When The Globe and Mail launched a 28-part series on mental illness in June 2008, I was one of countless readers who felt like cheering. Those of us who had struggled with an illness of the mind—in my case depression—had been waiting for the day when our invisible affliction would command equal time with heart disease and cancer. We had been ashamed to tell the truth about ourselves lest we be told to look on the bright side. We had put off seeking help because no one—not even ourselves—believed that what looked like a bad attitude was a real and potentially lethal illness. Now Canada’s national newspaper was shining a spotlight on the truth and putting a team of reporters on the case.
Missing from the team was one of the Globe’s biggest names: Jan Wong, whose journalistic swagger had been riveting fans and foes alike for 21 years. Few readers had any idea that she had been laid low by clinical depression—unable to write or do much of anything else. The Globe’s insurer, Manulife Financial, had repeatedly denied that she was ill and hence entitled to sick pay. A former star had been cast as a malingerer who needed to pull up her socks. Ten days before the landmark series broke, the Globe fired Wong. In a corker of a memoir, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness, she tells her side of the story.
Hints of another side appear between the lines. “Pig-headed” by her own admission, Wong has always viewed corporate politics with magisterial disdain: “I had never much cared if my bosses liked me.” Is it any wonder that they did not? Wong is not the most endearing of narrators, but she is all the more compelling for her prickliness. Chances are you will be hooked on her narrative brio and the Shakespearean complexity of her character.
If you followed Wong’s career in the Globe, then you know she is a writer who needs an adversary. Whether she was going undercover as a minimum-wage maid or sticking it to B-list celebrities over lunch, Wong instinctively framed every story as a contest. Her weapon was a pitiless eye for the telling detail, her quarry nothing less than human failure, be it moral (exploitive cleaning companies) or simply aesthetic (Alan Thicke’s table manners). Unlike her contemporary and rival in the Globe newsroom, the equally renowned Christie Blatchford, Wong never walked alongside you like a pal. She looked down from above, wielding what Robert Fulford once called “the terrible swift sword of her contempt.” No question was too brazen for Wong, and her chutzpah sold papers. I often felt the Globe was wasting her formidable skills, and I shuddered at the thought of lunch with Jan Wong. Still, I could not resist her colourfully jaundiced portraits of those who took the bait. Their only crime had been revealing their foibles. The Globe, as Wong tells it, betrayed her in her time of need. The paper she had loved became so hateful in her eyes that she could no longer bear to have it in her house or even to cancel the subscription herself (her husband did the deed).
In Out of the Blue, Wong is waging the fight of her life. She has found the perfect material for her combative style, with three conflicts to propel the drama: Wong against depression, Wong against the corporate machine and, most intriguingly, Wong against her own bloody-mindedness. If Shakespeare were in charge, Wong would be destroyed by her own vaulting ambition and capacity for self-delusion. Yet she triumphs, regaining her health and her voice and collecting “a big, fat check” from her corporate tormentors. The terms of the settlement prevent her from disclosing the amount but not from quoting the Globe’s admission that she had indeed been ill and unable to attend work for two years and five months.
Skeptics will no doubt see this book as a settling of scores, and so it is—to a point. She published Out of the Blue herself when her contract with Doubleday fell apart over the firm’s eleventh-hour insistence that she delete all references to “corporate bullying.” Mainly, though, this memoir is an act of survival—a vivid and piercingly meticulous account of a gifted woman’s quest to pull her defining talent from the jaws of a soul-crushing illness and then to tell the truth about her struggle. “If I did not vanquish depression by writing about it, I feared I would never write again.”
Others have written unforgettable books on depression (for example, William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression). Wong’s book is the first on workplace depression, a growing threat not just to everyone who earns a paycheque in the days of doing more with less, but to employer bottom lines (mental illness causes 40 percent of all sick leaves and disability claims in Canada). Wong’s own workplace was a hothouse for stress. In a newsroom you do not make your name unless you race to be the fastest and the best, and no one raced harder than Wong. “Each success, each front-page byline produced a pleasurable jolt. Practicing journalism was like being on drugs. To maintain that adrenalin high, I worked long hours, put my job first and scorned those who didn’t.”
Wong’s zeal to stand above the competition had much to do with her meltdown in September 2006. Given 24 hours to produce a 3,000-word feature story on a school shooting in Montreal by a mentally disturbed man who happened to be the son of immigrants from India, she pitched her editors on a far-fetched but novel back story: cultural alienation as a factor in the carnage. Non-francophone shooters with foreign roots had wreaked havoc on two other Quebec campuses, and the editors bought Wong’s hasty conclusion that a sinister trend was at work, the lethal rage of those who were not pure laine Quebecers. The more talented and ambitious the writer, the greater the onus on the editors to save that writer from her own overreaching. Wong’s editors, including the editor-in-chief, all dodged that responsibility by signing off on the piece (which was mostly a classic piece of you-are-there reporting). One person took the fall: Jan Wong.
A tidal wave of fury broke over Wong’s head: thousands of emails, many bristling with expletives and poisonous racial attacks; a package containing mutilated copies of two of her books; a death threat that reduced her to quivering panic. The premier of Quebec called her “a disgrace,” Parliament demanded an apology to all Quebecers, even the prime minister joined the feeding frenzy. Okay, so Wong made a mistake (not that she is admitting it). But a national crisis? The Globe backpedalled, disavowing the offending paragraphs in an editor’s letter that Wong read as a public humiliation. So began her two-year journey through the shadow land of depression.
One in every five or six of us will be marooned there at some time or other. But while most people know the warning signs of cancer, few know the symptoms of depression. Wong certainly did not, even as the illness took her self-esteem, her sleep, her mental focus and her zest. She wept uncontrollably and raged at her family over trifles. Not a trace remained of her former self, the powerhouse career woman who could wrestle any story to the ground while raising two lively boys. When her family doctor tried to help, Wong resisted, seeing antidepressants as “a failure of will” and psychiatry as being for “crazy people.” Months of rage and despair went by before she started psychiatric treatment. Her intransigence had deep roots, both social and personal. The stigma that surrounds mental illness, shaming every sufferer, bloomed like a toxic plant in the fertile soil of Wong’s vaunted self-image as the toughest reporter in the newsroom. What she took to be superhuman strength was in fact a precursor of her depression: workaholism. An ace at exposing the pretensions of her subjects, she ignored her own pretension to invulnerability—until she came to see that it was holding her captive. After strenuously denying her mental illness, she committed to fighting the Globe for her right to be sick.
The Globe did its worst. Wong contended with hectoring letters, video surveillance and stonewalling by Manulife’s faceless bureaucrats (Monty Python could have scripted some of the dialogue). She infuses the eyebrow-raising details with her usual panache, missing no opportunity to cast Globe management as petty, vengeful and just plain callous. Not once in Wong’s illness of more than two years did her bosses send flowers or express the hope that she would soon be back—this after some two decades on their staff. I wondered what was stopping them until it struck me that perhaps they had their reasons for wanting to be rid of Jan Wong, who estimates their legal fees at $100,000. I guess they never dreamed how far she would go to win on her terms. Even her psychiatrist could not quite believe it. He appears to have found Wong a challenging patient. At one point he advised retreat, warning, “Don’t let the bloodlust [for winning] crowd out everything.” Counters Wong, “It would be more damaging for someone like me to walk away in defeat.”
The whole thing is reminiscent of a particularly corrosive divorce, with Wong in the role of spurned wife. Her job at the Globe had been a love so consuming that she admits to remembering stories more clearly than personal passages such as a son’s first step or the death of her mother.
Wong did not lack support on the journey back to health. Her family’s loyalty and love evoke a tenderness in her that will be new to many readers. Her sister became her dauntless advocate, forgiving Wong’s relentless focus on her career while their mother was dying. Wong’s husband, Norman, a man of luminous patience, had the grace to make a joke when she forgot his birthday and the steadiness to reassure their bewildered but devoted teenage sons, who found themselves parenting their mother. Norman seems to be an expert on Wong’s combative side, after 30 years of nagging from a wife who kept trying to improve him and now sees the error of her ways. She documents the family’s heroic acts of kindness with gratitude that never descends into sentimentality.
Cancer patients are widely lauded for their courage. Depression is a cancer of the soul and its sufferers fight every bit as hard to keep going. Writing Out of the Blue demanded great courage of Wong, who had to relive her most harrowing hours in order to write it. This book will extend and enrich the public conversation on mental illness. If you are depressed or have a loved one who is, it will prove a bracing companion. If you are a manager, it just might save you and your employer from a costly mistake.