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Ying-Ying Chang has written a memoir about her daughter, celebrated author Iris Chang, who commited suicide in 2004. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Ying-Ying Chang has written a memoir about her daughter, celebrated author Iris Chang, who commited suicide in 2004. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Iris Chang committed suicide. Now her mother aims to resurrect her reputation Add to ...

The parents of Iris Chang sit close together, their faces drawn. Their famous daughter, whose 1997 bestseller, The Rape of Nanking, unearthed the forgotten holocaust of the Second World War when the Japanese army raped, tortured and murdered more than 300,000 Chinese, had a tragic death they would rather the world forgot. In 2004, she drove to a remote road, parked her car and shot herself in the head. She was 36, a wife and mother of a two-year-old son.

Doctors had diagnosed bipolar disorder. Then, in 2007, their daughter's friend and fellow journalist, Paula Kamen, wrote a book called Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind, in which she described mental instability in Ms. Chang as early as 1999.

Ying-Ying Chang, 71, a retired biochemist and microbiology professor, has now written a memoir of her own, The Woman Who Could Not Forget; Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking in an effort to resurrect the reputation of her daughter. "People will criticize her as a mentally unstable person and that will affect not only how people view what she wrote but it's very bad because of the right-wing Japanese attack." There is still denial of the Nanking massacre, she points out. The Japanese government has never apologized for the war crimes.

In the immediate aftermath of their daughter's death, rumours circulated that she had been murdered. She had received death threats because of her research on the atrocity.

"We don't believe she was targeted," her mother says now as her husband, Shau-Jin Chang, watches her, nodding his head solemnly. "We knew she was suicidal. She left a suicide note."

But they challenge the diagnosis of mental illness. "She was extremely tired physically and she just broke down. And, yes, she was depressed a little but it's not so serious."

Theirs is a story of love for their star child - born in Princeton, N.J., after they immigrated from China - and a search for answers to her shocking demise. A younger brother, who is "just average," they say, was not nearly as ambitious or devoted as a student. "This question of why did she kill herself hounded me all the way until today," her mother allows, explaining that the book has brought her some comfort. Near the end of her life, Ms. Chang was hospitalized with paranoia and depression.

But her parents believe that the medications she was prescribed worsened her state of mind, inducing suicidal thoughts. "Reactions to drugs vary from person to person," Dr. Chang says, noting that her biochemical background helped her research the prescribed drugs her daughter took.

Her husband, a 74-year-old retired physics professor, puts his hand on his wife's forearm. "Later they find out that Asians have much stronger effect from the drugs," he says in one of the occasional interjections he makes during his wife's intense explanation about her book. "We do not think she was well treated," his wife puts in.

In a sad irony, the parents have turned into investigators, just like their daughter. They were unaccustomed to psychiatric intervention, which compromised the closeness of their family as doctors insisted they divulge what they knew of their daughter's state of mind. Ms. Chang felt betrayed. She didn't like to share her inner thoughts with doctors, preferring to confide in her parents, who had moved to San Jose, Calif., from Urbana-Champaign, Ill., to help her. After the success of The Rape of Nanking, which was her second book, she was in the spotlight and under self-imposed pressure to produce more. Her third book, The Chinese in America, argued that Chinese-Americans were treated as perpetual outsiders.

At the time of her death, she was working on a book about the Bataan death march, the forcible transfer of POWs by the Imperial Japanese Army in the Philippines during the Second World War. The research involved painful material of torture and death. She was also worried about her infant son, Christopher. She had detected early signs of autism, she believed. (Friends and family thought she was premature in her concern, Dr. Chang acknowledges, but doctors later diagnosed a mild form of the neural development disorder, an outcome that shows how sensitive and observant she was, her mother says.)

Still, it's clear in the memoir, which includes many of the long, passionate letters Ms. Chang wrote to her parents, that she was driven in an almost unhealthy way, often forgetting to sleep and eat as she researched her books, wrote drafts into the wee hours and brainstormed about new projects.

"She was always driven," Dr. Chang says. "It was not a surprise to us. I was always hearing that she has this idea, that idea. The first time we heard this name, bipolar, we didn't know what this is. So I look it up online, and I see that this means you have big highs and lows. Turns out a lot of writers have this. But I don't think that if you have many ideas and you are so ambitious that you would be classified with that."

Dr. Chang wanted to write the book soon after her daughter died. "I wanted to show this other side, that she was passionate and she was very sensitive to us, that tender part of her," she says. But in the first few years after her suicide, she couldn't write. "The tears started coming out, so we did something else," her husband explains, turning to look at her again.

But isn't it possible that psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry may suggest that the denial of her daughter's mental illness is nothing more than a grieving mother's understandable, but misplaced, pride? The question produces an emotional response of pain and defiance. "Well, that's up to them," she says, offering a tight, brave smile. "I don't care. I really don't care."

Her husband turns to me, his eyes gentle. "If you see the pain when you have a daughter who kills herself …" he says before trailing off.

"I'm very proud of her," Dr. Chang interjects strongly. "She is truly very talented. She can talk. She can write. She can debate. She is very hard for people in the Chinese community to replace."

It is only later that I realize her description of her daughter at that moment remained in the present.

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