Iris Chang - A Writer We Should Not Forget

In her accented English, Dr. Chang came across as a spirited intellectual who has a deep loving bond with her beloved daughter and who was trying, through writing the book, to make public the private life of Iris Chang, highlighting a very special mother-daughter relationship, in order to dispel any rumors meant to tarnish Iris’s reputation and authoritative voice in The Rape of Nanking. Though her tone was unemotional, one could feel her sincerity as a proud crusader of her daughter’s aims and ideals in life. She seemed resigned to the fact that her daughter’s suicide had something to do with the medication she received in treatment of her depression shortly before her tragic death.

I have never read The Rape of Nanking and I don’t intend to. The reason is that I don’t want to let the beastly images of unspeakable heinousness be imprinted on my memory. Nonetheless, I did stay on after Dr. Chang’s talk was finished to watch the DVD documentary that records the events leading up to Iris Chang’s penning of the best-selling book. After seeing that film, I begin to be able to sense the anguish and agony that the young writer had to go through when she was unraveling the cruel truth through her focused research work. I cannot but suspect that the Nanking victims’ horrid sufferings that she was vicariously experiencing had a deeply embedded link to her mental breakdown several years later while she was researching for her fourth book about prisoners of war in the Philippines. This indescribable experience must have left her soul irreparably wounded despite her masquerade of sanity between the publication of The Rape of Nanking (her second) and the marketing of her third book, which was on a much lighter topic (The Chinese in America).

The bad seeds of mental disorder that had already been planted just needed to take some time to germinate. The subject of her fourth book was in nature not very different from that of her second and might well have been the fertilizer to help the seeds sprout. How was one to know one’s own tolerance limit for second-hand human atrocities, until it was too late?

According to the film, Iris based her book on two pieces of important information that she managed to unearth during research. One was the diary of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who bore witness to the Nanking atrocities and who saved the lives of many women in a girls’ college that she ran. Vautrin subsequently committed suicide while back in the United States as she was constantly haunted by what she had seen in the Nanking massacre. Iris dug this up from the Yale Divinity School library. The other piece of information was the diary of John Rabe, a Nazi Siemens executive who helped to establish a Safety Zone in Nanking to shelter more than 200,000 Chinese people from slaughter. Iris managed to retrieve Rabe’s diary from his granddaughter Ursula Reinhardt. Besides the eye-witness accounts of these two foreigners, Iris based her writing on numerous interviews that she conducted with survivors of the massacre in Nanking, as well as those with Japanese soldiers and journalists who had been on the scene.

She was so traumatized by what she was uncovering that she would sometimes tremble uncontrollably. Asleep, she was having the same nightmare over and over again – in which she was dressed in a white gown and was being chased by Japanese soldiers.

It is tragic that Iris suffered depression and was prevented by her mental state from seeing an alternative to ending her own life. Whether her untimely death was triggered by medication side-effects (as her mother believes), or by the haunting horrors from her research on the Nanking atrocities, or the self-imposed repeat of that nasty experience (as I conjecture), or any other factor at all, there may never be a conclusive answer. Despite all, Iris Chang deserves world-wide recognition as an honorable champion for human decency and justice and her folks have every reason to be proud of her. Her call on the Japanese government to offer an official apology to the Chinese people for perpetrating the Nanking bestiality should be given a follow-through by all Chinese, irrespective of nationality.

Iris once said that she wanted to set herself up as a role model for her son to follow, and that is, as an individual who chooses to belong to the critical minority rather than the unquestioning majority. For her, words are her weapon. In her own words: “Words are the only way to preserve the essence of a soul.” Indeed, through the legacy of The Rape of Nanking, she has preserved the essence of her soul.