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Can Historians Be Traumatized by History? (Content Warning)

Editor's note: This excerpt contains descriptions of mass sexual violence during World War II, and of a suicide.

In 1997, the historian Iris Chang published her important, incendiary book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. It was a vital work of salvage, resurrecting for a new generation the half-forgotten savagery unleashed on Chinese citizens by the Japanese Imperial Army during its march across Republican China in 1937. An unmatched researcher and unyielding advocate, always elegantly besuited, Chang was embraced by many Chinese and Chinese-Americans who hadn’t known much more about the slaughter at Nanking than what they heard as family lore. For them, Chang’s devotion to unearthing buried memory was redemptive, and they elevated her into a kind of oracle.

Perhaps surprisingly, Chang’s efforts resonated far beyond the people whose lives had been directly touched by the soldiers’ crimes; The Rape of Nanking became a bestseller in the United States. Filled with exhaustive depictions of the most depraved forms of cruelty ever enacted, it seemed an unlikely hit. Consider the following account of the Imperial Army’s sexual violence, representative but hardly the most shocking:

Perhaps one of the most brutal forms of Japanese entertainment was the impalement of vaginas. In the streets of Nanking, corpses of women lay with their legs splayed open, their orifices pierced by wooden rods, twigs, and weeds.… [One] Japanese soldier who raped a young woman thrust a beer bottle into her and shot her. Another rape victim was found with a golf stick rammed into her.… Little girls were raped so brutally that some could not walk for weeks afterwards. Many required surgery; others died.… In some cases, the Japanese sliced open the vaginas of preteen girls in order to ravish them more effectively.

To write the book, Chang had suspended herself for years in the ruins of 1930s Manchuria, a far cry from mild Sunnyvale, California, where she lived. Her approach was rigorous to the point of obsession. She considered every artifact, no matter how mundane or horrible, necessary evidence: the statement of the trembling witness, the matter-of-fact diplomatic cable, confessions, diaries, reels of film, photographs all the grimmer for having no color, scholarly accounts, the deadening data of death tolls. Most important were the interviews Chang (who trained as a journalist) conducted with living survivors, some of whom still bore scars or limps. “I spent several hours with each one, getting the details of their experiences on videotape,” Chang explained of her method. “Some became overwrought with emotion during the interviews and broke down into tears.”

Everything Chang documented she had to review; ponder; return to throughout the stages of writing, editing, and proofing; and finally talk about, in the hundreds of lectures she gave across the world. It became, Chang admitted, “almost impossible to separate myself from the tragedy.… The stress of writing this book and living with this horror on a daily basis caused my weight to plummet. I had to write it, if it was the last thing I ever did in my life.” That she had previously struggled with depression did not make it easier. Her mother, Ying-Ying Chang, observed her daughter’s despair: “Iris told us that the most difficult thing was to read one case after another of the atrocities…. She read hundreds of such cases. She felt numb after a while. She told me she sometimes had to get up and away from the documents to take a deep breath. She felt suffocated and in pain.”

Seven years after The Rape of Nanking appeared, Chang was recording the stories of Filipinos and Americans who had endured another Japanese war crime, the 1942 Bataan Death March. Several months into the research, on a November morning in 2004, she left her sleeping husband and child at home, drove west into the oaky hills of Santa Clara County, and, on a lonely gravel road, shot herself. She was 36 years old.

The phenomenon of the historian traumatized by history remains unstudied and is not widely known. Yet anyone who has documented depravity knows the symptoms. After writing a book on the Armenian Genocide, a process that took me five years, I found it impossible to slip comfortably into sleep. All kinds of catastrophes visited me—still visit me—in that space before dreams: ugly visions, jarring scenes from my research. And I am not alone. In several extensive interviews I conducted with historians working across different subjects, and in the responses to a questionnaire I distributed to a dozen scholars (most of whom were reluctant to speak publicly about these most personal experiences), I discovered a reservoir of pain that reveals itself through symptoms familiar to anyone diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder: insomnia, rapid weight gain or loss, abuse of booze or pills, unexplainable anger or fear, paralyzing anxieties. Some reactions are more subtle: the sudden unwillingness to watch a particular film or read graphic news reports; claustrophobia in a crowd.

Traditionally, we’ve supposed that these kinds of reactions would afflict only firsthand witnesses to violence: the victims, the bystanders, maybe the journalists. And we are blessed with a rich literature of witness; every mass traumatic event has its own set of survivors elevated by personal experience into authorities. Historians, by contrast, have neither seen nor heard the catastrophes they study—they’ve reached them through imagination and immersion.