Jan Wong dishes on depression in the workplace

Wong’s new book ‘Out of the Blue’ is the first of a new genre: the workplace divorce memoir

Lunch with Jan Wong
Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

It’s not 10 minutes into my lunch with Jan Wong, and the veteran journalist’s Type-A ways are on full display. Her backseat driving began in a cab after the restaurant where we chose to meet was closed after a break-in. When I arrived, Wong was busy grilling the owner for crime-scene details. “There was broken glass and blood everywhere,” she reports cheerfully in the taxi, interrupting herself to tell the driver to turn.

Settled into our destination, a chic downtown Toronto restaurant, Wong appears harmless in a brown pantsuit, seed-pearl necklace and sensible shoes. A youthful 59, she carries a blue backpack. A decade since Wong’s Globe and Mail column “Lunch With . . .” famously—often brutally—skewered subjects, there’s little evidence of the “Hannibal Lecter of the lunch set,” as Pamela Wallin once called her. Wong is friendly and open, though commandeering. After we both decide on the special, she orders for us then sets about structuring the conversation: “Let’s start at the beginning,” she says. “Back off, Jan,” I tell her, “this is my interview.” She laughs and sits back on the banquette. “Okay,” she says to herself, “calm down, relax.”

Wong is stressed, she says. It’s the eve of the publication of her fifth book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness and much is on the line. She is self-publishing after Doubleday Canada cancelled her contract at the 11th hour. This morning, she approved a second print run of 5,000, for a total of 10,000 copies—which, if sold, would make it a blockbuster. Wong has sunk some $35,000 into the project, which has garnered predictable buzz in media circles. But her battle with the Globe and its insurer Manulife Financial over unpaid medical leave will resonate with a bigger audience spurned by a long-time employer or visited by depression’s “black dogs.” Out of the Blue is a page-turner suffused with suffering—and pluck. All ends happily with Wong conquering workplace-induced depression to become a kinder, gentler being proffering a “smell-the-roses” instructive.

Wong likens her story to an Ian McEwan novel in which “a random” event sets off a catastrophic chain reaction. That event, as Wong sees it, was the fatal shooting at Montreal’s Dawson College in September 2006. The 20-year Globe veteran was at the time a marquee name known for her bold, almost reckless, moral certitude. She’d travelled to Beijing in 1972, at age 19, the first Canadian to study there during the Cultural Revolution. Wong recounted her days as a “starry-eyed” Maoist in her 1997 book Red China Blues, in which she admits reporting a fellow student to authorities after she asked Wong for help escaping to the West. Disenchanted with the Red Guards and newly enamoured with journalism, Wong earned her master’s at Columbia and settled at the Globe. Her tenacity garnered headlines: in 1988, a vice-president of the Toronto Stock Exchange was sacked after Wong unearthed lies on his CV. That year, she was named China correspondent, a six-year stint than won her plaudits for ballsy coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Then came her “Lunch With . . .” feature between 1996 and 2002, much-read caustic celebrity interviews denounced as gratuitously nasty. At lunch, Wong shrugs off the criticism: “I don’t do subtle. I don’t do wink-wink,” she says. “If I see the emperor is wearing no clothes, I’ll say it, even if I know the other villagers are going to stone me.”

Work was Wong’s “core, my identity,” she writes. She recalls every published “correction” of her work, but not when her first-born son began walking. Journalism was less a job than a moral mission: she was “a truth-teller, a crusader even.” That crusade extended to trashing her employer publicly. In 2004, Wong denounced the Globe’s “meeting-oriented” culture in the Ryerson Review of Journalism. In Chris Cobb’s 2004 book Ego and Ink, about the newspaper wars, Wong called the Globe “a writer’s paper that had become this meat grinder.” Its attempts to ape the National Post were tawdry, she opined, “like sequins on a stripper’s panties.”

Wong thrived as in-house provocateur. Post-9/11, she smuggled a box cutter onto a flight to test airport security. She made a splash with her April 2006 “Maid for a month” series, going undercover to expose low-income life. Introducing the series, then-Globe editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon described Wong’s writing as “intrusive, edgy, insightful, significant—and funny.” “Everything Jan touches becomes memorable,” he wrote.

When shots rang at Dawson, the third-generation Montrealer was the logical go-to for a big feature. Under tight deadline, Wong observed that the Dawson shooter, and the shooters at the École Polytechnique and Concordia, were children of immigrants. All three, she wrote, “had been marginalized in a society that valued pure laine,” argot for “pure” francophones: “Elsewhere, to talk of racial ‘purity’ is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

The words struck an exposed nerve, and unleashed “L’affaire Wong.” Politicians piled on the Globe. Wong was denounced in Parliament. The personal attacks were ugly and virulent—racist commentary, a barrage of hate mail, even a death threat.

“Of course I knew it would be sensitive,” Wong says, tucking into rabbit ragù over pappardelle. “I figured I’d get letters. Did I think it would be page-one news in Quebec for weeks? No. I thought: ‘Really?’ ” She still contends she was misunderstood. She fishes in her knapsack for a piece of paper with the contentious paragraph. “Everybody is saying I said they shot people because of Bill 101. Where does it say that? I never said that!”

Within days, she writes, she felt marginalized at work. A promotion she thought was a lock didn’t happen. Globe publisher Phillip Crawley, who’d always been “chummy,” Wong says, was furious. She writes that he told her: “You have hurt our brand in Quebec.” (Crawley declined comment for this article.)

Greenspon issued a rare mea culpa: while reaction to Wong’s article was “disproportionate,” he wrote, Wong’s statements “were clearly opinion, not reporting and should have been removed from the story.” Wong was furious, and hurt. (Greenspon declined comment.) She felt abandoned—suddenly fragile. She’d received death threats in the past, and the paper handled it; this time, she writes, she had to call police herself. She was angry that managers, trying to tamp the fire, ordered her not to do more interviews or talk about the situation. She saw it as censorship: she’d been “gagged,” she writes.

Besieged by anxiety, Wong called in sick. She cancelled her subscription to the Globe. “It made me more ill,” she explained at lunch. “I get crap all the time for my writing; I’m a tough reporter. But I could not accept betrayal of my own.” In October, she sent the paper a doctor’s note confirming she was ill. A two-year flurry of forms, mediation and arbitration followed. Wong writes she was ordered back to work in December or her sick pay and benefits would end. She stayed put.

Wong’s doctor recommended travel—a “geographic cure.” She travelled to Scandinavia with her son’s hockey team, only to bump into Greenspon at the luggage carousel upon return. Still shaky, she took a scheduled two-month book leave to finish her book Beijing Confidential. Her return to the newsroom in April 2007 lasted six weeks. A big story she was assigned—Conrad Black’s former maid dishing on life in his Toronto house before his trial (“details of toilet flushing and wine drinking,” Wong says)—was spiked for no reason, she claims (a Globe editor says there were legal concerns). Colleagues note Wong hadn’t lost her zeal for breaching boundaries other reporters wouldn’t. One recalls her working on a story about germs on cellphones; discovering someone in the men’s washroom was texting on the toilet, she raced to the door to interview him.

It took a blow-up with an Air Canada flight attendant to alert Wong to the fact she was cracking up, she writes, and needed to heal. A vivid, engaging storyteller, Wong details her descent into depression—its effect on her supportive husband and two sons, the dopamine high of shopping, the constipation from antidepressants. Misreading cues and hypersensitivity were hallmarks of her condition, she writes, which makes Out of the Blue an odd hybrid: self-reporting by an ace reporter whose narrative credibility is undermined by the affliction she’s chronicling. “Memory is the first casualty of depression,” Wong writes. At lunch, Wong says she’s a reliable narrator: “Yes, I’m always warning the reader that my interpretation of events was skewed.”

Even on medical leave, Wong was busier than most: she signed a contract for a book about depression to be written after she’d recovered; she travelled to Arizona, Paris, New York City, China and Australia on the “geographic cure”; she embarked on a book tour for Beijing Confidential. Travel brought clarity: she realized she loved journalism but not her job. “I hadn’t been happy in recent years at the newspaper,” she writes.

Out of the Blue is the first of a new genre: the workplace divorce memoir. Once the source of her identity, Globe managers became “my tormenters,” Wong writes. A turning point in her recovery came when her psychiatrist told her she was still allowing herself to be defined by the newspaper: “You are staying sick because you have to convince them that you are sick.”

As with all divorce memoirs, only one version of events is presented. But Wong’s tendency to see the world in black-and-white terms of betrayer and betrayed that makes her such a popular journalist, also made her difficult to manage within the paper, editors say. “Jan always pushed limits,” says one.

A sore point before Dawson was Wong’s filing for overtime, particularly for the maid series. She was exercising her legal right, Wong says. She refused to swap overtime for time off: “I won’t do that—I file all my taxes and I file my overtime.” In the book, Wong visits a former journalism professor who tells her she doesn’t fit the new journalistic model. “Bland is in,” he says. “You’re like sand in the oyster.” Wong says she’s still “an idealist.” A former colleague puts it another way: “The instincts that led her to Maoism in her early years never left her personality.” China remains a benchmark. While on medical leave in 2007, she told Quill and Quire: “I’m not allowed to talk about it or I’ll get fired. It’s very Chinese, actually.”

Though Wong was ready for divorce, she dug in her heels when the Globe terminated her in June 2008. “I don’t give up,” Wong says. “It’s in my DNA.” She had support from her family—several of whom are good lawyers, she says. She stood tough until she got what she wanted, she writes, even the rare waiving of a non-disclosure clause. The settlement is not public but Wong writes of a “big, fat cheque”—and, unable to resist, gloats that she cashed out her Globe pension before the 2008 market crash.

When long-time publisher Doubleday cancelled her contract, it was “another betrayal,” she confides. The manuscript required five drafts and intense legal vetting before it was accepted for publication, Wong says. Then the lawyer acting for Doubleday and Wong received a call from the Globe’s lawyer about a piece Wong had written for the October 2010 Chatelaine that mentioned her next book about “the surreal but ultimately triumphant experience” of leaving the Globe. She says she was called to a meeting with Doubleday executives, and later presented with a manuscript with all references to the Globe and Manulife highlighted in yellow on 84 of 384 pages, one-fifth of the book. Over our lunch, Wong hands over a one-page mélange of the marked-up pages. “I’m putting it on my website,” she says. She rejected the suggestion Globe references be contained to the first chapter. “It’s the narrative thread,” she says. “It’s [about] workplace depression.” (Doubleday refused interview requests but issued a statement: “We had a difference of opinion about the direction of the manuscript. We wish Ms. Wong all the best.”)

Wong now lives half-time in Fredericton, where she teaches journalism at St. Thomas University. Her students are “too nice,” she says. “Part of my training is becoming a tough reporter, asking questions you don’t think are very nice.” She’s just started writing a weekly column for the Halifax Chronicle Herald. She misses the daily beat, she says, suddenly praising the Globe: “Even though I was very critical and outspoken about the Globe, I thought and believe today it’s the best newspaper in Canada if you want to do journalism on a daily basis.” Could she ever envision returning to the Globe? I ask. She pauses. “Yeah,” she says. “There are circumstances.” She contributed to the 50th anniversary coverage of the China bureau in 2009 after new editor-in-chief John Stackhouse asked her personally —an “olive branch,” she says.

But now she has a new mission. “There’s a need to educate the public about depression,” she says. Still, she continues to shadow-box with her past. She hands over a DVD filmed by a security company hired by Manulife to document her book tour. “I’m going to make a YouTube video,” she says. Out of the Blue has no index, she notes: “You can’t just stand in Indigo and flip through it. You have to buy it.” She laughs. “That’s my revenge.” She motions to her sticky toffee pudding: “Sure you don’t want any?” she asks. “It’s warm. Delicious.”