Margin Notes: Brain on Fire

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 rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was SUCH an interesting book. After reading the reviews, I see that people either love it or hate it. I really enjoyed this book. It had an interesting combination of clinical description, reporting, relationship / character development, but it felt mostly like a new article. That makes sense to me since the author is a reporter. I felt like I learned a lot from reading this book and I appreciate that. It isn't a lyrical, plot-driven story, but it's an important documentation of the evolution of a disease in a woman, her descent into madness, and her recovery.

The science: I thought she did a good job of explaining the science to a layperson (like me!), but I'm sure people in the medical field would appreciate her story even more than I did.

The mystery: I thought this aspect of the book would unfold a little differently than it did--I thought there would be a little more about the actual medical mystery and search for a diagnosis. I didn't get the sense of impending doom that the blurb inferred before they got the diagnosis, but, this is from the perspective of the patient not the medical staff, so it makes sense thinking back on it.

The plot: As a plot-lover, I would have liked a little more of a peak into Susannah's pre-disease life. Her relationship with her parents, Stephen, her attitudes about work so I could see the change for myself, but that might have made the book intensely long and taken the tone in another direction.

The writing: I loved how Susannah wrote--it was matter of fact, not condescending or overly simple, but also not full of jargon or difficult to compute. I enjoyed how she played memories off of research off of recollections from her family, friends, and doctors. She doesn't try to deify herself. She does't shy away from her actions and she readily admits her feelings--embarrassment, frustration, shock, and it all helps bring her condition to life.

(view spoiler)

Overall, I feel like I learned a lot from this book. Advocacy for those you love during disease is so incredibly important. I'm glad Susannah was able to recover and create this book. It was enlightening.</["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]>

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