingly moody, more quiet and apprehensive, and became increasingly fearful.
- On August 12, 2004, despite being exhausted and sick, Iris went on a scheduled trip to Kentucky to do interviews of veterans for her Bataan Death March book. That night, she had a hard time sleeping in a hotel in Louisville and thought she saw on TV some horrible atrocities and ugly images of children torn apart by wars. She also had not eaten much, and drank even less liquid. No one really knows whether what she saw were real or they were delusions caused by sleep deprivation and dehydration. On the phone Ying-Ying encouraged her to call one of her local veteran contacts. When the veteran and his wife who was a retired nurse came early next morning and saw Iris, they recommended that Iris should be taken by ambulance to a hospital.
- At the hospital, Iris was referred to the Psychiatric Unit, and the doctor believed that Iris had experienced a so-called “brief reactive psychosis” due to stress conditions such as lack of sleep and food, and she might be experiencing a possible onset of a bipolar disorder. The doctor prescribed an antipsychotic drug, Risperdal, at 2 mg a day, to take for at least a year. She took the medicine prescribed by the doctor, although Iris and her parents had serious doubts about the doctor’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
- After returning home to California, for various reasons Iris was seen by three different psychiatrists, and continued to take the antipsychotic drug, Risperdal or Abilify at various dosages, as well as an antidepressant drug Celexa.
- On September 21, 2004, about a month after she returned home from Louisville, Iris was planning to commit suicide, and she committed suicide on November 9, 2004.
In retrospect and after doing a lot of investigation on the potential side effects of antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal and Abilify, and antidepressant drugs like Celexa, Ying-Ying thought that Iris’ suicide was most likely due to the side effects of the prescribed drugs that she was taking. Part of the potential side effects of those drugs is increased suicide tendency. Ying-Ying knew that Iris always thought that suicide was horrible and incomprehensible. Even though that in the later stage of her life, Iris was suffering from depression, that alone would not have led Iris to end her life. Ying-Ying observed that Iris’ personality, mood, and behavior changed drastically for the worst after starting to take those drugs. Furthermore, there seems to be racial, ethnic, and gender differences in the impact of those drugs. Asians seem to have a lower threshold for both the therapeutic and adverse effects of antipsychotic drugs than Caucasians, leading to the possibility that the wrong dosage was prescribed to Iris even if the prescribed drugs were the right ones.
Summary: The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond The Rape of Nanking is an excellent memoir from the only person who could have described Iris Chang from before and beyond The Rape of Nanking. This book provides a valuable, deeper understanding of Iris Chang as a person, a writer, a historian, a daughter, and a mother. It sheds light on her impact on people, including strangers, besides her obvious historical impact regarding the Nanking Massacre. This memoir also describes the love story of a mother and daughter, their tribulations, triumphs, pains and sufferings. It describes lessons learned from their lives that are worthy lessons for all of us. Iris Chang should be remembered not by how she died, but how she lived.
Talk and Book Signing Event by Dr. Ying-Ying Chang in NJ on May 21, 2011: For more information, click Ying-Ying-NJTalk-Flyer.