Friday, February 25, 2011

A serious subject

Holly tells me all the time that I know important people. I do not know if there is anything to that, but there are some important people that bounce around me sometimes. It probably is because I am into so many things, but whatever. This is not about me

One of those important people I know was Iris Chang. Probably many of you do not know who she is, but I bet some do. I met her in undergrad; she was in my sorority, and eventually, I ended up living in her room in the house. She was brilliant, beautiful and impressive in every single way. After freshman year, I did not think another thing about her again until I read in the newspaper in 2004 that she had died. It seemed odd to me that her death should be international news, but that was just because I was out of touch.

Unbeknownst to me, Iris had made herself famous. She was a writer, and had written an international bestseller in 1997 called the Rape of Nanking. She had enough mainstream fame that people at work told me all about it. The book is about the Japanese war atrocities in China during WW II. Evidently, it turned the world on its head, because many people had forgotten or never knew the depth of what happened there, and how the US handled it so differently than it did the European issues.

This was a woman scared of nothing Iris became something of an activist, and raised a lot of hell that made people unhappy. She wielded a huge amount of power in the years following the book, some movies were made about it, and she continued working on some other projects. She was the face of demanding an apology and reparations from Japan. There is even a statue of her in China. She told off the Japanese Ambassador on national television. She was happily married and had a son.

And then she killed herself.

It made no sense to me, or evidently anyone else, even those that knew her very well. There were theories that she was murdered by Japanese ultra-nationals. There are whole forums dedication to what happened to her. The strongest theory was that she was mentally destroyed by the horrid events she wrote about. I have been touched by suicide more times than I can count, and even though I did not know her well, I felt like this was one more.

A friend of hers, Paula Kamen, wrote a book after Iris' death called "Finding Iris: Friendship, Ambition and the Loss of an Extraordrinary Mind". I read the book this weekend and it really shook me up. It was so good, I recommend it to everyone.

It was really well written, but I probably would not have read it had I not known Iris. I am so glad I did because it changed how I thought of her, and maybe a lot of other people. Paula included excerpts from letters and emails and conversations she had with Iris over the years, and interviewed a lot of other people who knew her well. It was almost a personal search for her, so she could understand why, how and who Iris really was, could it happen to her? and if she ever knew her as well as she thought she did.

There was so much more to this than it first appeared. Iris evidently had a breakdown while she was working on her new book about the Bataan Death March, and had to be hospitalized. She was ultimately diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. It is possible that her bi-polar was angered by her use of fertility drugs, after suffering miscarriages. That certainly contributed to her situation but so did many other things

Iris came from a family of super-achievers. Her parents came here from China and received Ph.Ds at Harvard. Iris went to Illinois, where her parents worked, then to Johns Hopkins for a masters degree in Science writing, which is what managed to hook her up with a publisher for her first book. She was 23 when she was contracted to write it. The ambition and drive and her ability to back it up was unstoppable. I have always had a theory about really freakily intelligent people, mostly formed as a result of the ones I know--they are not like the rest of us. They have quirks that make them seem different, as if one brain can only hold so much, and if it is full of IQ, there is not room for all the other social norms, etc that other people have. She fits this theory really well, which is kind of how I remembered her myself.

The book Paula wrote delves into the cultural issues as well. There is a lot of stress that comes with being part of the "super minority", and living up to the stereotypes that come along with it. (on a side note, an Asian attorney I know told me recently that she got a letter from an angry client telling her how disappointed he was in her representation of him, because he thought "her people" were better than that. Hysterical huh?) Chinese people do not discuss mental illness in their lives--it is something they hide and are ashamed of, although suicide by Chinese women is not stigmatized evidently. Medications for those who admit there is a problem and seek treatment is also difficult because they require different dosages than the rest of the population. Generally though, treatment is not sought because of the stigma.

So was it a perfect storm of circumstances? a combination of all of those things? No one will ever know. Paula's book though did show that this was not as big a surprise as everyone initially thought. Her research shows that Iris planned this and carried it out just like everything she did--with precision and drive. Looking back, there was a clear path to it. Quirks that people wrote off as typical writer behavior were manic episodes, such as working through the night, and not sleeping, and the work ethic. Coming from a Chinese woman, her behavior was even more radical because the window of accepted behavior in that culture is so narrow. Yet it went on for years, and no one noticed. Her husband called it "Attention Surplus Disorder" as she could focus on something so intently, she missed everything else around her.

I guess it is not strange that it is so hard to understand because I come from such a different place than she did. But certainly it makes me think twice about believing what you see--I thought she had it all, and she did, but she also had a lot of difficult things in her world. Things are not what they seem a lot of the time.

I emailed Paula Kamen to tell her how much I appreciated the book, so we have been chatting about it. I so wish that I had the opportunity to do what she did--find out WHY people I know did it. I knew that Iris' mother Ying-Yang has written a book about Iris that is to be released in May this year, and I ordered it, but Paula assured me that there would be no mention of mental illness in it. She is probably right. I look forward to reading it too though as I am starved for information about Iris. The difference between it and Paula's book should be pretty striking

I wonder if sometimes a person can just be so much everything--that they are like a star that burns too hot to last long. I know that sounds corny, but that is how I think of it.

It is not often that I am this struck by something, and I know I am failing at communicating it. I am not as gifted as Iris and Paula in making people feel what I want them to, just by writing it down. But read this book of Paula's. It will open your mind, maybe give you some comfort, make you angry and sad, and you will for sure learn something.


Holly said...

You DO hang with high powered peeps Paige, but there are things here that have surprised me! Like the med dosage and the sigma against mental illness but not suicide? Since I have a whole different mindset that seems like an oxymoron to me.

Anonymous said...

This 'serious subject' is very thought provoking. I imagine Iris 'story' and her culture touch many people who try to understand Chinese customs----meds, stigmas of mental illness, education, values and much more.

To have known her as a classmate, and friend is a gift you have been given ---.

I remember WW 11 and the stories glamorized by Hollywood but surely there was some truth to the messages. Books written during that time include the Good Earth and another one Dragonwyck gives excellent historical truth to the fiction of understanding China and it's people. They still remain a kind of dedicated type of people.

I am blogging (as usual) on your blog but this subject and the authors intrigue me.

It is never to late to learn about life ---everywhere and anywhere.

Thanks for sharing. Carol

Queen-Size funny bone said...

Recently a local high school star committed suicide in our area. The first thing out of everyones mouth was he had so much to live for. As you said looks can be misleading. Obviously we did not knowhim as well as we thought. I'm sorry to hear of Iris's struggle. RIP

Funder said...

A friend of mine from when we were teenagers killed himself in '05. He took my ex's side when I got divorced, so I hadn't even talked to him for five years before that, but I still think about him. It never makes any sense when someone commits suicide. I'm really sorry for your loss. :(

Anonymous said...

Can you describe Iris during that year you knew her? Was she shy or outgoing? Easy to get along with? Intense all the time or light hearted? Thanks

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