By Laura Hillenbrand
Louis Zamperini is, among other things, one of the toughest people to ever walk the earth. He knows this and wrote about his travails in Devil at my Heels, published in 1953 and re-edited and re-published in 2003. When contacted by Laura Hillenbrand who was seeking to write his biography, he felt like he had already told the story and didn’t think there was anything left to say. Just the same, he graciously sat through more than 70 interviews while she patiently asked him questions, reviewed volumes of documents she had unearthed, and double-checked the veracity of witness accounts. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a masterful piece of research; beautifully written and lovingly shared.
In his 95-plus years in this life Zamperini has been a juvenile delinquent, vagabond, high school track star, Olympic athlete, World War II bombardier, castaway, prisoner of war, husband, and inspirational speaker. It is difficult to read Hillenbrand’s book and not imagine some invisible hand at work, keeping him from the brink of ruin or disaster or death until he found God in the person of Billy Graham. He was born with a nose for trouble and the winged feet of Hermes, both of which would serve him well throughout a life of pain and hardship. Zamperini had another quality, hidden away inside himself, which inspired Hillenbrand to be his biographer: he had endured the worst of man-made, soul- and body-killing hells but somehow managed to preserve the tiniest kernel of himself. Long after the hell of war was over and Louis Zamperini was on the precipice of self-destruction, he rediscovered that essential piece of himself and nursed it back to life.
Hillenbrand is best known for her biography of Seabiscuit, the legendary thoroughbred racehorse of the Depression era. Like Unbroken, Seabiscuit is meticulously researched and a wonderfully told tale. Reading the notes on sources in the back of these two books reveals the depth to which the author goes to learn about her subjects. She tracks down every witness, living or dead, and finds every document which references them. While the amount of work that Hillenbrand puts into her books is staggering, her true gift is in knitting everything together to create personal histories that take readers deep into the lives of her subjects. In the case of Louis Zamperini, Hillenbrand found information about him that he never knew existed, including diaries of fellow prisoners-of-war, and which touched him deeply. Typically, biographers and journalists spend days and weeks on the road searching out information and conducting interviews. Hillenbrand was unable to do that. She had to talk her sources into boxing up and shipping irreplaceable documents, photographs, artifacts, etc., to the prison that is her life. Hillenbrand suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a mysterious illness for which there is no known cause nor cure, and rarely leaves her house, let alone her bed.
There really is no way to appreciate what it is like to live with CFS other than to imagine having advanced rheumatoid arthritis, the flu, and a killer hangover at the same time, for weeks and months on end. On good days, Hillenbrand can take a shower standing up, ride in a car, or take a very short walk. Sadly, the good days are few and far between. Until she was diagnosed, several doctors dismissed her as being a hypochondriac, despite raging fevers, swollen lymph nodes, and strep throat that would not respond to antibiotics. Before collapsing at 19 years of age, Hillenbrand was a hard working and athletic college student. She had dreams of becoming a history professor, but her illness forced her to drop out of Kenyon College and retreat to her mother’s home in the Washington, DC, suburbs. That could have been the end of her story, but she wasn’t willing to give up on living a useful life.
This fighting spirit is what kept her college boyfriend of five months, Borden Flanagan, from leaving. Not only did he remain committed during the months leading up to Hillenbrand’s diagnosis, he wanted to marry her and hoped one day to have children. She, too, wished to marry but kept waiting for her illness to go into remission. It never did; but no matter how sick she was, Hillenbrand found a way to keep working. First it was writing for a horseracing magazine which never paid her what she was owed but did lead to better assignments, such as writing for Equus. It was while reading about Seabiscuit for a piece for American Heritage that Hillenbrand became inspired to dig deeper into the story behind the legendary racehorse and the people who believed in him. It took Hillenbrand ten years to write Seabiscuit as her disease ebbed and flowed, giving her brief periods of productivity in between relapses. Even on her worst days, however, she tried to accomplish something. When she submitted the manuscript for publication, she neglected to mention that she too sick to get out of bed most days.
After enduring years of condescension from the medical community, Hillenbrand eventually found a doctor who was able to help her manage her symptoms to a degree and this enabled her to continue striving. In an essay she wrote for The New Yorker magazine, Hillenbrand describes how she was able to do the research and writing involved in Seabiscuit. It was a matter of conserving and managing her strength and that required tremendous strategic thinking. CFS limited the amount of energy Hillenbrand could expend on a given day, so she had to monitor herself carefully to assess what she could accomplish. From her bedroom, she arranged for the Library of Congress to lend materials to her local public library. When the materials arrived, she would go to the library and pore over them, taking detailed notes until the room began spinning. Back in her room, if she couldn’t read, she would conduct interviews over the telephone, if she couldn’t talk, she would send emails. Her research was so good and her questions so intriguing, that no one was put off by her reclusiveness. Louis Zamperini did not find out that his biographer was bedridden until he read an article about her after Unbroken was published. He sent her one of his Purple Hearts.
It was shortly after Seabiscuit was published that Flanagan confronted his feelings about spending his life with an invalid with whom he could never have children. Hillenbrand’s success meant that she was no longer completely dependent on Flanagan, and the idea of being free tempted him. When he finally worked up the courage to share his ambivalence with Hillenbrand, the two of them discovered strengths in each other that enabled them to forge a stronger and deeper relationship than either had thought possible. He stayed and the two eventually married.
To Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferers, Laura Hillenbrand is both hero and role model. They write to her imploring her to do for CFS what she has done for Seabiscuit and Louis Zamperini. What she has said is that she uses her subjects as a means of escaping the disease that changed her from being an active, vital person to a ghostly invalid. It would take a biographer as skilled as Hillenbrand to bring her inner life to light and determine the degree to which fighting the disease makes her strong or her strength keeps the disease from winning. Either way, Laura Hillenbrand is a champion.
Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved