Beginning last week when I made Out of the Blue my #FridayReads for March 14, I spent much of the past week reading and being enthralled by Jan Wong’s scalding memoir of surviving a severe depression that was triggered when an article she’d reported and written became controversial. Her employer at the time, the Toronto Globe & Mail, completely failed to support her as as the story, about a mass shooting in Montreal, blew up over several weeks and months, even though her editor had praised the approach Wong took to the story, which while reporting on the tragic incident also considered ethnic politics in the francophone province. Wong’s editor had even asked her to carry this part of it further. As she began getting death threats and vile messages, the Globe & Mail hung her out to dry, implicitly criticizing her and pandering to the haters arrayed against her. Wong tells her story in first person, a compelling narrative that follows the course of her struggle for fair treatment by her employer, and the torturous path of her illness, with records she later got from the insurance company that tried to deny her disability claims for what was basically an injury that occurred on the job.
The setting is mostly Toronto and Montreal, where Wong’s father had long owned a Chinese restaurant whose business fails when Wong’s reputation suffers amid the controversy. She travels a lot in the course of her narrative, even while she’s ill, for what she and her medical providers hope will be a “geography cure.” She goes to Finland with her son for a hockey tournament, and travels with her sturdy sister to Paris. As an alum of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, she visits New York City and the Columbia campus, near where I live. The Globe & Mail tries to make an issue of her ability to travel, while not working, failing to recognize that it was their careless treatment of her in the newsroom that had triggered her illness, and was continually re-injuring here.
She pays sincere homage to her predecessors in the field of depression memoirs–William Styron, Andrew Solomon, and Kay Redfield Jamison–quoting strategically from their books. She also laments something I’ve written about on this blog, in the context of my own departure from Sterling Publishing in 2009, “the baleful influence that today’s HR mindset casts on our culture, full of its own hermetic vocabulary, with bland euphemisms, opaque acronyms, and inhumane doublespeak. Shunning and banishment are two of the signature modes of behavior in this modern HR culture.” Wong experienced this far worse than I ever did. And yet, it would be wrong to paint the book too bleakly. Despite unable to write for most of the two years, and suffering huge losses in cognition and her social comfortability, I was conscious while reading the book that she’s writing it from some post-depression standpoint. Amazingly, she also manages to inject mordant humor in to the tale, as she portrays some of her managers and the contortions they took to deny how sick she was.
To top it all off, there’s also a triumphant backstory to the publication of the book, which came out in 2012. Out of the Blue has done well, with many recognitions and healthy sales, and yet she was forced to publish it herself after Doubleday Canada canceled it shortly before the manuscript was due to go in to copyediting. They evidently became uneasy over the legal climate around the book, since Wong, the Globe & Mail, and their insurer had had so many legal battles during the course of her ordeal. I read a lot of first-person literature, and this is one of the best examples of it I’ve read in a long time.