Unshelved by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum
comic strip overdue media

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Rape of Nanking claims another victim, years later

There are those of us drawn, for whatever reasons, to the darker side of human history, to genocide studies, to trying to make sense of how ordinary people can turn into cold-blooded torturers and murderers. I suspect many of those of us who find some sort of kinship with the victims, who feel that it is important to give them a voice, suffer from depression or other mental illness or perhaps, in some cases, have survived our own private hells. I certainly know that is the case with me. I was drawn to the Holocaust and stories of Armenian genocide when I was just a little girl. At one time I thought it may well be that I lived through the destruction of Jews during the Holocaust, so great was my identity with its victims. That still may be true. Perhaps it is a matter of reincarnation...even Jewish beliefs state that those killed under great trauma or distress may return and live again. Or perhaps there is some sensitivity of nature or a feeling of kinship in our own experiences that draws us to such a magnified horror, as if in some way it can reduce our own suffering to trivial. I don't know. But it can take such a heavy toll. Certainly witnesses of such horrors who survived often feel guilt, and may, ultimately commit suicide. One such was Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish chemist whose books on the Holocaust are riveting. Another was Minnie Vautrin, an American witness to the 'Rape of Nanking', a genocidal horror committed by Japanese occupiers in China who later suffered a nervous breakdown and killed herself.

But the study of such a difficult topic can also get into the soul of someone who comes to it years later, especially if the person identifies with the events on a deep emotional level. And so it was was very sad to hear of the death of Iris Chang, whose book cast light on the Rape of Nanking, which had largely been ignored in West at the time it happened. She had grown up with stories in her family of the horrors. She had been suffering from depression and had recently been hospitalised. She apparently shot herself earlier this week. She left behind a husband and a two-year-old son. A colleague who spoke in an interview on NPR theorised that her work had taken a toll on her mental health. He said her study was like a shrine to the suffering in Nanking.

She was just 36 years old, a year younger that I am. Her work included various areas of Chinese history and culture. The world has lost a talented historian and advocate. Have I mentioned how terrible depression is? So sad.

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