“Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” by Susannah Cahalan


One day, I woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to my bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. My medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which I have no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier I had been a healthy twenty-four year old, six months into my first serious relationship and beginning a career as a cub reporter at the New York Post.

My memoir Brain on Fire chronicles the swift path of my illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving my life. As weeks ticked by and I moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit me to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning me to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar—nicknamed Dr. House—joined my team. He asked me to draw one simple sketch, which became key to diagnosing me with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which my body was attacking my brain, an illness now thought to be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history.

-excerpt taken from susannahcahalan.com


Oh, do I love a good memoir!  This book was fantastic.  We, as readers, are lucky that this particular circumstance happened to a skilled journalist.  Once she recovered from her harrowing journey of near comatose and possible death, she was able to ask the right questions to many different people and fill in the blanks of what she didn’t remember.  There was also video footage available from the hospital because she had been placed on a floor devoted to epilepsy, a place where they need to keep an eye on their patients who have regular seizures.  This story is so fascinating – once you’re finished reading you want to do research and watch videos of Susannah speaking and even video from her lost time in the hospital, and just catch a glimpse of this girl who had gone through one of the most devastating and incredibly interesting medical diagnoses.  Some of her behaviors are not only erratic, but kind of scary – reading this book alone at night sort of gave me the creeps – she had everything from seizures to vivid, scary hallucinations to loss of basic motor skills.  It’s interesting because I was thinking about how some of the things she describes remind me of demon possessions I had heard about over the years, or even scenes from “The Exorcist” movie.  Later in the book there is a chapter on precisely this subject, and how some people with the same disorder have been mistaken for possessed and never get the true medical help they actually need.  The disorder is so rare (only now being more commonly diagnosed) that there are many undiagnosed cases that lead to these people being institutionalized for the remainder of their lives – this girl only had the worst of the symptoms for a month and it took the better part of a year to recover.  Can you imagine going through severe symptoms, not receiving the diagnosis in a timely manner, and living in this state for years or even the remainder of your life?  How devastating and exhausting!  If only they could get diagnosed, the treatment is fairly simple for how seemingly complex and destructive the disease can be.

I give this book a 5 out of 5 stars.  I devoured this book in two days.  I couldn’t put it down or soak in the information fast enough.  In doing a little research for this blog I found that it is being made into a movie as well starring Chloe Grace Moretz as Susannah Cahalan.  I am very interested to see this movie when it comes out to see if they can capture the pure madness that is described within this memoir.  This is a great example that truth is stranger than fiction.


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