[Paleopsych] The Times: One final victim of the Rape of Nanking?

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One final victim of the Rape of Nanking?
    March 17, 2005
    Oliver August
    A young historian's book on the 1937 atrocity unleashed a tide of
    repressed anguish and international recriminations that continue even
    after her suicide

    THOSE who knew Iris Chang used to worry about how she could cope with
    the gloom of her chosen work. But when they visited the house in
    California that she shared with her husband and saw him playing with
    their two-year-old son by the swimming pool in the backyard, they were

    The 36-year-old historian would sip lemonade with her friends at a
    Chinese café called the Tea House and, for a while, the torrent of
    terror that she frequently invited into her life would seem far away.

    Were it not for the crinkled maps of China, the pictures of mass
    graves and the two desperately overstuffed Rolodexes on her desk,
    Chang might have been just another former high school homecoming queen
    from the aptly named Sunnyvale. But she had become one of the foremost
    young historians of her generation after publishing, seven years ago,
    a bestselling account of the Rape of Nanking, one of the worst
    episodes of human cruelty in recent history.

    Her book brought international acclaim and controversy, and many spoke
    of a stellar future. It was not to be. In November she killed herself,
    no longer able to bear the weight of horrors from seven decades ago.

    The Rape of Nanking in 1937 began with the march of invading Japanese
    soldiers up the Yangtse River. They occupied the Chinese capital of
    the time and soon conquest was followed by bloodlust. Soldiers
    slaughtered between 100,000 and 300,000 civilians sheltering in a few
    city blocks. Slowly.

    Over a six-week period, up to 80,000 women were raped. But it wasn't
    so much the sheer numbers as the details that shock - fathers forced
    at gunpoint to rape daughters, stakes driven through vaginas, women
    nailed to trees, tied-up prisoners used for bayonet practice, breasts
    sliced off the living, speed decapitation contests.

    During the war the massacre was well known, but both Tokyo and Beijing
    preferred not to mention it over the four decades that followed.

    Iris Chang was pitched into this maelstrom of history as a child when
    her immigrant parents, who had escaped from wartime China to the US,
    told their daughter how the Japanese "sliced babies not just in half
    but in thirds and fourths". In the introduction to her book she wrote:
    "Throughout my childhood [the massacre] remained buried in the back of
    my mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil."

    When, at 27, she read one of the few accounts of the atrocity still
    circulating in the West, she sensed a mission in life. "I was suddenly
    in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this
    reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of
    history, treated like a harmless glitch in a computer program that
    might or might not again cause a problem, unless someone forced the
    world to remember it."

    Chang soon made her first trip to China and sought out Sun Zhaiwei, a
    history professor in Nanjing, as Nanking is known today. "I provided
    her with an assistant and fixed appointments with some of the
    survivors," he says. Chang was given free lodgings and unlimited
    access to archives on the tree-lined campus near where the Japanese
    breached the old city wall before beginning their slaughter.

    When the book based on her research - The Rape of Nanking: The
    Forgotten Holocaust of World War II - was published two years later,
    it sold more than half a million copies and Chang became an instant
    celebrity in America. Hillary Clinton invited her to the White House
    and Stephen Ambrose, the doyen of US historians, described her as
    "maybe the best young historian we've got".

    She was also widely praised for the emotion and commitment she brought
    to her work. On book tours the slim, ponytailed author spoke with an
    intensity that few listeners expected. Many broke down by her side,
    feeling compelled to recount their own tales of horror even if these
    were unrelated to her subject.

    Orphans, rape victims and Holocaust survivors all wanted to bare their
    souls to her, finally relieving themselves of agonies sometimes
    decades old. They felt encouraged by the passion that she brought to
    the sort of grievances few of them could tackle on their own.

    Chang cried when they cried. She was enraged even when they no longer
    were. It was unthinkable for her just to pass the paper tissues and
    wait until people had composed themselves again. Chang invited
    memories of atrocity and abuse with a seemingly limitless appetite.

    Dan Rosen, who heard Chang at the Holocaust Museum in Washington,
    said: "As with many speaking programmes there, it was 50 per cent
    elderly Jews, many of them war survivors, in the audience. I was
    overwhelmed by the warmth and immediacy with which they embraced and
    applauded Chang. It was an instance of bearing witness, of never
    forgetting, which is holy to the Jewish community. They related to her
    like a daughter, and vice versa."

    But her success had its price. The book became a touchstone of renewed
    rivalry between Japan and China. Both nations had been content to
    allow the massacre to fade into the past, but in the 1990s China found
    itself in the ascendant and a long-suppressed sense of outrage burst
    out. Anti-Japanese museums sprang up across the country. Japanese
    nationalists responded by attacking the book and its author. Death
    threats were issued.

    Nobukatsu Fujioka, a right-wing commentator, campaigned to prevent
    publication of her book in Japan by citing a list of errors. He also
    published a book denouncing Chang as a propagandist funded by
    Japan-haters. The two volumes are still on prominent display in his
    Tokyo office.

    "The pressure on her from Tokyo was unbearable," says Yang Xiaming,
    one of Chang's research assistants in Nanjing. "She was afraid of
    travelling to Japan because she feared for her life."

    But the Japanese attacks were the easy part. With her newfound fame,
    Chang felt compelled to visit Chinese communities around the globe to
    hear more horror stories of Japanese occupation, forced prostitution
    in so-called "comfort houses" and nerve gas experiments on prisoners
    in Manchuria. After these encounters with people who would often
    approach her in tears, she felt utterly drained even hours later.
    Friends said that she was beginning to look frail, and she admitted to
    them that her hair was coming out. The more of others' suffering she
    absorbed, the more her old energy and intensity drained away. Each
    horror story seemed to pull her down a little farther.

    At home in California Chang worked to exhaustion, often until she
    collapsed in her study. When travelling she became forgetful and
    irritable. Her mind was preoccupied with earlier decades and haunted
    by gruesome images. Flashbacks of Chinese photographs that she had
    uncovered in archives tortured her.

    In the months before her death, Chang was researching a new book on
    Japanese wartime atrocities. Despite feeling unwell, she flew to
    Kentucky to interview survivors of the Bataan Death March. They
    recounted to her how thousands of American PoWs were killed during the
    occupation of the Philippines, some forced to bury their best friend
    alive or, if they refused, for both of them to be buried alive by a
    third friend, with the chain continuing until the Japanese soldiers
    found a PoW who complied.

    Eventually Chang broke down and needed to be treated in hospital. Her
    husband, computer scientist Brett Douglas, was not surprised. "The
    accumulation of hearing those stories year after year may have led to
    her depression," he says.

    Douglas sent their two young children to live with their grandparents,
    and when Chang left hospital he tried to watch her movements. He was
    worried by her obsessive talk about how people would remember her. She
    was calling friends one by one in what seemed like a series of

    On November 6 she spoke to Paula Kamen, whom she knew from university,
    and told her that she was struggling to deal with the magnitude of the
    misery she had uncovered, listened to and written about. She begged to
    be remembered as lively and confident. It was the last conversation
    they would have. Two days later, Chang was even more despondent than
    she had previously been. Her husband tried to calm her down but
    eventually fell asleep.

    At some point in the night, Chang got into her white 1999 Oldsmobile,
    taking with her a six-round pistol that she had bought from an antique
    weapons dealer to defend herself from attackers. She drove to a
    country road, loaded the pistol with black powder and lead balls,
    aimed it at her head and fired. She was found a few hours later, along
    with a farewell note to her family.

    Yet even in death Chang was not rid of the controversy. In recent
    memorial services across China, historians have blamed intense
    hostility from Japan for her death. The People's Daily in Beijing
    hailed Chang as a "warrior full of justice" and a "dart thrown against
    the Japanese rightists". In April the massacre museum in Nanjing will
    add a statue of Chang to its commemorative collection, in effect
    giving her the status of a massacre victim, with a finger pointed
    firmly across the Sea of Japan. The San Francisco Chronicle seemed to
    concur: "Many wonder if the gentle, sympathetic young woman was the
    massacre's latest victim."

    Meanwhile, Japanese right-wingers interpreted her suicide as belated
    support for their contention that the massacre never happened. "By the
    end she must have known that her arguments were without merit. We
    exposed the lies in her book," said Fujioka.

    In Nanjing, Professor Sun Zhaiwei says that being an historian can be
    "torture of the mind".

    "Nuclear scientists wear protective clothing and have their health
    checked by doctors. Perhaps we historians of the extreme need similar
    measures. Yet for now we have to take care of ourselves.

    "Maybe that was Iris's problem - she cared for the dead but failed to
    take care of herself."

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