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Hillenbrand was born in Fairfax, Virginia, the daughter and youngest of four children of Elizabeth Marie Dwyer, a child psychologist, and Bernard Francis Hillenbrand, a lobbyist who became a minister.Hillenbrand spent much of her childhood riding bareback "screaming over the hills" of her father's Sharpsburg, Maryland, farm A favorite childhood book of hers was Come On Seabiscuit. "I read it to death, my little paperback copy," she says. She studied at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, but was forced to leave before graduation when she contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, with which she has struggled ever since. She now lives in Washington, D.C, and rarely leaves her house because of the condition. Hillenbrand married Borden Flanagan, a professor of government at American University and her college sweetheart, in 2006.[15] In 2014, they separated after 28 years as a couple, living in separate homes.[6] She described the onset and early years of her illness in an award-winning essay, A Sudden Illness. The disease still structures her life as a writer, keeping her mainly confined to her home. She reads old newspaper articles by buying the old newspapers or borrowing them from libraries, and does all her interviews with living persons by telephone.