Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys

Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys.
Chinese proverb

Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness by Jan Wong (2012)

I wasn't sure how to critically approach this book about the depression Ms. Wong experienced after she wrote a controversial article in 2006 that was construed to be critical of Quebecois and their treatment of non-Francophone Quebecois in the aftermath of a mass shooting at Dawson College.

The newspaper article on the mass shooting was only one of many probing articles written over the years by Ms. Wong during an award winning twenty year career at the Globe and Mail. Wong had the temerity to suggest that there might be a connection between how immigrants were treated in Quebec and the fact that three out of three mass murderers involved in recent shootings in Quebec were of non-Francophone backgrounds or not "pure laine", “pure” Francophones. Were these immigrants so alienated in Quebec society that it perhaps drove them to such extreme and violent retribution?

Never one to shy away from truth or controversy, questioning the Quebecois penchant for “pure laine” outraged many and that manifested itself in a very ugly response. 

It excited a great deal of animosity and just plain irrational behavior culminating in racist cartoons in the Quebec press, pejorative editorials, hate mail including an envelope of feces or possibly blood delivered to the Globe, death threats, being denounced in Parliament, and, her own newspaper renouncing her views even though the article had already been vetted and approved.

But it wasn't only the overwhelming hostility that the the article garnered. It was her ensuing battle with the Globe and Manulife Financial, the Globe's insurer, that initially refused to pay her medical leave that rankled and worsened an already difficult situation for Wong. She will tell the story much better than I could and you may read about that fight in abbreviated detail here.

The newspaper's hostility mystified her friends and colleagues - why attempt to so thoroughly destroy a proven money earner with an extensive readership for the newspaper in such perilous financial times? Did they want to set an example so other reporters would not follow suit in similar situations? It reminded Wong, she recounts, of the Chinese proverb cited at the beginning of this post: "Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys."

I have a friend who has a close colleague in a senior position at the Globe and Mail who feels the book is not an accurate representation of the manner in which Jan Wong was treated by that newspaper when she struggled with accusations of racism and lack of professionalism.

Stylistically, I found the book to be well written and extremely moving. But why was it self-published? Doubleday Canada cancelled her contract at the last minute. Why so? Someone implied to me that she might have refused to have the book fact checked. Yet another friend said that Doubleday was threatened with legal action by the Globe. 

But I really don't want to argue about the veracity of her claims because I can't determine the accuracy of her claims - whether the book is truthful or accurate which I sense (without conclusive proof one way or the other) is as close to the truth as Wong is able to present as a person who suffered a terrible ordeal at that time. I do want to talk about depression and how debilitating it is and the stigma surrounding it. I want to talk about how someone close to me dealt with this issue.

I started to do that in this post. In great detail. I wanted to talk about my own struggles. But I don't have the courage to do that. Then I thought I'd talk about the struggles of those close to me but that seemed cowardly - why their story and not mine? I began to recap this one individual's history but what right did I have to do that? It was not my story to tell.

I see that the stigma lingers ... even in myself as I struggle to protect people that I care about, hoping to shield them from the world around them and from others finding out how they are, or were, suffering. Was there a selfish sense of self-preservation in that effort? Yes. Did I fear the judgment that would ensue? Yes. Did I feel that I would be judged as well? Yes.

I remain humbled and silenced by that fear.

So I applaud Ms. Wong's honesty, her eloquence, her guts. The way she depicts the events that happened may or may not have been 100% accurate (personally, I am siding with Wong on this) but I do know that it takes an enormous amount of courage for a person as tough-minded and strong as Wong to come forward and admit that she had these issues, that she felt incapacitated, diminished, not in control of her feelings. The crying, the sleeplessness, the irrational fears, the day to day anxiety, the exhaustion, the inability to act constructively, the inability to rise from one's bed and perform the simplest acts ... 

I know it, I remember it. I feared I would never escape it. But I did. She did. And so can you.

Jan Wong


Cheryl said...

This sounds really interesting!

A Lit Chick said...

Yes, it's a really interesting book. I'm hoping to entice Ms. Wong to read with us in our series.

Christine said...

Very interesting post. I always enjoyed her writing...and yours, too.