Saturday, October 24, 2015

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan
A gripping memoir and medical suspense story about a young New York Post reporter’s struggle with a rare and terrifying disease, opening a new window into the fascinating world of brain science.
One day, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four year old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter.
Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. As weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning her to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar—nicknamed Dr. House—joined her team. He asked Susannah to draw one simple sketch, which became key to diagnosing her with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain, an illness now thought to be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history.
With sharp reporting drawn from hospital records, scientific research, and interviews with doctors and family, Brain on Fire is a crackling mystery and an unflinching, gripping personal story that marks the debut of an extraordinary writer.

My Review:

This story, which really happened, catalogues the horrific illness that befell the author some years ago. It played out just like an episode of House, as mentioned in the description, though the real life House in this didn’t come on the scene until Susannah’s team of doctors realized they had nothing left to give. Particularly terrifying and heartbreaking is the fact that Susannah lost a part of who she was from this. It seems that she’ll never quite be the same, despite that her recovery in itself is miraculous.
What I really liked about this book was how thorough it was in portraying the progression of the disease. I found the snippets of Susannah’s notes, the catalogues of her behaviors and footage of videos taken while she was hospitalized, and the documented points of view of her friends and family fascinating. What’s even more amazing is that she had to turn to these. The disease pretty much warped or wiped her memory during the worst of it.
That being said, this reads more like a journal or extended account of facts, rather than a story. It isn’t a narrative. The timeline unfolds, the disease’s symptoms emerge, and Susannah battles her way through to the other side and beyond, but it still reads like someone else’s account. There’s also some jumping around. It isn’t quite a chronological timeline, and certain data and interview results are sprinkled in much later in the book than their related events, sometimes repeating from another perspective. Still, it’s a gripping read.
Overall, I really liked this story. It was a chilling account of a real life medical mystery that very nearly could have sent Susannah into a mental institution for the rest of her life, which likely would have been short due to the progression of the disease. Folks who enjoy non-fiction or stories where someone overcomes great odds will likely enjoy this one.
I borrowed the review copy of this book from the local library so that I could read it for my book club.


 Intrigued? Pick up a copy at and let me know what you think of it.