Iris Chang shot to fame with the release of her 1997 best-selling book, The Rape of Nanking. As a writer, Chang was deeply committed to shedding light on injustices. The child of immigrants, Iris had grown up hearing stories about the crimes committed by the Japanese in China during World War II. One particular atrocity that her grandparents narrowly escaped from was the widespread rape, torture, and murder of about 300,000 innocent Chinese civilians in Nanking in December 1937. Prior to the release of The Rape of Nanking, few people had heard about the “forgotten genocide;” the Japanese government had successfully managed to sweep everything under the rug.
After the book’s release, Iris became a passionate spokesperson on behalf of the survivors of that massacre. She was successful and well-respected by her professional peers, even having the chance to meet President and Mrs. Clinton. Her mind was buzzing with ideas for prospective book projects. Yet in 2004, at the age of 36, Iris shocked everyone by committing suicide.
The Woman Who Could Not Forget is Ying-Ying Chang’s memoir about her daughter’s short life. The daughter of two Harvard-educated scientists who worked at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Iris was always surrounded by intelligent people, especially those in the science community. To their credit, Iris’s parents were always supportive of her; if she got bad grades, they just wanted her to do her best. When it became apparent that Iris’s strengths–and passions–were in writing rather than science or math, her parents supported her decision to major in journalism. Ultimately, Iris was the one who pushed herself the hardest, striving to excel at everything she did.
Trying to secure funding and doing research for The Rape of Nanking took its toll on Iris; she was a competitive perfectionist who often pushed herself to the point of exhaustion. It isn’t uncommon for people doing extensive research on a traumatic subject to experience mild forms of depression or PTSD, and Iris was no exception. Still, she took great pride in her work and was determined to shed light on the subject. Once the book was published, she promoted it relentlessly. By the time that whirlwind was over, she was already making plans for her next book. She was always juggling multiple projects.
How Iris’s life unraveled so quickly, we’ll never know for certain. While conducting interviews for her fourth book, about WWII American POWs, Iris had a nervous breakdown in her hotel room. Her parents rushed to be with her and brought her home when she was well enough to fly, but her struggles with depression quickly intensified. Her family was at a complete loss and struggled to comprehend how this once-happy, motivated, energetic woman could deteriorate so suddenly.
On top of being Iris’s mother, Ying-Ying was also her best friend and confidante. She was able to comb through personal letters and emails to piece together, plus provide her own insight as to how and why her daughter went downhill so quickly; she blames their inexperience with finding proper mental health professionals, as well as the dangerous mix of medications that was prescribed to Iris.
It was heartbreaking to read this grieving mother’s words. Yet for all of her sadness, Ying-Ying Chang managed to write a beautiful celebration of her daughter’s short, accomplished life. Iris Chang was able to produce major contributions to Chinese and Chinese American history, and it is because of her that so many people know about the forgotten genocide of World War II. I can hardly think of a more fitting tribute than this book, which assures Iris’s place in women’s history.
The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking was published by Pegasus Books on May 15, 2011.