November 30, 2004

The Indifference and Denial that Kill

I have been intending to write about Iris Chang's death for several weeks, since she died earlier in November. Chang was best known for The Rape of Nanking, a book which told the story, for the first time in any detail, of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in China during World War II. We will never know what demons finally detroyed Iris Chang. Whatever their particular nature, they finally won the battle they had waged with her, a battle that had probably gone on for many years.

On November ninth, Iris Chang shot herself. She was 36 years old.

I have a theory about what might have been responsible for Chang's suicide, at least in part. The idea has haunted me for the past several weeks. I kept putting it aside, both because I found it too painful to think about -- and because I have too many of my own problems right now. But the theory kept coming back to me, because I think one of the demons that tormented Chang may be the same one that has tormented me for much of the past year.

Some clues are sprinkled through this Salon article about Iris Chang, by a fellow journalist who was Chang's friend for many years. In their last conversation before Chang's death, Iris Chang told Paula Kamen: "I just wanted to let you know that in case something should happen to me, you should always know that you've been a good friend." I think that final conversation makes it very clear that Chang had already decided she would take her own life. She must have concluded she couldn't win the battle that was raging inside her.

At the very end of her article, Kamen writes:
Before we finally hung up, she said one last time: If anything happened to her, I had to let people know what she was like before this happened.

And I said I would.
Kamen has kept her word, in an admirable fashion that I think would have pleased Chang.

The first part of the article tells of the women's experiences in college, and how Kamen "would have liked" Chang more if she hadn't always found herself "eating Iris' dust." Chang was always at least one step ahead of her classmates, and she managed to get published in places that seemed hopelessly out of reach to everyone else. From the summer-magazine internship in New York City available to only one student at their journalism school, to an internship with a Chicago daily newspaper, to becoming a college stringer for The New York Times covering the Urbana-Champaign area (after publishing six of her articles, the Times "told her to stop, so the paper would not raise eyebrows by disproportionately covering Champaign") -- Iris Chang was always there first.

Kamen is very open about the resentment she felt upon always finding herself in Chang's shadow. I'm sure many other people resented Chang as well. Kamen appears to think Chang was unaware of that resentment. I doubt that a woman as sensitive as Chang's work revealed her to be was oblivious to it; perhaps she simply considered it unavoidable, but ultimately unimportant. In any case, Chang actively pursued her friendship with Kamen, and was very encouraging to Kamen about Kamen's own work. Kamen finally realized part of the "Iris Code": "Think big. Almost to the point of being naive."

In later years, Kamen fully embraced the Iris Code:
By that time, I was definitely a firm convert to the Iris Code -- to the point of spreading the gospel. When I occasionally went to universities to speak on my books, and then was a guest at writing classes, I would lecture students to "Iris Chang" it. She had become a verb to me. An action verb.

"Just think big!" I told them. "That's half the battle! What do you have to lose? If someone turns you down, they turn you down, so what? And then you move on. Just get a sense of entitlement, will you? It doesn't matter if you're in the Midwest. Or if you're at a public school. Just decide what you want and go get it. To the point of being naive. Your voice is not your voice. It's the voice of your generation! Just Iris Chang it!" I explained, almost taking on her passionate tone as I spoke.
With regard to my theory about one of the demons that may have tormented Chang, here's the first major clue, in Kamen's description of Chang's best-known work:
In 1997, she published her blockbuster "The Rape of Nanking." Then, I was really impressed.

She had made a major historical discovery: a hidden Nazi diary chronicling the massacres by the Japanese in China in new detail. In China, the WWII atrocities have long been a national nightmare, and they have received attention from historians and academics over the years. But it took Chang's energy, will and engaging writing style to make the massacre come alive to a popular audience in the West. From reading her letters, I knew how hard she had worked on that book. She traveled through China on her own and challenged the U.S. government for long-classified documents. She was genuinely shocked at the atrocities she had exposed, and reacted with a pure, honest rage -- like someone seeing evil for the very first time. She couldn't understand the possibility of knowing about such things and not writing about them. Part of the power of her interviewing was that she had no filters to block out anything that was being said to her; I suspect she didn't even know that people came with filters.
And here's another clue:
The last time I saw Iris was in the spring of 2003, when I went to see her read in Chicago for her third book, a history of the Chinese in America. She was in good spirits, and we had a good time afterward going out for stuffed pizza in a small group and hearing about her latest adventures. I was curious about her next project, and the stories she was gathering for it. I knew they were intense, like those she had covered for "The Rape of Nanking." As a sign of the darkness of the interviews' content, a typist hired to transcribe them cried all the way through the work. The interviews covered the brutal ordeals suffered by U.S. soldiers during the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in World War II. For about four years, their Japanese captors starved and tortured them with unimaginable cruelty. A soldier, for example, would be ordered to bury his friend alive. If that person refused, they would make someone else bury him alive.

In these interviews, the surviving elderly soldiers also complained that the U.S government had turned a blind eye to them. Besides feeling abandoned while they were prisoners, the men were upset that the United States did not adequately prosecute the captured Japanese offenders. Some of the men talked about expecting finally to come home to the U.S. to great fanfare, to see "the rockets' red glare." But no one at home seemed interested in what they had gone through. "'But then, there was no rockets' red glare,'" one subject said, over and over again.

As was the case with many of her other subjects, that interview was probably the first time that soldier had talked about his experiences in the war. A war in which his comrades had sacrificed so dearly, some with their lives, and others, with their sanity. While this material was difficult, I hoped that the book would do the same for the Bataan Death March that "The Rape of Nanking" had done for the atrocities at Nanking, that it would raise a new level of awareness about this largely forgotten chapter of history. Iris represented these men's last hope to get their stories told.
I suspect that, at some point, Chang may have realized she was confronting evil -- not once, but twice. And I think it was the second time that she looked evil in the face that may finally have destroyed her.

Certainly, Chang had a great success with The Rape of Nanking. There was that Nazi diary, and people could focus more easily on the atrocities that had been committed -- because the atrocities had been committed by them, the Japanese whom the U.S. government had completely dehumanized as an entire population during World War II. Not only were the Japanese subhuman for many Americans (at least, throughout the period of World War II), but they were the enemy. It wasn't so difficult to acknowledge the horror of what they had done.

And while the Japanese were the initial villains in the Bataan Death March story, another villain was subsequently introduced into the storyline. After the unimaginable cruelty and torture to which they had been subjected, the soldiers who had managed to survive found that "no one at home seemed interested in what they had gone through. "'But then, there was no rockets' red glare,'" one subject said, over and over again."

"No one at home seemed interested in what they had gone through." That's the key.

I have been writing about this kind of denial at great length, in my series on "The Roots of Horror." In numerous entries, I have described how this mechanism of denial is initially set in early childhood. The young child must first deny his own pain, simply to survive. Acknowledging it, and experiencing it, fully might kill him. I recently discovered just how true that is, by recalling some very early childhood memories. Simply remembering certain things almost killed me over the last two months. I'm still not entirely certain how I survived, and I'm in the process of putting myself back together even now.

So to survive, we deny and repress the full experience of the pain we experience. As we mature, and if we do not surface those feelings -- which also lead to profound rage at the cruelty we suffer at the hands of adults who are supposedly devoted to nurturing us, and who tell us they are only being cruel "for our own good" -- we deny the pain of others in the same way, and for the same reasons. If we acknowledge the immense pain felt by others, that will trigger our own feelings of pain. And those feelings are much too threatening, and they represent a great danger that cannot be allowed to come too close. See my earlier essays for many more details and examples of how these dynamics manifest themselves.

Kamen offers a few more clues about what might have caused this tragedy, in the details of that final phone conversation with Iris Chang. Kamen says: "She talked about her overwhelming fears and anxieties, including being unable to face the magnitude -- and the controversial nature -- of the stories that she had uncovered." Chang believed she suffered from real, physical problems. Her family thought "it's internal" -- as if what happens in our mental and emotional life does not have physical effects, as well. (I add that, even if the ultimate cause is psychological, at certain points genuine physical ailments can arise which may require treatment as well. But adequate and appropriate treatment requires a doctor and/or a psychologist who understands and is sympathetic to all the issues involved, and such professionals are tragically still rare and difficult to find. And simply prescribing pills to make us "feel better" is no solution at all in the long-term, although it may sometimes be necessary to avoid a person taking her own life in the short-term.)

Kamen also writes this telling sentence: "She was fixated on not seeing herself as having anything wrong with her." I suspect the message that there was something "wrong with her" was the message conveyed by her family, who thought all her problems were "internal."

Here is what I wonder about. Chang was researching and writing about the most monstrous cruelties that we can imagine, and we probably can't even imagine -- not even in our worst nightmares -- many of the details the survivors of the Bataan Death March told Chang. And after the unbearable torture they had miraculously managed to survive, they found that, "No one at home seemed interested in what they had gone through." No one wanted to know about the torments they had been forced to endure, and no one wanted to know about the torment they might still experience.

I strongly suspect that Chang suffered some of the same torments herself. Kamen notes that Chang "had no filters to block out anything that was being said to her." Chang was fully open to the pain suffered by the people she wrote about; she acknowledged it completely, and allowed it to become completely real. Most people cannot or will not do that.

But I think Kamen is wrong when she says that she suspects Chang "didn't even know that people came with filters." I think that was what Chang was discovering -- and that discovery may have been the demon that finally destroyed her. Chang may have been unaware of people's "filters" at one time, but I think she felt the full impact of our culture's widespread denial in her final years. Just as the Bataan survivors discovered that no one "seemed interested in what they had gone through," Chang may have found that people still were not interested in it. While people might be willing to acknowledge the horrors in which the enemy engaged, they are not so willing to acknowledge the horrors they themselves perpetrate -- or the horrors that may have been perpetrated by the United States. Many people still refuse to acknowledge that U.S. forces committed atrocities of their own in Vietnam.

And Chang's own family thought her immense feelings of pain and anger -- anger directed both at the Japanese, but also and perhaps more significantly at an American public that still insisted on denial and avoidance -- signified that there was something "wrong with her." What we ourselves refuse to acknowledge, we condemn in others: we insist on making it their problem, when in fact it is our own.

The final catastrophe may have been Chang's growing realization that there was no one who fully understood or felt what she was feeling, that there was no one who was willing to listen when she spoke about the demons that haunted her. Her feelings represented a "problem" that needed to be fixed. The idea that her reaction was completely appropriate -- and more than that, completely healthy -- was intolerable to those around her. And she probably suspected that much of the audience for her new book would engage in the same denial. To acknowledge the full truth of the horror, including all of its sources -- even and especially when one of them is our own culture of denial -- is more than most people are capable of, or willing to undertake.

I do not compare my writing here to Chang's work. She wrote several books; although I have written five or six books' worth of essays, those essays have not been published in book form, at least not yet. I do not reach the kind of audience that Chang did. Yet, particularly in connection with my "Roots of Horror" series, I have many of the feelings that I suspect Chang may have felt. It astonishes me that very, very few people appear to think my writing on this subject is of any importance at all. Almost no one ever mentions that series or any of the entries in it, and almost no one ever discusses it, not even to criticize it. And even though I understand the mechanism of denial involved, and even though I have written about that mechanism at great length, the studied and purposeful avoidance of these dynamics -- when we see them being reenacted yet again, in our entire approach to foreign policy and more specifically in connection with the still unfolding horrors in Iraq -- fills me with unspeakable sadness, and it also makes me feel tremendous anger.

The anger arises directly out of the consequences of this continued denial: many innocent people continue to suffer untold pain and awful, horrific injuries because of what we do. And many people have been killed and continue to die as the result of our policies. Yet many people tell me that my feelings of sadness and rage are my problem, not theirs, not our country's, and not the world's. They tell me that I should write about something else, that I'm wasting my time, and that I'm only engaging in groundless psychological speculation -- even when more and more evidence confirming the truth and reality of these dynamics arrives every day, with numerous news stories.

Despite all the naysayers, I will continue writing about these issues. I do not believe there are any more important issues to be discussed. But I often feel that no one wants to hear about it, and that they would prefer that I simply keep quiet. I suspect that Iris Chang may have had some of those same feelings, when she was repeatedly told that her feelings were her problem and that something was "wrong with her."

As an additional important piece of evidence, recall my entries about the dynamics of suicide. In particular, recall Alice Miller's description of the causes of Sylvia Plath's suicide:
Sylvia Plath's life was no more difficult than that of millions of others. Presumably as a result of her sensitivity, she suffered much more intensely than most people from the frustrations of childhood, but she experienced joy more intensely also. Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person. In all her letters she assures her mother how well she is doing. The suspicion that her mother did not release negative letters for publication overlooks the deep tragedy of Plath's life. This tragedy (and the explanation for her suicide as well) lies in the very fact that she could not have written any other kind of letters, because her mother needed reassurance, or because Sylvia at any rate believed that her mother would not have been able to live without this reassurance. Had Sylvia been able to write aggressive and unhappy letters to her mother, she would not have had to commit suicide. Had her mother been able to experience grief at her inability to comprehend the abyss that was her daughter's life, she never would have published the letters, because the assurances they contained of how well things were going for her daughter would have been too painful to bear.

If a sensitive child like Sylvia Plath intuits that it is essential for her mother to interpret the daughter's pain only as the consequence of a picture being damaged and not as a consequence of the destruction of her daughter's self and its expression--symbolized in the fate of the pastel--the child will do her utmost to hide her authentic feelings from the mother. The letters are testimony of the false self she constructed (whereas her true self is speaking in The Bell Jar). With the publication of the letters, her mother erects an imposing monument to her daughter's false self.

We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child--well behaved and dutiful--of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me.
Also recall Miller's title for her chapter about Plath: "Sylvia Plath: An Example of Forbidden Suffering" (which appears in Miller's book, For Your Own Good).

I have emphasized Miller's key sentence before: "We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself."

Iris Chang may have been yet another victim of the continued, unending denial which permeates our culture, and our world. If I am correct, she finally felt that killing herself was "the only possible way to express [her] true self." No one wanted to hear about what most concerned her and, even if they listened, they did so only with great reluctance, and they didn't fully grasp what she was trying to communicate.

I know those feelings all too well, every single one of them. And thoughts of suicide came uncomfortably close over the last two months. I think I have turned the corner and that the worst is behind me, even though a long struggle still lies ahead of me. I now have to rebuild my life, in almost every area. And if only a handful of people seem to understand what I'm talking about...well, that will have to suffice. I do not intend to give up, or to stop writing about these issues. They are much too important, and I am convinced I have something of significance to say -- even if the world does not care to acknowledge it.

I will offer some more details about what I have learned over the last few months very soon. And I will also write about some of the suicides of soldiers who had served in Iraq, since they reveal many of the identical dynamics. In the meantime, I urge you to read (or perhaps reread) some of the earlier entries in my series on "The Roots of Horror." Most of all, I desperately wish that more people understood and appreciated the underlying causes involved -- and realized at long last that the costs of continued denial can be too terrible to contemplate.

And that denial may have been what finally killed Iris Chang. The world's overwhelming indifference to pain and suffering finally may have been more than she could bear. More of us should keep that possibility in mind. Life is terribly precious, and the fact that Iris Chang's life has ended so tragically, when she still had so much of it before her and when she might have given us so much more wonderful and crucially important work, should cause all of us to wonder why.

And to make it our goal that such tragedies do not continue to be repeated every day, without end. Is facing the truth, fully and without fear, truly more terrifying than death itself? For far too many people, it appears that it is. But if anything could ever be wrong, that surely must be. Someday, it has to stop.