How “Iris Chang” became a verb

The author of "The Rape of Nanking" inspired her friends by fearlessly confronting some of history's darkest moments. A eulogy.

Topics: Suicide,

How "Iris Chang" became a verb

In college, I would have liked Iris Chang more if she hadn’t always been one step ahead of me, frustrating all my major life ambitions.

During our junior year, I applied for the one available hopefully-path-paving summer-magazine internship in New York City. The program took only one student from each journalism school. She got the job.

The next summer, I applied to a major Chicago daily newspaper for an internship. Despite my terror, the interview seemed to go well. I called in a week later, as instructed, and they told me, “You were close, but someone else got it. Also from the University of Illinois, by coincidence. You probably know her.”

I was not alone in eating Iris’ dust. Other editors on our college paper eyed her with the same mixture of amazement and frustration. One day, Iris had the idea to become the college stringer for the New York Times from Urbana-Champaign. Not wasting a minute, she called the New York Times’ main desk, said she wanted to be a stringer, and soon after published a story in the front section. (And then five more over the year, until they told her to stop, so the paper would not raise eyebrows by disproportionately covering Champaign.) A few days later, I heard another editor on our staff grumble about it; she had wanted that position, but Iris beat her to it. I later met an editor of the college literary magazine. He was still bristling about a past encounter with her, for supposedly “taking over” the publication on the first day she went to a meeting.

Then, some time in the early 1990s, a little after graduation, Iris called me to get together in Chicago. She apparently had no idea how she had trampled my hopes and dreams. She considered us to be friends. I almost declined, but then decided to think this out rationally.

At that point, I made a conscious decision not to hate Iris Chang. With some distance from school, things were clearer. Any moron could see that she wasn’t just getting by on her good looks. She was obviously very talented and could teach me something. As the features editor of our college paper, I had edited her articles — or actually never edited them — because they always came in perfect. The facts, grammar, punctuation, gerunds, everything. In retrospect, I was still marveling at a lucid story she had written about recent breakthroughs in a very complicated area of artificial intelligence.



During that meeting, or perhaps another one, I was immediately sorry to see that the grueling hours at her new job at the Associated Press were wearing her down. In college, she was a steamroller of energy. But now she was frail and told me her hair was coming out. I saw then for the first time just how hard she worked, how she put a piece of herself into every story she covered.

We soon moved to lighter topics. She was happy about planning her upcoming wedding. Her explanation for the marriage was simple. One day in college, she decided she wanted a boyfriend. Someone suggested that frat parties were a good place to meet guys. So she went to one, and there she met her red-haired husband-to-be, a star engineering candidate from a small farming town. He was delighted with — instead of taken aback by — her drive and candor.

She asked me how I was getting along. At that time, in the middle of a Bush-era recession, I was fruitlessly applying for work at local suburban newspapers. So I was starting to freelance. I told her of an Op-Ed I had written, that I would try to get published. She immediately suggested that I send it to the New York Times. I thought she was joking. I didn’t have such pretensions. I thought maybe some local alternative paper might want it.

But lo and behold, the piece was accepted — and a year later, on perhaps the slowest news day in history, the Times published it. My luck was changing — not long before, I had signed a book contract to write on the same topic.

At that point, I had a revelation. So, that was the Iris Code. I had finally cracked it. And it was so simple: Think big. Almost to the point of being naive.

Meanwhile, Iris Chang’s life accelerated. She regained her old vitality and accepted an offer to write a book of her own, published in 1995, on a persecuted Chinese-American scientist and what he revealed about the paranoia of the McCarthy years in America. 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.

While fame and fortune were not her priorities, she also seemed to enjoy her success, which came completely naturally to her. She called me to watch her on “Nightline,” read her interview in the New York Times, and see her on the cover of Reader’s Digest. But she only casually mentioned her private meeting with Hillary Clinton on global human rights issues, as if everyone had such experiences.

Talking with her usually energized me, but I would sometimes wait for days to call her back because I knew a conversation with her would require a minimum of about two hours. Her energy often overwhelmed me. She wanted to know about every detail of my social life, my writing and my health. Then she barraged me with a torrent of advice about concrete steps to take to fix any problem I might have.

In the end, despite the typical work-related conflicts we both dished about, she would exclaim how lucky we were to be authors, to be able to spend our days writing about what most interests us. “Always remember how privileged you are,” she told me, when I related my regular doubts as to whether my life course was one of pure folly.

During her visits to Chicago, usually on some kind of book tour, my friends occasionally noted her quirks, sometimes humorously, and sometimes not. She was still pissing people off, always without realizing it. When she was in town for a book tour, I had her contact a reporter friend at a local paper. She appalled him by calling him up and, without any foreplay involved, told him the details of what he was to cover.

Some wondered why she never wore a wedding ring. I could understand her reasoning — that she didn’t want anything encumbering her movement — but I was surprised at her surprise at some of the results. She seemed honestly aghast and unprepared whenever a supposedly earnest intellectual type at some conference on “torture and atrocity” made a pass at her. “But he was married,” she told me. “So what’s your point?” I asked. I couldn’t figure out how someone so world-savvy about geopolitics could be so naive in other areas.

After these visits, I also knew what to expect from her. A week later, never fail, she sent me a snapshot she’d taken of us, which I filed away with the letters that enclosed them. They were often written on old-fashioned homey stationery or cards, the type your immigrant grandmother would buy at Walgreens, with simple and unsleek scenes of sparkly Christmas trees or flowers.

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.

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.

The months passed, and I got involved in my own projects. A few weeks ago, a mutual friend e-mailed me that Iris was trying to reach me, and that she had been sick for the past few months. Then, on Saturday, Nov. 6, my cellphone rang. When I heard the tone of Iris’ voice, I excused myself from the friends I was visiting and stood outside in their yard for privacy. The bounce in her voice was totally gone. Instead, it was sad and totally drained, as if she were making a huge effort just to talk to me. I remembered that she recently had been sick.

She said, “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.”

Over the next hour, I stumbled to ask her about what had happened. 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. Her current vaguely described problems were “external,” she kept repeating, a result of her controversial research. They weren’t a result of the “internal,” that is, they weren’t all in her head. I asked her about what others in her life thought about the cause of this apparent depression. She paused and said, “They think it’s internal.”

We talked in more detail about her family, still of great support through this time of crisis. I fired questions at her, repeating the same ones over and over again although I kept hearing all the same answers. She was fixated on not seeing herself as having anything wrong with her. I was reeling from the apparent suddenness of this crisis. I thought I had her figured out, years ago.

“This is all temporary! It’s a storm that will pass. You have to wait it out. This is not how I see you,” I assured her.

“That’s not how you see me? Then, how do you see me?” she said, with sudden intense interest.

“Energetic,” I said. “You’re someone truly engaged with life. A hero! You’ve been a total inspiration to me! You’ve helped so many people.”

“Yes, engaged with life,” she said, brightening a bit. “Remember that. If anything would ever happen to me, people are going to talk, and you have to remind people of that.”

I repeatedly asked to speak to her husband, but she said he was busy. Then, we talked more and I felt a bit relieved to hear from her that her husband, and her parents, were near. Some of her old warmth returned to her voice when she asked me about my experiences living with chronic pain, how I have coped through years of it. I talked about it for a while and said I’d send her some book titles that have helped me. In return, she suggested herself that she research how other investigative journalists deal with their stresses.

Yes, and then when I got back to Chicago, I said, we’d talk. She didn’t respond.

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.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

The Iris Chang Scholarship Fund: A scholarship in honor of Iris has been established by her family at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The address is:
University of Illinois Foundation
Attn.: Jeff Roley
1305 West Green Street
Urbana, IL 61801-2962

Make checks payable to:
University of Illinois Foundation
In the memo field:
Iris Chang Scholarship Fund

Questions? Contact:
Stacy (217) 244-7912
Jeff Roley (217) 244-7912, roley@uif.uillinois.edu

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