Twice in the last decade, author Laura Hillenbrand has written best sellers in which the central figures are dynamic and courageous athletes. In 2001 she published Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about the underdog Depression-era racehorse. Her current work, Unbroken, is the story of middle distance runner Louis Zamperini, who competed in the 1936 Olympics, later crashed in the Pacific as an Army bombardier and survived 47 days adrift at sea and more than two years in a Japanese POW camp.
Yet the writer whose books are so filled with physical energy has been robbed of hers. For 23 years Hillenbrand, 43, has suffered from an extreme form of chronic fatigue syndrome, with accompanying vertigo, that leaves her almost perpetually exhausted. "I move very little, almost never leave my home, and sit in silence alone, most of the time," says Hillenbrand in an e-mail. In her subjects she finds the freedom that she can't have in her daily life. "I love to write about individuals who lived lives full of motion," she says, "because this illness leaves me trapped in stillness. In my mind, I'm with my subjects, whether it is aboard Seabiscuit's back as he puts away War Admiral or aboard a raft lost on the Pacific as a Japanese bomber strafes it with bullets and sharks circle alongside."
Long before her illness struck, Hillenbrand was an athlete. She was an accomplished age-group swimmer and an equestrienne. At Kenyon College, she says she played tennis "obsessively." She later began cycling. It was not competition that drove her but the joy of simply playing. "I was a socially awkward and troubled kid," says Hillenbrand. "And I didn't like myself much. But when I was playing a sport, I felt liberated and elevated. I miss sports every day."
She has since chosen subjects who have fought adversity. She writes of their victories, which become her own. "To succeed, an athlete must transcend the boundaries of the body and the mind, pushing through pain and exhaustion, doubt and fear and mental fatigue, extending his or her body to its structural limits," says Hillenbrand. "One thing that made Louie Zamperini so special a subject was the way in which all of the attributes he called upon to be a great runner were the same attributes he called upon to survive in combat, as a castaway on a life raft and as a prisoner of war."
Hillenbrand's health has wavered through the years. She had what she calls a "catastrophic CFS relapse" in 2007 and has been improving slowly since. She lives in a Washington, D.C., townhouse with her husband, American University political theory professor G. Borden Flanagan, whom she met 24 years ago at Kenyon, just before becoming sick. (They were married in 2006.) Promoting Unbroken has tired Hillenbrand, but, she says, "it is tremendously important to me to bring the story of Zamperini, and the POWs who served alongside him, to the world. I owe it to those men, who opened up their histories to me. And I want so badly to define myself by something other than this all-consuming disease. These books have given me that gift."