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Book Review: Finding Iris Chang – Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind by Paula Kamen

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Iris Chang seemed to have it all: bestselling and critically acclaimed author at age 29, successful and sought after public speaker, attractive and motivated woman, married for more than 10 years and with a young child, and considered by many as among America's best young historians. Yet in November 2004, Chang committed suicide at age 36.

Her friends and readers were stunned both by the act and that it was attributed to depression. Neither fit what they knew about her. It was so beyond comprehension that talk even began that it was murder. In Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind, Paula Kamen not only sorts through the rumors, she seeks out what might have led Chang to take her own life.

Kamen, a college classmate and friend of Chang's, received a phone call from Chang three days before the suicide. Chang told her she had been "very, very sick" for six months. For the first time since Kamen had known her, she sounded down and spoke of "overwhelming fears and anxieties." After learning of the suicide, Kamen wrote a eulogy for The response to it and Kamen's own feelings of guilt led her to seek out what may have led to her friend's suicide.

To a certain extent, Finding Iris Chang could serve as a useful guide for how to research a biography. Kamen uses a first person approach to her research process as she gathers information from interviews with Chang's friends, colleagues, and husband, and various documents Chang donated to university archives. Each piece — from growing up as the eldest child of Chinese immigrant, university professor parents to the impact her book research had on her — is examined to see how it may fit in the puzzle and whether it was evidence of the bipolar disorder Chang was diagnosed with in the months prior to her death. In retrospect, Kamen realizes that the incomparable drive, desire and competitiveness Chang displayed throughout her life may have been indicative of a manic side. She also looks into how events in the last several years of Chang's life may have aggravated her psychological condition. Likewise, Kamen takes a look at speculation that the content of Chang's books may have contributed to her death, whether by contributing to her depression or creating reason to kill herself.

Chang's bestseller, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, examined Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, China, after its army took control of the city in December 1937. The book detailed how thousands upon thousands of people were raped, tortured or executed. Chang became a strong advocate urging that Japan needed to formally apologize and pay compensation. At the time of her death, Chang was engaged in research and interviews for a book on the Bataan Death March, another Japanese atrocity in which thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war were forcibly marched 60 miles to prison camps in the summer of 1942. Some believed her immersion in the gruesome and grisly details of these events brought about or worsened her depression. Others, however, speculated that her advocacy and the subject matter led to a Japanese right wing — or even American government — conspiracy to murder her. Kamen comes to no definitive conclusions but does question the validity of the conspiracy theories and, detailing how the suicide was not a spur of the moment act, finds more normal reasons for what may have led Chang to it.

Although the first-person approach can be a guide for research, it does not unequivocally work as a writing style. Because she draws heavily on her friendship with Chang, Kamen frequently interjects herself into the narrative. While the personal connections between Kamen and Chang add and help evaluate pieces to the puzzle, it at times goes to extremes. For example, Kamen is inclined to detail some of her own medical problems and her efforts to cope with them, apparently believing they are at least some basis for comparison in trying to understand Chang's state of mind. Invariably, though, those details shed light on Kamen, not Iris Chang. Likewise, some may be put off by Kamen's somewhat non-linear approach to the book. Her chapters are named after questions that frame her search, although some of those questions are not ones a reader may think necessarily pertinent, at least as phrased by Kamen.

The definitive Iris Chang biography probably will not exist until sometime after 2015. That is when her personal papers from the last years of her life, archived at Stanford University, will be available to the public and researchers. Until then, Finding Iris Chang serves as a useful introduction to the human side of an exceptional and talented woman.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.