Book Review: "Out of the Blue"
Review by Peter Rehak
“Out of the Blue” is self published. A cover illustration is available here:
Jan Wong has written an important book. “Out of the Blue” is a gripping memoir of her struggle with depression and about the end of the love affair with her newspaper. It shines a light on ignorance about clinical depression and on the stigma that the illness brings with it. Her book is also a warning to journalists -- obsession with work is no guarantee that a media organization will stand by you when your head goes into a tailspin.
Wong had a distinguished 20-year career with the Globe and Mail as bureau chief in Beijing during the Tiananmen massacre, as a feature writer, an investigative reporter and as a provocative columnist. In her “lunch with” series where she skewered her subjects like so many pieces of lamb on a spit, not always gently or fairly.
When 25-year-old Kimveer Gill stormed into Dawson College in Montreal in September 2006, killing a student and wounding 19 others before fatally shooting himself, she was the obvious choice to cover the story for The Globe and Mail. She had grown up in Montreal and her sister, Gigi, taught at Dawson. Although Gigi was off on the day of the shooting, she provided invaluable contacts and background for her sister’s story.
Wong filed a 3,000-word roundup that the paper had requested. Looking for perspective or a trend, she was struck by the fact that this was the third such shooting in Montreal perpetrated by people who were neither anglophone nor francophone. She noted that Gill’s parents hailed from India. Marc Lepine, who killed 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, was the son of a Muslim businessman from Algeria, and Valery Fabrikant, a professor who in 1992 had killed four colleagues at Concordia University, was from Russia.
In the piece, she concluded that the decades-long linguistic struggle in Quebec had taken a toll on anglophones but that it had also alienated immigrants:
“To be sure, the shooting in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not ‘pure laine’, the argot for a ‘pure’ francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial purity is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”
“I knew that invoking the term pure laine would touch a nerve,” she writes. But what happened next was a virtual tsunami of vilification that included death threats, thousands of vitriolic messages over the Internet, by mail, by phone and in the Quebec press. Both the premier of Quebec and the prime minister condemned her story. She had obviously struck at a taboo.
But what sent her over the edge was being disowned by her own newspaper over what became known as “L’Affaire Wong.” Ed Greenspon, the editor-in-chief, who she says read her story before publication, wrote that he regretted “that we allowed these words into a reported article.” Philip Crawley, the publisher, declared “you have hurt our brand in Quebec.” The paper published dozens of letters criticizing her. The editor of La Presse was given space to criticize her and Greenspon’s column was translated into French and published in French-language media. Derogatory cartoons of her were also published. She was told to lay low and not give media interviews.
In a Kafaesque sequence of events, a promised assignment to cover business in the Asia-Pacific area evaporated and an interview she did with Conrad Black mysteriously got spiked. When a letter containing a death threat arrived at the office, the Globe’s security office told her to call the police herself. Her family in Montreal received threats and there were calls for a boycott of the family restaurant founded by her father and operated by her brother. It eventually closed.
Wong found herself unable to cope. She sought out her family doctor and eventually a psychiatrist. She went on sick leave and in addition to her medical and family struggles, she carried on a battle to convince the newspaper and mainly its insurance company that she was really sick. Her vivid description of her mental state goes a long way to explaining what depression feels like and the unwillingness of employers to recognize it as an illness.
In the Globe’s case, dealing with her was outsourced to an “intervention specialist” with whom she only spoke by telephone but never met. Despite this, the specialist made crucial decisions regarding her disability payments and return to work. On the advice of her doctors, she traveled and even went on a book tour. This caused raised eyebrows even at her union. In a bit of not-so-comic relief, the insurance company had her videotaped smiling, walking and signing books but most of the video ended up with no sound. This did not stop the insurance company’s psychiatrist, who never met with her, from using the video to diagnose her as fit to return to work.
Doubleday, the publisher of her previous books, backed away from “Out of the Blue” in the final stages of editing. It gave no reason but Wong suspects the long shadow of the Globe was responsible. She self-published it and almost immediately it started showing up on best-seller lists (including the Globe’s).
After rounds of mediations and arbitrations, she settled with the Globe but would not accept a confidentiality agreement, except for the amount of her settlement. She now teaches journalism in Fredericton, N.B.
The book stands out for Wong’s graphic description of depression and the addictive powers of journalism. She is by no means the only high profile reporter ditched by a media outlet after years of successful service although spending 20 years at the same organization is likely to become a rarity. The message to those staring out is enjoy the ride and, as I used to tell my classes at the University of Western Ontario: “Always remember, you work for ‘Me Inc.’”
Peter Rehak is an independent media consultant. He is also a veteran journalist who has worked in print and television for more than four decades and taught television journalism at the University of Western Ontario.