UI researcher shares her insights into the life and death of her daughter, best-selling author Iris Chang
URBANA — Urbana author Iris Chang's life burned brightly, with enormous success for her book "The Rape of Nanking," a happy marriage, a beloved baby. She was a natural beauty who succeeded at everything she tried.
Her life also had its lows.
Research on the Japanese destruction of a Chinese city in 1937, and later on veterans of the Bataan Death March, was wearing on her. The big-budget movie version of "Rape of Nanking" never materialized.
With the insight perhaps only a mother could have, she began to wonder if her son Christopher, then 2, was showing signs of autism.
When, at 36, Chang shot herself in 2004 on an empty stretch of road, armchair psychologists, in several newspaper and magazine articles, argued that the writer's highs and lows were due to bipolar disease.
Her mother, Ying-Ying Chang, a longtime University of Illinois researcher, disagrees with that assessment. She has written "The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond The Rape of Nanking," to help herself and others understand what happened in the high-achieving life of a young writer.
Besides Iris Chang's mother, others have noted the heavy emotional toll of looking deeply into the heart of darkness.
Just before he died, UI journalism Professor Bob Reid told The News-Gazette in 2004 that Iris Chang had a deep empathy for the suffering.
"When she was going through 'The Rape of Nanking,' she called me, and ended up crying for an hour on the phone. She said she didn't know how she could go on, knowing that human nature was capable of such cruelty. It took more than an hour, but she worked herself through it," Reid said.
"She really got involved, really cared about the human beings she was writing about. That's a very dangerous thing," Reid added.
Ying-Ying Chang argues that her daughter was stable and confident throughout most of her life, and only succumbed to stress in 2004 because of a fatal combination of stresses and of psychiatric drugs — drugs, she says, that were tested on Caucasian men, not Asian women.
Others have also said there was no sign of mental illness in the young author.
Her editor and agent, Susan Rabiner, talked to her by phone hours before Chang killed herself.
"Did it all take a toll? You just don't know. In all my years she never appeared depressed before," Rabiner told The News-Gazette.
A Harvard-educated researcher who worked for 33 years at the University of Illinois, Professor Chang said she saw her daughter slip away in the last three months of her life while she took care of her.
"It was the family members who were ignorant about the toxicity and the serious side effects of anti-psychotic and antidepressant drugs — our trust in her doctors and our hope that she would become better by taking those medications turned out to have been counterproductive," Ying-Ying Chang writes in the new book.
Ying-Ying Chang said recently, "in the Asian population, the threshold for therapeutic or adverse effect is lower than in Caucasian."
In a 2002 National Institutes of Health article, "Prescribing medication for Asians with mental disorders," Jian-Ping Chen and his co-authors argue there is a measurable distinction in how ethnic groups adjust to psychotropic medications.
"Reasons why many Asians develop side effects at lower doses compared to other ethnic groups remain unclear, but may involve biologic mechanisms (e.g., Asians metabolize drugs in the (enzyme) system more slowly than other ethnic groups and they have a lower body weight) or environmental factors (e.g., diet or patient expectation of side effects)."
Ying-Ying Chang acknowledges that her daughter's situation just before her death was putting her under pressure.
In a conversation with The News-Gazette, Chang said that her daughter was indeed feeling stress from jetting around the nation to interview Bataan survivors — that book was never completed — and from worries about her son.
The family had never owned a gun, she said. But after taking drugs whose side-effects list thoughts of suicide, the writer carefully planned a suicide and purchased an antique pistol.
Iris Chang loved life, her mother said: "I want people to know Iris, not just her suicide. I want them to remember how she lived, not how she died."
Her mother said even the choice of a pistol was a clue.
"Usually when women commit suicide, they don't use guns — men do. When you put a woman on antidepressants, she can become very violent" as a side-effect, she claimed.
"A gun is usually more common with men than women," Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup said. Centers for Disease Control statistics put the gun rate at 56 percent of male suicides, versus 32 percent for women.
Though Iris Chang often dealt with death in her research, the writer and historian had a strong sense of immortality.
"Words are eternal," she told her mother. She said she wanted to write about Nanking and Bataan to keep the survivors alive in memory.
"People die twice — once as mortals, and once in memory. I weep when stories are lost," she told her mother.
She was the only daughter of Shau-Jin and Ying-Ying Chang, and was born in Princeton, N.J.
Growing up in Urbana, Iris was shy and spent a lot of time at the Urbana Free Library, taking out stacks of books, her mother says.
While attending University Laboratory High School, she became a regular at Acres of Books, a Green Street used-book store that has since closed.
Her mother says she blossomed at the University of Illinois. Besides a wider social life, she wrote articles for The New York Times. By the time she graduated in journalism in 1989, she'd secured a job at the Chicago Tribune.
Along the way, she married Brett Douglas, whom she had met in college, and had one son, Christopher, who was 2 years old at the time of her death. They lived in San Jose, Calif.
After a short but promising newspaper career, she moved on to books. Her first, "Thread of the Silkworm," about a Chinese scientist, was well-received, but no best-seller.
Her next, 1997's "The Rape of Nanking," was.
Based in part on stories her family had told her about the massacre of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops, the book was on The New York Times' best-seller list for 10 weeks and sold more than 125,000 copies in four months.
The book also took some criticism from professional historians, who argued that some of it was inaccurate, and that Japanese soldiers were portrayed as part of a military tradition that Chang did not fully understand.
Her next book was "The Chinese in America," which sold well.
But the fourth, the Bataan Death March book, was not Chang's own idea, her mother says.
"The veterans, who were in their 80s and 90s, begged her to write it," her mother says, after they had read her Nanking history.
That led to a stressful series of trips across the United States where Chang interviewed the aging veterans. While in Kentucky, she was hospitalized for mental issues.
Upon her return to San Jose, her mother took care of her.
"She wasn't sleeping or eating too much. She didn't want to take the medications, and sometimes when you go off them, things get worse. They told her to take more," she said
The question of her death came up in an earlier book about her daughter written by a college friend, fellow UI journalism student Paula Kamen, although the author does not mention Kamen in the book.
However, Mrs. Chang said in the interview, "Paula Kamen ... did a wonderful job about Iris' inspiration to her."
But she doesn't care for having her daughter described as someone with a "devastating, long-term mental illness."
Kamen's book, "Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition and the Loss of An Extraordinary Mind," seeks to "clear up rampant misunderstandings about the bipolar disorder, combined with hormonal events, that likely claimed her life. It also explores how journalists can survive in the long-term covering dark topics, without being harmed by the toxic effects of their subjects," according to Kamen's website.
It won the 2008 American Authors Association Golden Quill Award for biography.
Because of her lengthy discussions with academic drug researchers about the sometimes-toxic nature of psychiatric drugs, Ying-Ying contests Kamen's description of her daughter as bipolar.
Kamen stands behind her original reporting.
"I have great sympathy for all that Ying-Ying went through with the tragic death of her daughter, and I know she did her best to support Iris at all points of her life," she wrote in an email.
"I largely based my reporting of Iris' final months on what her husband Brett had closely observed, as documented in my book. I also traced Iris' symptoms of mental illness based on other observations to as far back as the late 1990s."
Ying-Ying Chang contests the notion that Iris had become uncommunicative as early as 1999.
In 1999, "she had a deadline for her book ('The Chinese In America') and was working so hard that she didn't have time for telephone calls from friends," she said.
Kamen said she did not have a chance to interview the mother.
"I would have loved to have gotten Ying-Ying's observations as an interview subject in my book, but she had declined that chance," Kamen wrote in an email.
"By all accounts, Iris started taking medication very late in her life, and in very small doses, after she had already exhibited clear signs of extreme paranoia and psychosis. As I observed, the problem was not too much medical treatment, but too little treatment at too late of a stage — of a very serious disease, with no moral dimension."
Ying-Ying Chang said she wants to remember her daughter as someone who made full use of every day of her life.
"I shall write the book as if I only had one year to live. Write as if I am under a death sentence," Iris Chang wrote to her mother in 1999.
(This story appeared in print on Oct. 15.)