Brand building through storytelling

The fight of her life: Jan Wong against workplace depression

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 pull up our socks. We had put off searching for help because no one?not even ourselves?believed that what looked like a bad attitude was a real and potentially fatal 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’d 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, she tells her side of the story.

If you’ve ever managed staff and navigated corporate politics, you may detect hints of another side between the lines?for instance Wong’s blithe observation “I had never much cared if my bosses liked me” (Is it any surprise that they didn’t?) But chances are you’ll be hooked on Wong’s narrative brio and the Shakespearean complexity of her character.

Three conflicts drive this multi-layered tale: Wong against depression, Wong against the corporate machine and Wong against herself. 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 cheque” from her corporate tormentors. Cynics will no doubt see Out of the Blue as an act of revenge, and Wong does get her licks in. She published this book herself when her contract with Doubleday fell apart over the firm’s eleventh-hour insistence that she delete all references to “corporate bullying.” She was right to stand her ground. The book 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, no matter what the costs. “If I did not vanquish depression by writing about it, I feared I would never write again.”

Others have written unforgettable books on depression (e.g., William Styron’sDarkness visible and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon). This book is the first on workplace depression, a growing threat not just to everyone who earns a paycheque in the days of mass layoffs and doing more with less, but to employer bottom lines (mental illness causes 40 percent of all sick leaves and disability claims in this country). Wong’s own workplace was a hothouse for stress. In a newsroom you don’t 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 of ethnic origin 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 over-reaching. 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). But only one person took the fall: Jan Wong. The school shooting story was her last major feature for the Globe.

“Backlash” is too mild a word for the tidal wave of fury that broke over Wong’s head: thousands of e-mails, many bristling with expletives and ugly racial attacks; a package containing a mutilated copy of one 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’s admitting it). But a national crisis? The Globe went into backpedal mode, disavowing the offending paragraphs in a carefully worded 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 didn’t, even as the illness took her sleep, her appetite and her memory. As she says, “…I could still walk and talk. I wasn’t wearing my shirt inside out. Surely I could just snap out of it?’ Like many depressives, she initially resisted the very idea that she had suffered from a mental illness.

Once she realized that she wouldn’t get her life back until she faced the truth, she found herself fighting to be recognized as ill. Wong was bombarded with hectoring letters, diagnosed as well by a psychiatrist who had never met her and stonewalled by Manulife’s faceless bureaucrats (Monty Python could have scripted some of the dialog). She estimates the Globe‘s legal fees at $100,000 or more. The whole thing is reminiscent of a particularly corrosive divorce. No wonder: Wong’s job at theGlobe 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. In the depths of her illness, she assumed she would one day return to theGlobe, even though she could no longer bear to have the paper in her home or even to cancel the subscription herself (her husband did the deed). It took the prodding of her favourite journalism professor, one of many finely drawn characters who populate this book, to knock some sense into her head. His challenge: “Do you go back or do you change your life?”

Wong didn’t lack other allies. Her family’s loyalty and love evoke a tenderness in her that will be new to many readers. One in four marriages break up under the strain of depression but Wong’s husband, 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. Her sister, whose grievances against Wong had driven the two apart, became her dauntless advocate. Wong documents the family’s 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 who have it fight every bit as hard just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 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 boss, it might well save you and you and your employer from a costly mistake.

First published in The Literary Review of Canada, September 2012.


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