Laura Hillenbrand releases new book while fighting chronic fatigue syndrome

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 7:21 PM

"Sometimes I fear that I dress really strangely," Laura Hillenbrand says. "Or maybe I don't speak normally, because language changes while I'm away."

Sometimes something will happen; she will walk into a CVS after years of not walking anywhere beyond the 1,500 square feet of her butter-yellow Glover Park rowhouse, and she will discover that automated registers have replaced human cashiers in the checkout lanes. She is, if she's being completely honest, still not entirely sure what a BlackBerry is. The technology invented for a mobile life is not necessary when your life is not mobile. "I've used a cellphone exactly twice," Hillenbrand, 43, says. "Things move on. The world changes. And I don't know it."

She sits at her kitchen table. She has a kind of indoor, Victorian beauty - soft and smooth, with pale, translucent skin.

In the small, contained, calibrated world of Laura Hillenbrand, actions take on a different sort of meaning. Triumphs are measured on a sliding scale. There was the huge triumph in 2001, the triumph of "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," the book that could about the horse that could, toppling bestseller charts and becoming an Academy Award-nominated movie.

Then there are the more recent wins. The time she managed to take an entire shower standing up. The time she and her husband, Borden Flanagan, drove to the alley at the end of their block so she could see something other than the cemetery behind their yard, and the time, a few weeks later, that they drove all the way to Starbucks. Sat in the parking lot. Drove home.

After the stunning success of "Seabiscuit," Hillenbrand suffered a relapse of the chronic fatigue syndrome that has ruled her life for more than two decades. From 2007 through the summer of 2009, she never left her house; for some of those months, she never left her room. Her relationship with Flanagan was pushed to its limits.

But all the while, she was calling people she was too weak to visit, and e-mailing the people she was too weak to call. She was requesting newspapers from archives and scanning forgotten POW lists. She was finding a guy who owned a clunky Norden bombsight and persuading him to set the contraption up on her kitchen table so she could understand how soldiers accurately dropped bombs during World War II. "We spent a while," she says delightedly, "bombing Phoenix."

Last week, after nearly a decade of laboring, Hillenbrand's second book was released - a biography of the Olympic runner whose dreams of breaking the four-minute mile were smashed by a plane crash and an unspeakable stay in a Japanese war camp. It is called "Unbroken."

An extraordinary life

"Laura told me she wanted to write my biography. I told her I was already finishing my [memoir]. She said, I must do it. I said, Laura, I've milked this thing dry. There's nothing left. She said, I must."

Louis Zamperini is 93. In his running days he was the most famous racing mammal aside from Seabiscuit, which is how Hillenbrand learned about him to begin with. Zamperini was frequently mentioned on the sports pages along with the horse she was profiling: his juvenile delinquent childhood, the redemption he found in running, the bitterness he felt when he returned from war and the soothing balm of forgiveness. His celebrated story had already been the subject of three books. When Hillenbrand phoned him, he couldn't imagine there was anything to add.

"But she found so many things," Zamperini says - prison diaries he hadn't known his fellow inmates were keeping, for example, or the fate of the boat that rescued him after his plane crash. "I have to call her and ask her what happened to me in certain prison camps."

For seven years, they developed a friendship in absentia. Zamperini didn't know why all of their conversations were over the phone until he read an interview with Hillenbrand and learned about her illness. Then, "I sent her one of my Purple Hearts. I said, you deserve this more than me."

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.

Eventually Hillenbrand was forced to leave Kenyon College. She relocated to Chicago where her boyfriend had been accepted to graduate school, but while visiting her mother in Maryland she collapsed and knew she'd never be strong enough for the flight back to Illinois. Washington became her default home. She and Flanagan remained apart until he could find a job in the area, at which point Washington became his default home, too.

"If you had asked the 21-year-old me, 'Would you like to be someone's caretaker for the rest of your life?' " Flanagan says, "I don't think our relationship was sufficiently evolved at that time." For years, they put off getting married; Hillenbrand wanted to be well before planning a wedding.

In the beginning, at least, "well" seemed like a reachable destination. It was ludicrous, really, to think things might not improve. "We didn't want to . . . adopt the attitude that she might not get better," Flanagan says. "When it became obvious she wasn't getting better, we'd been together for so long that marriage seemed . . . "

How much closer could a ceremony bind two people who had been through what they had?

When "Seabiscuit" became a bestseller, Flanagan threw open a second-story window and gleefully shouted the news to the neighborhood. The book was a rejoinder to anyone who had ever associated CFS with laziness. And it felt good, Hillenbrand says wryly, "being able to be something other than [Flanagan's] invalid girlfriend."

But the success of Hillenbrand's book also helped uncover a cache of emotions that Flanagan had been hiding about her illness. He was exhausted, terrified, frustrated, sad. But he feared that sharing any of this with Hillenbrand would only tax her health further, and so he was also isolated from the one person he wanted to talk to.

"I started to have doubts," he says, asking himself if he was with her out of moral duty. "I tried to persuade myself that I didn't love her."

"I thought, 'Now she's wealthy,' " he remembers. "Now I won't be the world's worst bastard if I leave."

He came to her one night in June with all of these confessions, but the resulting conversations only made their relationship stronger.

"I had to persuade myself it was possible for me to leave," Flanagan says, "before I could realize that I didn't want to."

They were married in 2008, during a good spell, at the Hay-Adams Hotel downtown. Hillenbrand was seated for the ceremony, and wasn't strong enough for the reception. She thinks the cake had alternating layers, chocolate and vanilla-apricot, but she doesn't remember because she didn't get to taste it herself.

No matter. It was, both agree, a beautiful wedding.

Point of departure

In the carefully calibrated world of Laura Hillenbrand, every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. On one day, she might agree to an interview but skip a shower. Energy is finite, and she typically has enough for one activity a day. She is constantly measuring herself, monitoring herself. She might write a bestseller - she might write two - but the ensuing fame will touch her only tangentially. She will not see her books in Barnes & Noble. She will not move into a bigger house; too much more space would be overwhelming.

People ask, sometimes, whether she would consider writing a book about chronic fatigue syndrome. She doesn't plan on it. She already knows what that life is like.

Before she got sick, she loved to travel. Now, when she is well enough, her favorite thing is to drive down to Reagan National Airport and sit in view of the runway. She loves the big openness of the runway, and the fact that she can see very far away.

It's a gateway to another world.

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