Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken

Hillenbrand, Laura.  Unbroken.   New York: Random House, 2010.

Nb: Although this is a male biography, it’s a self-actualization story for anyone.

Although most of the book is violent and disturbing, I continued to read to the end–500 pages—in order to learn how Louis Zamperini could emotionally and physically survive combat, prisoner of war camps, and a clueless post-war society.  I want to know if his endurance would ever fail him.  And when it finally (and I mean, finally) did fail him—when he was no good to himself and his families—I read to discover how he found ultimate comfort.  I won’t say what that is, but I will say that it wasn’t the answer I was reading for.

Let me back up.  I read 500 pages for several reasons.  First, because one of my daughters was reading Unbroken for her book club meeting, which was two nights away. Second, because I sort of know the author because she once lived in the house that my daughter moved into and because she moved next door, becoming my daughter’s next door neighbor, whom we never saw because Hillenbrand suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and rarely leaves.  So…sort of. Third, because I suspected that Zamperini’s story inspired Hillenbrand to work and create amidst her own limitations and sufferings.  By extension, I hoped that discovering how Louis Zamperini could self-actualize while being tortured, neglected, and misunderstood would assist my self-actualization.

I won’t recount or critique the book except to say that it’s an amazing story that couldn’t be more thoroughly researched (50 pages of notes!).

What I’m wondering weeks after I finished the book is why am I still so disappointed in how Zamperini self-actualized after the war. What I struggle to determine is if Zamperini found peace and even happiness by succumbing  to a popular master narrative in order to escape his nighttime terrors and daytime traumas.  What I’m still asking myself is this:  Did he, after holding out on the raft and with the Japanese to keep his dignity, sanity, and health, end up yielding to US propaganda?  Taking a step back, I’m reminded that self-actualizers don’t merely reject master narratives and live marginally. They also assess master narratives and subscribe to those that are healthy for their self-actualizing.  They are not all women who reject patriarchy, slaves who reject slavery, and POWs who reject brainwashing.  They are often Tea Partiers, Fundamentalist Baptists, DAR members, and NRA advocates. I am reminded that humans self-actualize by not only rejecting inappropriate master narratives, but also, by embracing appropriate ones.

For Louis Zamperini, his choice is not mine. I couldn’t believe that so quickly his nightmares end.   He expels such little effort compared to the rest of his story.   He quickly transforms from an absolutely dysfunctional husband and father who is enslaved by nightmares and doubts into a functioning person who spends the rest of his life improving himself and the world.  So what’s my gripe?  It’s a two-for.  First, his choice seems absurdly easy after all that he’s endured.  Second, his choice mimics social mores.  You see, this guy who fought against unbelievable odds to stay alive and keep his dignity, gives up his uniqueness to join an enormously popular organization.  He actually chooses to fit in, get in step, and become one of the masses.  So what I’m struggling to accept is that he has the choice to agree to social acculturation.  I’m struggling with my disapproval of his choice because I’d hands down reject it.  That’s wrong.

Both repulsion of and attraction to social norms can lead to self-actualizing.  I need to remember that.


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