Author Laura Hillenbrand: Leaving frailty behind
Paul Costello on August 17, 2016
Laura Hillenbrand speaks like she writes: beautifully. She captures
moments like getting on a horse to ride again in ways that make you
feel like you, too, are riding and feeling the wind in your face.
Hillenbrand, one of the most successful writers of modern times, has
suffered many years from chronic fatigue syndrome or, as she likes to
refer to it, myalgic encephalomyelitis syndrome. (She despises the
term CFS, as she thinks it portrays those who suffer from it as lazy
and contemptible.) Astonishingly, she wrote two great books while
enduring vertigo and extreme exhaustion from her illness. Seabiscuit
and Unbroken captured the imagination of readers and there are more
than 13 million copies in print. Seabiscuit is the story of a
racehorse that captured America's heart during the Great Depression
while Unbroken details the saga of Louis Zamperini, who survived a
bomber crash in the Pacific in World War II and spent two and a half
years as a prisoner of war.
For the summer issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, a special on
well-being, I was curious what the word "well" meant to someone who
has been unwell for so long – so I reached out to the author. In the
conversation that followed, she graphically detailed how she was
ravaged by the disease and how – after being stricken in 1987 – her
symptoms at times were so severe that for two years she was
incapacitated and house-ridden. She told me she has made a lot of
recent changes in her medical treatments and in her life; she has
pushed a lot of boundaries such as moving across country to Oregon to
be with her boyfriend.
I sensed that Hillenbrand has uncovered a range of newfound strengths
and is trying to leave her frailty behind. While she knows she can
never escape her chronic illness, there is a sense of optimism and
wonderment in her voice over her new beginnings.
As we ended our conversation I couldn't help but ask about a new book.
She says she's not ready to disclose the topic yet, but it will be "a
whole lot of fun."
Hopefully, readers who have loved her work will relish this 1:2:1
podcast for her startling frankness about how she achieved great
writing success while besieged by a mysterious illness. For others who
don't know Hillenbrand's writings or her personal story, I hope
they'll be in awe – as I am – that she did such excellent work while
smothered in pain and darkness.