The book that caught my eye was history book The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, a Chinese American author (her parents are waishengren from Taiwan.) I'd heard of this book, of course, but on a very superficial level. Some atrocities occurred during World War II. China never really forgave Japan for them. Japan glosses over it. The Chinese American author committed suicide a few years after writing it. So, some light airplane reading, right?
I ended up standing in the book store for 90 minutes reading it.
What strikes me about Iris Chang, the author, is this idea--story--that she became a delayed victim to the incidents at Nanking. She interviewed hundreds of survivors, poured through hundreds of photographs, worked through thousands of cases. There are clear documented cases of therapists, family members, and other emergency response workers (such as nurses who perform rape kits, etc) developing a condition called "secondary trauma" or "secondary victimization," where the person becomes (to a lesser degree) affected simply by bearing witness or hearing about a horrible incident.
[In this case, I guess Iris Chang quintupled down on secondary trauma. Something broke When I went home and Googled her I learned that prior to her death she had developed paranoid ideation, fearing for her safety (although given the cases she was working on and how her book triggered international incidents, I would argue that it is a reasonable paranoia.)]
Knowing the basic cultural narrative surrounding the book, I figured I wouldn't have any problem reading it. I've been told by friends about their experiences with rape (sexual assault is devastatingly common, some stats put it as high as 1 out of 4 women have experienced some form) and not felt scarred. Since elementary school we learn about the Holocaust and some of the horrific things that happened in Europe during World War II. I'm a Game of Thrones fan, right? So I know that rape is part and parcel of warfare. Warfare is grotesque.
So...even knowing all of that I wasn't prepared for what was in the book. Some of it was pretty fascinating. For example, a contingent of Europeans living in Nanking tried to save many of the Chinese residents of the town. One of their leaders, John Rabe, was a Nazi who was so horrified by the sack of the town that he tried to ask Hitler to intercede. Instead, he was punished by the Nazis. Rabe saved hundreds of people but carried the stigma of being a Nazi after World War II; the survivors of Nanking learned that he had become practically homeless and sent him care packages and food.
I'm a little disjointed writing all of this up... but I guess it's kind of hard to think that the Nanking massacre occurred less than a hundred years ago and to what extent exactly the level of brutality was. People were buried alive, frozen and burned to death, hacked and slashed through like video games (soldiers had contests to see who could decapitate as many people as quickly possible), tied up and fed to dogs, etc. Just as horrifying in the book were just all of these accounts of the mass rapes. Accounts of old women and young girls being raped to death, mothers being raped in front of their children or forced to watch their children killed and then raped. Fathers were forced at gunpoint to rape their daughters and sons were forced to rape their mothers. Pregnant women were some of the most desirable targets because first they would be gang raped and then mutilated (fetus torn out and then left to bleed to death.) Women were tied spread eagle to chairs and raped until they bled to death from their injuries. The soldiers would go door to door hunting for women to gang rape and then immediately kill through impaling.
There are dozens and dozens of pictures in the book, because the Japanese soldiers enjoyed taking pictures of their victims. (They took them to a Chinese film developer who made extra copies to save to prove the atrocities occurred.) There are images in the book of the bodies of dead women who were gang raped and then impaled up the genitals with bayonets and other items. Piles and piles of dead bodies. Images of the killing games and people being beheaded. There are images of Japanese soldiers grinning and posing next to women who have been tied up and gang raped.
And just this idea that this has happened in every war in some way or another, only hey, here are photographs, and yeah, we pretend this doesn't happen. And we marinate in this culture, right, where rape is funny and shrugged off and victim blamed. (Even the most recent movie about Nanking, The Flowers of War, uses a narrative that suggests that some women deserve to be raped more than others and are more valued than others.
I struggled with PTSD during my early 20s. These days, I've got it pretty under control. If symptoms pop up, I can cognitively process them, shrug them off, and move on with my day. Heart rate spikes and I wrestle it down. I'm at the point where I can go weeks or months without a flashback episode or intrusive thought. But I have to admit that after reading The Rape of Nanking and seeing all of the images and processing all of the firsthand accounts my control slipped a little bit... at least when it comes to this book. To put it more bluntly, my reaction from reading this book is not dissimilar from my experience with PTSD.
Which, come on. Officially, there is no such thing as PTSD from reading books or watching movies. The new DSM V coming out next year will have a line in it that says that PTSD is not caused by "exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures, unless this exposure is work related." And I wouldn't say that my reaction to the book is anywhere as severe as PTSD. Only that I recognize similarities having experienced the symptoms of "real" PTSD. Such as intrusive thoughts. For example, when my mind wanders I suddenly find myself thinking of what I read in the book or visualizing the pictures I saw in the book. I can feel myself become more physically agitated when this occurs. Or another example, I was in a friendly conversation about the topic of "safe sex" and the entire conversation my brain was flashing to the photographs of the brutalized women in the book and I felt like I had to throw up. Yesterday, I saw an image of a topless woman on the internet and immediately began visualizing the violent photos in the book.
I think a lot of it was just a wake up call for my naivete. When you (random American layperson) hear about the Nanking Massacre you kind of imagine people getting shot up or women getting raped in a very academic, rated-R movie sort of way. Left to the imagination, without concrete detail, my mind's eye of the Nanking Massacre was much milder than anything in the accounts the survivors described to Iris Chang or the souvenir photographs the soldiers took.
And then maybe this personal thought, too, that my grandparents lived under Japanese colonialism in Taiwan. My grandfather was recruited into the Japanese Army for training in 1945, and if the Americans had not dropped the A-Bomb, he would have been deployed. Would he have participated in the same cruel acts of war? Thousands of young Taiwanese women were recruited into sexual slavery as "comfort women" for Japanese soldiers (Nanking rapes were "improvised," comfort stations were a way to systemize military rape so sacking would be more organized.) If my grandmother had not been married to my grandfather in an arranged marriage at an early age, or if she had lived closer to a Japanese barrack, could this have happened to her? Did this happen to people she knew?
So I'm an idiot for thinking that The Rape of Nanking would be a good pre-airplane read (given my body is already in a state of anxiety and physical alert in airports--I'm afraid of flying!) I honestly didn't think that it would impact me the way it has. I mean, luckily I have the resources and am aware enough of how my body and mind works to not freak out if I have difficultly "forgetting" the book. I honestly didn't think I would be this emotionally affected.
I'm kind of hoping that I can find an online forum or reading group where other people have read the book so I can kind of work through it. I know that other people online have said the book gave them nightmares, so... *shrug* It's helpful just typing it out and trying to organize my thoughts. Sweating like a mofo just sitting here and working through this.
I can't decide if I regret reading the book or not.