There has always been a strange duality in society's reactions to the erratic (or outright self-destructive) suffering of artists, activists, truth-tellers, and cultural creatives. For the likes of Richard Pryor, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Hunter S. Thompson, or Spalding Gray, there is almost an expectation that to be good at what you do, you have to be a bit twisted, strange, maybe even bent on personal implosion.
Yet the accompanying 'celebration' of the obvious struggles of talented human beings is particularly troubling when we consider that their behaviors are rarely treated with the care and concern that they warrant. If anything, people who suffer from mental anguish tend to avoid disclosing their struggles out of shame or fear of ostracism.
Those who dare to push out of the oppressive limitations of our creative, social, or political status quo - and thereby challenge the rest of us to do the same - are usually capable of doing far more damage to themselves than anyone else ever could. Some of them do so unintentionally while reaching for altered states of consciousness from which they never return. Still others die, quite intentionally, by their own hand.
Such was the case with the dedicated and talented journalist Iris Chang, who killed herself with a gun in 2004 at the age of 36. A tireless, methodical writer who believed in nothing less than full immersion in her work, Chang's subject matter was as varied as her temperament. No issue resonated with her as deeply as the brutal atrocities committed by the Japanese military government against pre-Communist China during World War II. Chang's book about the subject, The Rape of Nanking, was published in 1997 to international acclaim. Chang's writing was filled with her outrage at the inconceivably horrific stories of Japanese soldiers grinning while holding up decapitated heads, slicing up children's bodies before throwing them into the Yangtze River, and photographing Chinese women in obscene poses of sexual humiliation and suffering before killing them. Chang's work was phenomenal, as was her determined persona; to her friends and acquaintances, she was the epitome of a journalist who had everything together.
The complexity of Chang's psychology as it formed around the demands of her profession, her personal struggles, her culture, and her fiercely determined personality is the subject of Chicago-based journalist Paula Kamen's latest book, Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind (Da Capo Press, 2007). A friend and colleague of Chang's for nearly two decades, Kamen's journey to understand what really happened to her friend is a fascinating - and disturbing - look at this woman's mind, life, and death.
Do you think Iris would have wanted you to write this book?
That's a good question, probably at the root of some of my most serious doubts in the beginning about writing the book. She did tell me in her last phone conversation in November of 2004 that she wanted me "in case something would happen to me" to tell people what she was like before she was mentally ill, how sharp and vibrant and heroic she was. The book does that. But she didn't tell me to write about the mental illness. A problem is that I really can't write about one without the other as a serious journalist. If I whitewashed her life, it wouldn't be of interest to people anyway. Also, I'd be perpetuating the destructive myth of her, the activist, as superhuman. I think that it's OK to portray her as human. I'm also exposing the thing that claimed her life, the mental illness combined with hormonal disruptions with pregnancy, and in a way, bringing that killer to justice.
Social workers, psychologists, and frontline mental health professionals often talk of needing intermittent - even scheduled - breaks from the work that they do. It's widely recognized that the pressure of being regularly exposed to other people's suffering can take a very heavy emotional toll. Should journalists, or activists for that matter, think about doing the same? Journalists are eons behind other professions in this awareness and consciousness of the need for rest and reflection. We still are ruled by the macho ethos of swallowing feelings and not appearing "weak." But things are slowly changing. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, in Seattle, didn't exist 10 years ago; it's an actual institution devoted to creating dialogue and research into journalism and trauma. The women's movement has raised awareness about trauma as a result of violence. More women in the newsroom has chipped away a bit at some of the macho culture. But it might take a lawsuit from a journalist to really make change on a greater level.
Was toughness the kind of thing that Iris also thought was necessary in order to write the kinds of stories that she did?
Ironically, she always talked about the need for breaks and balance, but when referring to other journalists. We talked a lot about my chronic pain, and she always commiserated with stories of other journalists who had also pushed themselves too far. I just don't think she thought it applied to her, that she was somehow different, that everything for her was a matter of force of will, which had always worked for her in the past. I even started to see her as a machine myself, as an exception to the rules of nature.
Would you trust a reporter who didn't have a sense of empathy - and even a sense of fury or outrage - about the societal issues that they write about?
Yes, to write on social justice, one must have a certain degree of sensitivity - and passion and empathy - to even be motivated in the first place. But then if the person is too sensitive, of course, he or she can get bogged down by the darkness of their subject matter and overwhelmed. It's always a balancing act to interview with few emotional filters to absorb the material, but have some filters for protection. After writing about Iris, I can actually appreciate some of my colleagues in the newspaper business who use dark humor to cope, such as calling the obits we wrote the "stiffs" page. Iris never joked about any of her material.
An asset - and a problem - with Iris was that she really felt the injustice of what she was writing about, from the unrecognized victims of the Nanking Massacre to the Bataan Death March vets she interviewed in her last few years. Many others have known, of course, about these atrocities, but her inner passion helped drive her to actually do something about it, and face daunting opposition. But a problem is that because she did have too few filters, a result of her inherited mood disorder, she didn't know when to stop.
The writer or activist for social justice needs to take some basic steps to last over the long term. One can always get away with about anything over the short term, but to go on for an entire career, you have to recognize the potential toxic effects of one's toxic material. I quote an article about Iris that compared writing about toxic subjects to hauling toxic industrial waste. It's just common procedure for one working with toxic waste to take precautions, to wear certain protective gloves, for example.
[People should also] face their own stigmas about mental illness, to recognize how common it is and how many, many people cope with it. If you are prone to it, you have to learn to see it as something to recognize, not deny. Or else, like Iris, it can do its greatest harm when untreated.
Did you have fears about delving into this book in terms of your own sanity? Since a theme of the book was journalists dealing with difficult material, I thought that it was relevant to write about my own personal experiences dealing with Iris' suicide as a writer. To show readers how I was coping, I openly expressed my main fear of writing this book: that I would also be plunged into the despair and continuous morbid thoughts that plagued Iris. When one writes a book, as you know, you become totally immersed in your topic. I was going into the dark places that sent Iris - who seemed so totally together in her life, so much more than me - over the edge, and [I] worried it might do the same for me.
While it was difficult, it was a positive experience in the end. Before, I just assumed that dark topics drove her over the edge, and that she just went insane overnight. I know now that they exacerbated the problem, but the bipolar disorder was at the root. Now I know how to recognize its development over a long period of time.
What didn't you previously understand about how culture and gender seem to have brought about Iris' reticence to talk about her mental struggles?
I didn't realize the extent of the stigma against mental illness in the Asian community. It's true that it's stigmatized in all communities, but this one is particularly severe. I didn't realize how much more communal their society is, how everyone is considered not to be as much of an autonomous individual, but a part of their family unit, with no separation. So what they do completely reflects on the social worth of the entire family as well. That creates a much bigger burden against recognizing and treating it, because you're not just stigmatizing yourself, it's your entire family.
I also didn't realize how the manic part of bipolar disorder can look very different in people of Asian descent. As Dr. Aruna Jha, a scholar in this area explained to me, Asians have a much more narrow range of "acceptable" behavior, even when bipolar. So a white person can see an Asian like Iris who looks "excited" and not see "raging mania," which we may associate with more flamboyant and extreme behaviors of promiscuity, wild shopping, gambling, car accidents, etc. I had always pictured "sex and shopping" as the hallmarks of bipolar disorder, especially for women, and since she wasn't going off the deep end in those areas, missed the bipolar part.
What kinds of things might you recommend that a politically and socially engaged progressive person do if they start feeling a sense of desperation about the things that they care about? Particularly knowing that things are not necessarily getting better for people or for the environment? The person has to realize that if they don't make self care the number one priority, then their work will be meaningless in the long-term. See the productiveness of time spent away from one's work as a time to reflect and recharge.
One of Iris' most powerful beliefs was the power of one person to make a difference. And that's true. But there's often a limit, too, of what one person can do. You need to both feel empowered, but then some humility as an utter human. Recognize the inherent resistance one is up against while trying to make social change. When Iris exposed the grisly murders at Nanking, she faced a wall of silence and denial, a systematic cover-up that is typical of genocide. She was devastated at the idea of not reaching her personal goal of having the Japanese apologize in writing to the victims. But she still did an amazing amount of work to mobilize activists to raise awareness of such atrocities.
Real Change advisory board member Silja J.A. Talvi is the author of the newly published book, Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press, 2007).
[Reading] Paula Kamen will be in Seattle to discuss her book on Mon., Oct. 22. Location: Beacon Hill branch of Seattle Public Library Map from 7-8 p.m.