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In The Woman Who Could Not Forget, Ying-Ying Chang paints an intimate portrait of her daughter, Iris Chang: an intense, passionate young historian who changed the world’s view of World War II with her exposure of war crimes committed by the Japanese in Nanjing. As an exceptional writer whose life was cut short by depression and suicide at age 36, Iris Chang and her legacy continue to inspire many others who also fight for justice and human rights.
When viewing photos of Iris Chang as an author – her piercing gaze, sweeping black hair and tall, slender frame — one is often struck by the phrase “larger than life.” Born to Harvard-educated parents, Iris was a talented journalist who wrote for prestigious publications such as the The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and Newsweek while still in college, and received worldwide attention with her scorching bestseller, The Rape of Nanjing.
In her biography, Ying-Ying brings the mythical young historian back down-to- earth. In simple, tender prose, she describes her daughter, in turns, as a bright-eyed, imaginative and small child performing magic tricks with her younger brother; then as an insecure teen with braces and bottle-lens glasses; and further, as a struggling young writer delivering pizza (albeit briefly) to make ends meet while cultivating her budding career. Although highly ambitious and competitive from an early age, Iris is described as a gentle-hearted woman who used her skills to fight injustice and alleviate peoples’ suffering. Ying-Ying Chang, who spoke to me over the phone from her phone in San Francisco, was just back after a book tour across the US and Canada.
“I was only doing a fraction of her (Iris’) book tour,” said Ying-Ying Chang, “but still, it was exhausting,” she said. Ying-Ying, now 70 years old, is a former research Associate Professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois; she explains to me how she was compelled to write the book in order to give people a picture of Iris’ life.
“There were so many good memories when I was writing the first 18 or maybe 16 chapters of the book,” Ying-Ying said. “I felt very happy thinking of good memories with Iris.”
In The Woman Who Could Not Forget, Ying-Ying chronicles Iris’ life from her birth and childhood through her career as a writer and researcher. Described as “shy” and “reserved” in public, Iris is remembered as a talkative, opinionated girl who frequently “dominated the entire conversation” during family discussions. Her early inclinations as a writer could be seen in her early poems and fictional stories about “The Mouse Family,” and the supportive and nurturing familial relationships. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of this book is the voluminous correspondence between Iris and her parents. While many college students have to be goaded to even pick up the phone and call their parents, Iris was an avid letter-writer who wrote her parents about everything. Her strong attachment with them is evident in the correspondence, which chronicles everything from her studies to personal reflections on current events such as the O.J. Simpson trial and the blind anti-Arab sentiments in the U.S. after 9/11.
“(Iris) told me everything. This was established when she was very little,” says Ying-Ying. “I didn’t know what to do with boxes of boxes of my letters when I moved to the Bay area. Iris had told me, ‘Don’t throw them away, they are the link to the past.’ So, I kept all the letters and emails including those from Iris.” In addition to letters, Iris would call her parents frequently in order to update them about the events in her life.
“My husband (Shau-Jin) was too busy and didn’t have time to listen, so sometimes he politely hung up the phone,” Ying-Ying recalls with a light laugh. “Sometimes, she described the things in such details, such as the colour of a person’s hair, etc., so I told her to summarize.”
Iris’ observational skills, it seems, may have been hereditary: according to Ying-Ying, her original manuscript for The Woman Who Could Not Forget was 250,000 words, but had to be pared down to 140,000 due to excessive details.
It was quite fortunate that Ying-Ying preserved Iris’ private correspondence, as advised; through the multiple emails and letters sent from Iris to her parents, a vivid portrait of the young writer emerges. Interestingly, in
one of Iris’ letters from 1992, she writes that “the best way to control history” is to “be a compulsive letter writer.” Indeed, her letters reflect a caring daughter and ambitious historian who was committed to telling the stories of those who suffered during World War II.
“Every night, I transcribe two or three of my tapes, and it is a thrill to see the stories come to life on the page,” she wrote in one letter, while another expresses the compassion she felt for the victims of Japanese soldiers during their siege of Nanjing.
“As I placed one brittle, yellowing letter after another on the Xerox machine, I caught glimpses of sentences about men being machine-gunned by the thousands, women and small girls raped by bayonets, broken bottles or golf clubs. If just reading about the violence made me feel physically ill, try to imagine he effect it had on the missionaries, who witnessed it first-hand…”
If writing about her daughter’s success as a historian came effortlessly for Ying-Ying, tackling the subject of her daughter’s suicide at the prime of her career proved to be a grueling experience.
The last two chapters…it was like a nightmare revisited when people asked (about the suicide),” she said. “I don’t want to talk about it. I told them please go to read my book. It was very hard for me to write those last two chapters.”
At the time of Iris’ death, theories swirled around why she chose to end her life: she had been under enormous pressure, struggling with her young son’s autism, and having received threats from zealous Japanese nationalists wanting to silence her from speaking further about the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Nanjing. Some people even suggested that Iris’ handling of such dark, disturbing subject material was the cause of her suicide. Ying-Ying, however, firmly believes that her daughter’s research into the war didn’t play a role in her death.
“I think Iris never regretted writing The Rape of Nanking,” she said in a firm tone. “It’s an important book; it let the world know what happened. A lot of media asked, ‘Did this book contribute to her depression?’ I said no. My husband and I discussed this a lot, and we really didn’t think this was the cause of her suicide.”
She writes in her book how the suicide was out of character for Iris, who often expressed that she couldn’t fathom why anyone could resort to suicide. In her mother’s view, the suicide was mainly caused by the medications she took– Risperdal, Ablify among them– prescribed by doctors after her brief lapse into depression.
“I’m not a psychiatrist,” she says. “I don’t know what is the best and the proper treatment for mental patients. I believe each psychiatrist may have different approach.” The topic of mental illness was new for the Chang family at the time, and they weren’t aware of the dangerous potential side effects of those drugs. “No one in our family ever saw a psychiatrist and we never took psychiatric drugs.”“The time from Iris’ breakdown to her suicide was incredibly short, less than three months, and coincided exactly with the time she started taking psychiatric drugs,” she writes in the epilogue of her book. Ying-Ying believes that her daughter’s sensitivity to drugs – coupled with her physical exhaustion from relentless hours of research – contributed to her mental instability during the final month of her life. Still, Ying-Ying doesn’t lay blame on the psychiatrists who put Iris on medication.
In writing the book, Ying-Ying says that she hopes to show the world that Iris lived a “happy life,” brief but nevertheless brilliant. As China and Japan continue a tense and conflicted relationship over the war, Ying-Ying
emphasizes that Iris’ work was never motivated by nationalist sentiments, but out of a deep concern for human rights.
“Iris thought that any people, any kind of race, under certain circumstances, could commit such atrocity as The Rape of Nanking,” Ying-Ying says. “She wanted to warn the world. She spoke for historical truth and social justice.”