THOSE who knew Iris Chang used to worry about how she could cope with the gloom of her chosen work. But when they visited the house in California that she shared with her husband and saw him playing with their two-year-old son by the swimming pool in the backyard, they were reassured….
Her book brought international acclaim and controversy, and many spoke of a stellar future. It was not to be. In November she killed herself, no longer able to bear the weight of horrors from seven decades ago….
Orphans, rape victims and Holocaust survivors all wanted to bare their souls to her, finally relieving themselves of agonies sometimes decades old. They felt encouraged by the passion that she brought to the sort of grievances few of them could tackle on their own.
Chang cried when they cried. She was enraged even when they no longer were. It was unthinkable for her just to pass the paper tissues and wait until people had composed themselves again. Chang invited memories of atrocity and abuse with a seemingly limitless appetite….
But her success had its price. The book became a touchstone of renewed rivalry between Japan and China. Both nations had been content to allow the massacre to fade into the past, but in the 1990s China found itself in the ascendant and a long-suppressed sense of outrage burst out. Anti-Japanese museums sprang up across the country. Japanese nationalists responded by attacking the book and its author. Death threats were issued….
“The pressure on her from Tokyo was unbearable,” says Yang Xiaming, one of Chang’s research assistants in Nanjing. “She was afraid of travelling to Japan because she feared for her life.”
But the Japanese attacks were the easy part. With her newfound fame, Chang felt compelled to visit Chinese communities around the globe to hear more horror stories of Japanese occupation, forced prostitution in so-called “comfort houses” and nerve gas experiments on prisoners in Manchuria. After these encounters with people who would often approach her in tears, she felt utterly drained even hours later. Friends said that she was beginning to look frail, and she admitted to them that her hair was coming out. The more of others’ suffering she absorbed, the more her old energy and intensity drained away. Each horror story seemed to pull her down a little farther….
In the months before her death, Chang was researching a new book on Japanese wartime atrocities. Despite feeling unwell, she flew to Kentucky to interview survivors of the Bataan Death March. They recounted to her how thousands of American PoWs were killed during the occupation of the Philippines, some forced to bury their best friend alive or, if they refused, for both of them to be buried alive by a third friend, with the chain continuing until the Japanese soldiers found a PoW who complied….
On November 6 she spoke to Paula Kamen, whom she knew from university, and told her that she was struggling to deal with the magnitude of the misery she had uncovered, listened to and written about. She begged to be remembered as lively and confident. It was the last conversation they would have. Two days later, Chang was even more despondent than she had previously been. Her husband tried to calm her down but eventually fell asleep.
At some point in the night, Chang got into her white 1999 Oldsmobile, taking with her a six-round pistol that she had bought from an antique weapons dealer to defend herself from attackers. She drove to a country road, loaded the pistol with black powder and lead balls, aimed it at her head and fired. She was found a few hours later, along with a farewell note to her family….
In Nanjing, Professor Sun Zhaiwei says that being an historian can be “torture of the mind”.
“Nuclear scientists wear protective clothing and have their health checked by doctors. Perhaps we historians of the extreme need similar measures. Yet for now we have to take care of ourselves.
“Maybe that was Iris’s problem — she cared for the dead but failed to take care of herself.”