In November 2004, 36-year-old Iris Chang, the brilliant author of the controversial bestseller about the 1937 Japanese war atrocities, The Rape of Nanking, took her own life. She drove to a deserted road near California’s winding Highway 17 and shot herself with an ivory-handled antique gun. To her family, friends and fans, it was a shocking act that led to speculation about murder and conspiracy. Chang appeared to have had it all: a loving husband and young son, plus a writing career yielding wealth and celebrity. Why would she kill herself? Seeking answers, friend and fellow journalist Paula Kamen postulates a series of questions in Finding Iris Chang.
In this blend of biography and memoir, Kamen methodically probes Chang’s internal and external worlds, while coolly documenting an experience of friendship, professional rivalry and the hardships of a writing life. Her sources are the foibles of memory; personal correspondence; interviews with Chang’s colleagues, friends and family; Chang’s diaries and extensive university archives. Readers may wonder (as this reviewer did) about Kamen’s motives for writing this book for a work purportedly sparked by friendship, it is acerbically tinged with licks of envy, impatience and guilty self-pity. It also capitalizes on the sensationalism of the many conspiracy theories that swirled around the mysterious circumstances of Chang’s death.
While the author admits to an early journalism school rivalry with the high-energy, ambitious Chang, they eventually established a post-school friendship. Kamen writes, “At that point, I made a conscious decision not to hate Iris Chang. . . . She was obviously very talented and could teach me something.” This detached, casually brutal honesty pervades much of the book a quality that, while seemingly callous to employ in an homage to friendship, ironically drives this book to expose the unique genius and creativity of Chang, the far-reaching effects of her persistent social activism and compassion, and, sadly, the relentless escalation of the bipolar disorder that impelled her to suicide.