Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Zamperini was not "Unbroken"

Having just read Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's magnificent account of the life of Louis Zamperini, I can't get his story out of my head. For one thing it defies belief, in the sense that no one would believe it if it had been written as fiction. No one can suffer that much and live, we would think. No one's trials could have been that relentless. Or the Japanese POW camps couldn't have been that bad. Or certain Japanese individuals couldn't have been that evil. Strangely though - or not strangely, considering human nature - what seems even harder to believe is that Zamperini was convicted of his own sin (and a broken promise) by the Holy Spirit at a Billy Graham rally in 1949: that he was captured in the very best sense as a servant of Jesus, that he forgave all his tormentors, and went on to live a loving, happy, energetic, altruistic, Gospel-filled life. And a long life too. Though presumably he could have died of the pneumonia that afflicted him at age 2, it only ended up taking him a full 95 years later. And what a run he had of those bonus 95 years! Extraordinary by any measure, in each of their different phases. Of his early years as a right scamp, one can only be grateful he didn't live his boyhood now, when his parents would have been under pressure to get him drugged up faster than you can say ADHD or whatever else would be diagnosed. One has to note the immense contribution his close-knit family made to his strength of character. His parents married very young and stayed together trough thick and thin. They were religious (to what extent is not specified but they were Roman Catholic). They were strict but fair, and they taught their children right from wrong - supported in this by the culture at large, as parents no longer are. His young mother did not think it beneath her to cook modest but delicious meals for her family, meals that, as she could not possibly have guessed, would later on give emotional, vital sustenance to demoralised and starving men via Louis's description of them. His siblings were also important. His older brother Peter put him on track to his success as a track star, chanelling all that energy and fleetness of foot to positive purposes. His younger sisters were devoted to him, actively joining the rest of the family, during the long years of his disapperance, in not believing he was dead despite being officially told that he was. How many boys of poor background - or any background - are now blessed with these simple but crucial advantages? It's tempting to say 'none'. Even boys from strong families are now more likely to have their brains and moral compasses destroyed by the prevailing culture rather than shored up by it. The circumstances of Louis Zamperini's story are irreproduceable in today's world, in some instances for good reasons (like greater international accountability), but mostly for bad ones (social brokenness). And yet, despite his advantages, Zamperini could still have won the battle of his wartime experience but lost the war of civilian life afterwards. Many did. Unbroken gives a voice not only to Zamperini but also to his co-survivor (Russell Allen Phillips), to thousands of co-captives and, in a wider sense, to all the victims of Japanese POW camps, those who bodily survived and those who didn't.The major quibble I have with the book is with the title.  Zamperini did survive the appalling ill-treatment and degradation he was subjected to. One can say he was not broken by his experience at the time. But in civilian life his brokenness became all too evident. A chap who nearly strangles his wife thinking he is strangling his wartime torturer is not hale and hearty. A chap who gets drunk every night is not keeping it together. A chap who's tormented by post-traumatic nightmares is not wholly sane. A chap who's lost his way, his money and is on the verge of losing his beautiful, long-suffering wife and his young child  - this man is not 'unbroken'. In fact he is so broken that only the one true source of healing and salvation could repair him. And the one true source, as his wife Cynthia learned at those Billy Graham rallies, was the Lord Jesus, the Christ. Zamperini's story is one of being miraculously healed, not of being unbroken. I suppose the book's subtitle hints at this: "Survival. Resilience. Redemption." But the 'redemption' part of the narrative is confined to a few pages at the end of the book. And the questions for discussion appended in the 'Reader's Guide' afterwards undermine the obvious truth (as shown in the narrative) on two key points. Number 11 asks: "Louie believed he was the beneficiary of several miracles [...] What is your interpretation of those experiences?" - as if Zamperini had been wrong to see them as miracles. Number 21 suggests that the impact of Graham's influence on Zamperini was mainly to "restore his sense of dignity", to give him back his "self-worth" - whereas the crazy truth is that Zamperini needed to be broken further still, by conviction of his own sin, before he could be healed. Granted it was perhaps Zamperini himself who didn't want his salvation to be the focus of the book, in order to make the story more accessible to a secular audience. But after some 500 pages of  narrative and notes, wouldn't it have been ok to give credit where it was due? Yes, those were miracles. No, dignity and self-worth didn't come first: salvation did. Those caveats aside, please read this book, the measured, graceful prose of which tells such a disturbing yet exhilarating true story.