What makes a person "perfect"? Is the facade of perfection always doomed to crack and reveal the base undercoating? Are the same markers that lead to worldly success the factors that guarantee failure? Does the greatest acclaim herald the sorriest, loneliest fall?
Iris Chang had everything. She was so on top of her world that even her friends occasionally felt the sting of bitter envy. She piled accomplishment on accomplishment. There was nothing, it seemed, at which she could not prevail. So why did she put a gun in her mouth and shoot herself at age 36, at a period that some would have regarded as the pinnacle of her achievements? Bestselling author, well-regarded journalistic historian, a virtual heroine to her readers for her bold stance on historical events, beautiful, a good mother and devoted wife. What happened to Iris?
Her friend and confidante Paula Kamen (author of All in My Head) took time out of her own challenging life to retrace the steps that led Iris from success to suicide. Her book, like Iris's life, is sometimes chaotic, sometimes focused. It is always driven. Driven to uncover "the mysteries of one person's powerful inner life, an inner life strong enough to create an explosive work of history, and also to unleash the most unforgiving type of fury and violence upon one's self."
While in college, Chang, daughter of college professor Chinese immigrants to New Jersey, not only swept the academic table but won a place as a
homecoming princess, not a usual crown for someone so intellectually gifted to pursue. Upon finishing her Master's degree in writing at Johns Hopkins, she nailed down journalistic positions with the AP and the
Chicago Tribune. She married an doting white American and had a son whom she reputedly adored.
Her first book was The Thread of the Silkworm, the account of a Chinese dissident caught up in the Cold War Red Scare. Next she turned her accurate and undeniably vengeful sites on the Japanese, composing a scathing and horrific account of that country's treatment of the Chinese during the Second Sino-Japanese War, titled The Rape of Nanking. The book was rooted in experiences that Iris heard about from her own family. When the book rose to bestseller status, Chang siezed the opportinuties wrought by her new fame and skill as a speaker to try to wrest a formal apology from the Japanese government. The Japanese retaliated on a subtle level, questioning the soundness of her research and ensuring that the book was anything but a bestseller in Japan. However, Chang was duly lionized by her constituents, both American social activists and Chinese Americans looking for vindication. Chang apparently enjoyed her place on the hot seat, as her next opus, never completed, was to center on the Bataan Death March, another example of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against Allied soldiers in World War II. Iris's friends heard from her, in long voluble phone calls, describing the mental strain of interviewing for the book. She had a journalist's zeal but a human reluctance to give voice to the obscenely brutal tactics of even ordinary Japanese soldiers dealing with the enemy. The book was to be based on interviews with survivors, men who were old, traumatized, and morally flattened by what they had experienced, and yet desperate to have a listener, to get their stories finally told before they died. Considering the morbid material she was dealing with and
the increasingly rigid schedule she had undertaken to promote her previous book, the depressions that Iris began to suffer were therefore hardly surprising.
Linked to the depressive episodes was a growing mania manifested as extreme paranoia, convincing many of Chang's friends that her death was a reprisal by the Japanese or even the American government who had long kept accounts of the Bataan march classified. Iris hinted darkly that she might be "targeted." No one knew the complete picture, the picture that Kamen painstakingly pieces together, that reveals Chang as increasingly mentally ill. In her birth culture, that of the Chinese American community, mental illness is generally unacknowledged and never spoken about. Someone who strove so hard to be perfect could not admit her own flaws, and in the absence of professional help, Iris Chang fell into a world of madness in which she no longer understood what was real and what was imagined. Kamen is forced to conclude that Chang's manner of dying was not a sudden impulse but the result of a lengthy descent into the maelstrom. She expresses the hope that there may be some redemption in it, as others view her example and seek help.