Trigger warning: Mentions of rape, PTSD, war, suicide
I don’t remember the exact moment I wanted to be a writer. For as long as I can recall, I’ve always loved talking to people and telling stories. Deciding whether I should go to school for creative writing, English, media studies, or journalism was a very complicated mental back-and-forth that blurs my teenage memory.
But what I do remember distinctly was watching Anderson Cooper pull a bloody-faced kid in a black striped sweater out from the streets as concrete fell from the sky above. It was 2010, and the world was shocked as Haiti was ravaged by an earthquake. This image went viral: Everyone was telling themselves, “This is what a real journalist looks like. Journalists need to be involved on the ground when tragedy strikes.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1,428 journalists were killed between 1992 and 2022. The reports confirmed the different ways journalists have died, including murders, crossfires or dangerous assignments. Iris Chang is not on that list, nor will she ever be on that list, because when it comes to traumatized journalists and suicide, the conversation is more about “what if there was a secret hit out for her?” rather than “mental illness is a lot more complicated than we think.”
In 1997, after graduating from journalism school, Iris became a bestseller with the release of her second book. Titled The Rape of Nanking, the book was a powerful nonfiction text that wove in first-person narratives of survivors of the Nanking massacre in the Second World War. The massacre lasted six weeks, during which around 300,000 people died; 80,000 acts of rape occurred and countless buildings were set ablaze. Iris’s grandparents were survivors. The atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army towards the residents of Nanking (now renamed Nanjing) were often subjected to revisionist history. This meant that governments across the world weren’t exactly forthcoming with information, if they acknowledged the attacks at all. The text was described as “one of the most controversial books of the decade.”
Iris Chang is around my mother’s age. When one journalist dies, we all mourn. I can’t help but wonder today, when it’s nearly impossible to get affirming mental health support, how much harder it was for Iris in the early 2000s. Her book spares no detail. This isn’t your light book club weekly read: It is meticulously researched and backed up with huge amounts of data. If you read this book, you’ll see photos of war crimes, torture, mutilated bodies, severed heads and rape. Iris spent years researching and confirming facts, even going to Nanking to interview survivors to confirm her story. It seems obvious throughout reading it that this book is just as much a call for justice as it is an exploration into a systematically-ignored history. I can’t help but wonder if her journalism degree prepared her for reporting on trauma, fact-checking the number of mutilated bodies or what you should do when government embassies call you a liar on a global scale.
To many, the suicide was a shock. Iris had what so many journalists wanted: Stories in Associated Press, Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, just to name a few. She was a full-time writer and had an international bestseller. She had a two-year-old son at home. A marriage to a man who supported every step of her career.
It’s easy to forget that writers become captivated by their stories. As much as journalists may strive for objectivity, it isn’t always possible. We’re human; when we hear about a tragedy in our community, we grieve with our entire hearts. For Iris, the pain of continually hearing about Nanking survivors — people who could’ve easily been her parents, grandparents or relatives — became traumatizing. This, combined with the constant barrage of polarizing treatment from the public (she was either “a wunderkind journalist” to writers or a liar telling “a story made up by the Chinese,” according to certain Japanese officials), meant she was surrounded by people who always had something to say.
Critics have often said that the book is less investigative journalism and more citizen activism. But doesn’t journalism come from a passion for justice? Is it even possible to strive for objectivity when, like Iris, your main fight is to expose systemic abuse? Is it really so shocking that trauma is intergenerational and is felt deep within affected communities? Can we really be surprised when journalists can’t separate themselves from their work because our lives are intrinsically woven in the stories we tell?
I won’t pretend to understand the level of trauma Iris endured when throwing herself so deeply into her work. There’s nothing wrong with praising Anderson Cooper for stopping a report in Haiti to save a child’s life; it’s worth noting that heroism on camera could mean trauma offscreen. I’m not speculating on Anderson Cooper’s mental health: If anything, I’m urging people to remember that it’s almost too easy to fake a happy smile for the cameras. The suicide of any journalist — and there have been too many to count — sends a ripple effect.
What is a journalist’s dream? Many of my j-school classmates will say a beautiful apartment with a view in Manhattan, bylines in The New York Times, reporting on breaking news as it happens on the streets. Maybe it’s reporting for live TV; becoming the next Walter Cronkite or Diane Sawyer. Maybe it’s standing in Palestine, exposing human rights injustices in a creative way like Joe Sacco. Maybe it doesn’t matter what the story is, as long as it brings us a little bit closer to a Pulitzer. Maybe in our chase to “get the scoop,” whatever the scoop may be, we’ve forgotten our own humanity.
When people talk about PTSD, it’s hard to wrap your head around because it’s so different for everyone. Is it possible that Iris became traumatized by her reporting? Yes, the same way it’s true that someone else may not. But one thing is for sure: If journalism will continue to be a reputable field with reporters actually being taken seriously, their mental health needs to be taken seriously, too. And no, I’m not talking about practicing self-care by taking a bath. Legitimate mental health support needs to be prioritized at the academic level, so that j-school graduates can be prepared for the potentially volatile climates they may be reporting on. It doesn’t have to be a cutthroat race to get the best scoop. You think it’s stressful, reading the news? Imagine how hard it is to write it.
Iris Chang will never celebrate her 54th birthday — she will forever be 36, as she was when she committed suicide in 2004. I can’t help but wonder what else she would write if she were alive today. Her last publication, The Chinese in America, came out in 2003, addressing the systemic racism that Chinese-Americans have faced over the course of 150 years. As with so many of us, her writing was intrinsic to who she was: Her race, her identity, her passion for justice. Every generation’s journalists have something worth fighting for: But the Pulitzer isn’t worth a damn if you aren’t around to see it.