Ms. Ying-Ying Chang has written a book (The Woman Who Could Not Forget) about her daughter and gifted author, the late Iris Chang, and about their mother-daughter relationship. Iris was at the top of her game as an amazing writer of history and non-fiction when she shocked the world by taking her own life. Many speculated about the cause of her death. Her mother was driven to write this book to set the record straight and preserve the memory of her daughter.
I got to know Iris when she became a member of The Committee of 100 after the publication of her worldwide bestseller, The Rape of Nanking. I found her to be passionate about the subjects she wrote about and highly intelligent in how she saw the world. As her mother described in her book, Iris was outraged by injustices in any form and was particularly sensitive to the rights and equality of women.
I was among the minority that did not read her book on the Rape of Nanking. In my case, I simply could not bear the thought of again reading the graphic descriptions of Japanese atrocities already known to me and becoming enraged once again by Japan’s refusal to apologize for the crimes against humanity that they committed in WWII. From Ying-Ying’s book, I came to appreciate that Iris identified herself with the heroic action of Minnie Vautrin in protecting the lives of Chinese civilians--eventually at the cost of her own life. I had read about Minnie Vautrin before I met Iris.
When Iris decided to write the history of Chinese immigrants in America, I was delighted. It was a subject dear to my heart whose scope and complexity needed someone of Iris’ skills and dedication to do it justice. When the book came out, I read it promptly and wrote a review on my own volition. Iris contacted me and asked for permission to use a portion of my review as part of the blurb on the cover of the paperback edition. Naturally, I was flattered that she thought enough to want to include it.
I also organized a book signing for Iris at Ming’s, a restaurant in Palo Alto. Many came to hear her and talk to her. I recalled a set of parents originally from China that brought their young daughter and had photos taken of their daughter beaming with pride standing next to Iris. At the time, I remember thinking to myself that although Iris said all the right things and was gracious toward her audience, she seemed a little stiff and awkward. Upon reading Ying-Ying’s book, I now understand that Iris had suffered the stresses of a frenetic book tour and was beginning to experience the strains of her illness.
The news of her suicide surprised and shocked us all and was beyond any comprehension. I got to know Iris’ parents after her death as a member of the team working to preserve her memory by staging a worldwide annual essay contests on war crimes and atrocities. During the three years that the essay contest was held, Ying-Ying spoke about her resentment of a series of specious speculations on the cause of Iris’ death. She eventually took time off to write a book that revealed the intimate details of a strong bond between a loving daughter and a devoted mother.
Ying-Ying made a strong case that lack of sleep and nutrition led to Iris’ initial mental illness. Improper psychiatric diagnosis led to prescriptions of antipsychotic medications that not only did not help her but the side effects actually pushed her into the abyss. Mental illness is considered shameful and difficult in the Chinese culture to admit and owned up to. It took a lot of mother’s love and courage to want to address Iris’ illness and document her tragic end as a warning for the benefit others.
If you want to understand how Iris became a hugely successful writer, read this book. If you want to learn about the uncertainties of current state of psychiatric medicine and the perils of antipsychotic treatment, you need to read this book. If you believe that successful daughters need not spring from Tiger Moms but from warm, loving and supportive parents, this is a book for you and an effective antidote to rampant Amy Chua-ism.