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Laura Hillenbrand releases new book while fighting chronic fatigue syndrome

The book is 400 pages long. Hillenbrand interviewed Zamperini, who now lives in California, 75 times. She also spoke with his family, friends and former comrades, many of whom died before she could finish the work. "Unbroken" is a meticulous, soaring and beautifully written account of an extraordinary life.

Hillenbrand and Zamperini have never met face to face.

"I have to detach myself completely from aspirations," Hillenbrand says, discussing how she has learned to cope with her illness. "I hardly ever listen to music anymore because it arouses all of this yearning in me." She numbs herself to the things she cannot have.

Journalists have liked pointing out the irony of Hillenbrand's work: A woman for whom walking around the block constitutes a marathon writes about the finest specimens of physical endurance.

It's not irony, she says. It's escape. "I'm looking for a way out of here. I can't have it physically, so I'm going to have it intellectually. It was a beautiful thing to ride Seabiscuit in my imagination. And it's just fantastic to be there alongside Louie as he's breaking the NCAA mile record. People at these vigorous moments in their lives - it's my way of living vicariously."

In the nine years since "Seabiscuit" was published, Hillenbrand has become a receiver of narratives from fellow sufferers of CFS who want to either offer their help or ask for hers. When they can't get hold of Hillenbrand, they call her husband, leaving tear-filled messages at his American University office.

"There haven't been a lot of people who are coming forward to talk about this disease," she says ruefully. "We're all home in bed."

Asked to describe, in detail, what exactly the rather blithely named chronic fatigue syndrome feels like, Hillenbrand says, "I got sick when I was 19, and I'd been a really healthy 19-year-old, so I don't have a lot to compare it to. Does it feel like the pain after you give birth? I don't know." There is nauseating vertigo. On bad days, "if the house was burning down, I could not sit up. It's really a state of acute suffering when you get like that. It's kind of like pain, but . . . " she pauses. "I don't know how to describe it."

The woman who is able to spend paragraphs describing men who have been dead for decades, undergoing unparalleled human suffering, using records that almost no one knew existed, is unable to put into words the betrayal of her own body.

A tremendous love story

About six months ago, Hillenbrand and Flanagan, her husband, needed to replace a rug. Because Hillenbrand wasn't able to leave the house for a carpet-buying excursion, Flanagan went alone, taking pictures of the contenders with his cellphone.

In this house is a tremendous love story.

They'd met in college at a campus deli, her a sophomore, him a senior. They'd been dating for just five months when Hillenbrand got sick, which happened suddenly and nonsensically, like a book that has had all of its middle pages torn away. First, they and a friend were driving back to Kenyon College after spring break. Then, Hillenbrand could barely move. Food poisoning, doctors said, but it wasn't.


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