An attempt to explain a friend’s baffling suicide.
Bestselling author Iris Chang was just 36 when she committed suicide—a fact which, perhaps even more than most suicides, surprised everyone who knew her. In the years prior to her death, Chang had written three highly acclaimed books, including 1997’s The Rape of Nanking, a story of Japanese atrocities in China which reopened heated dialogue around the world. She was happily married with a charming two-year-old son, and was, says Kamen, “the most envied, and enviable, person I knew. She achieved success, by all possible external measures, to the extreme and to an almost farcical extent…She was beautiful. She was thin.” Yet on November 9, 2004, Chang drove to a remote road, parked her car and shot herself in the head. Kamen (All in my Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, and Only Slightly Enlightening Headache, 2005, etc.), who met Chang when the two were in college, when Chang was already an ambitious young reporter, was first driven to write an article about Chang’s death for Salon.com, and then, faced with waves of e-mails from readers asking the same questions she had about the death, the book. “I wondered if this was amoral, exploiting a friend’s tragic case for a book and possibly upsetting her grieving family,” she writes. “With some sensitivity, maybe I could be only minimally amoral.” To that end, the author is partially successful. Kamen dutifully delves into the larger issues of suicide and mental illness in Asian-American communities, and into the peculiar immigrant drive to succeed that seized Chang so forcefully at such a young age. She also brutally reports each way she feels that she might have betrayed her friend—including a devastating passage in which Kamen recounts ignoring Chang’s phone calls in the days prior to her suicide, and then reveals that one of the points in Chang’s “twenty-point plan to get Iris well” had been to “call friends—as a source of support.” Kamen draws an intriguing portrait of an enormously ambitious woman who appears to have worked very hard to craft her own image, and Chang herself haunts the book in the form of italicized letters and e-mails to friends and family. Yet the sense of invading a troubled woman’s privacy is hard to escape.
A disquieting reminder of the old maxim, “The dead can’t answer back.”