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.
I’m not very good at reading non-fiction. It takes quite a bit hold my interest and keep me invested enough to turn those pages. Brain on Fire is one of those rare gems of non-fiction that had me glued to it from the very first page as Susannah wakes up in a hospital room tied to the bed with a bracelet on her wrist that reads “Flight Risk.”
Brain on Fire first caught my attention in an email. Usually when I get an email about a non-fic, I breeze through it and then turn my attention elsewhere because I know it’s not for me. The title of the book grabbed me enough to read the entire synopsis and from there I was hooked like a fish. I was just hoping that the book really did meet my expectations because I hate to write negative reviews! Fortunately, I can say it much more than met my expectations, it blew me totally away.
Susannah Cahalan is a reporter for the New York Post. She’s good at her job and she’s got a pretty stable and comfortable lifestyle, great family and boyfriend. Things are on track as far as she can tell. Then she begins to experience weird things – hallucinations, and other things she can’t explain including an episode with her boyfriend that had her acting like a possessed zombie. Despite Susannah’s fierce independence her family begins to worry enough about her well-being that they force her to move in with them, so they can keep an eye on her and take her to the appointments to see psychiatrists, neurologists, etc, trying to get to the bottom of what is going wrong.
As a reader, I fell in love with Susannah. You feel empathy and sympathy for her right away. How many times have we had our otherwise “almost perfect” lives go horribly wrong? I know I’ve been in that situation a few to many times for comfort. I found her so easy to relate to. We’re watching her world come unraveled and we’re as helpless as she is. Soon we’re as desperate for answers as her family is – because she’s no longer even with it enough to participate in her own care in a meaningful way.
I should say I found Susannah’s story compelling and eerily fascinating as we learn she’s had to piece her story together from video footage, hospital records, notes and journal entries she wrote and her parents correspondence to each other. She only remembers bits and pieces of things, and what she does remember doesn’t always match up with what she learns from the records or sees on camera.
I think Brain on Fire is one of the most gritty and eye opening accounts I’ve ever read. And yet it was so approachable with some very real and cutting edge science explained. We learn the many ways the brain works and how much of it is still a mystery. I loved the down to earth tone of the book; in fact if I was going to write about my own experiences it’s the same style I would want to use.
I think one of the aspects I loved the most was that we get to see the full picture including her slow recovery after the discovery of her illness. It was inspiring to see her progress and also to see through her eyes as she learns more about what took her life off the rails and what science is only now coming to learn more about.
I can’t recommend Brain on Fire enough, I’ve been pushing it onto any and everyone I know who reads or is looking for a book. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed and you’ll come away with an appreciation of just how fragile our lives and especially our health is.
Brain on Fire
• This book was provided by the publisher for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own. Please note that this post also contains affiliate links. To view our full Blog Policy, click here.