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

“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed.” – Thomas Moore

I bought Cahalan’s book about two years ago. I’d seen it promoted on various places online but didn’t pay attention to what it’s about. However, curiosity pricked me in December 2015 so when I saw the book in Barnes & Noble, I read a couple pages and was immediately hooked on Cahalan’s story. I knew then I had to buy it.

Fast forward to May 2017 when I again picked up the book because after abandoning it on my shelves for two years, I was finally in the mood to read it. Once again, I was hooked as soon as I started reading. It was as if I was reading one of those medical novels except everything mentioned in Brain on Fire actually happened because it’s Cahalan’s recount of a month she spent hospitalized while doctors scrambled to figure out what was wrong with her.

Quick summary:

Susannah Cahalan was a reporter at the New York Post. One day, she showed up at her office thinking that her apartment had bed bugs because she’d seen bites on her arm. However, when an exterminator inspected her apartment, he told her there were no bed bugs. Her paranoia grew from there as Cahalan became worried that her coworkers would discover she had bed bugs. Cahalan’s symptoms continued to escalate — she suffered from seizures, psychosis, and paranoia — over the month and many would believe she was crazy. But her family and boyfriend, Stephen, remained strongly supportive of her and pushed doctors to take her condition seriously.

However, it wasn’t until Souhel Najjar, a neurologist, showed up that some progress was made in her case. Najjar discovered that Cahalan was suffering from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare auto-immune disease that attacks the brain. With his help, Cahalan was able to receive the right treatment for her condition.

My thoughts:

I glossed over many details in that recount so I strongly urge everyone to read this book. It’s impressive what Cahalan has overcome and the unwavering support of her family and boyfriend was quite admirable.

Though Cahalan wrote this memoir, she had forgotten much of month she spent hospitalized. To write this book, she interviewed those who treated her, as well as her family and friends, and referred to a journal her divorced parents kept together during that time and her medical records. She also used video footage of her in the hospital, which was an odd experience because she couldn’t remember doing some of the things she saw in the video.

I was amazed by this memoir. I knew Cahalan wrote it and narrated it, but still I was anxious while reading, worried about Cahalan’s condition and whether or not a diagnosis would be found. I was so sucked into the narrative that at times I’d forget that I was reading about an episode in the author’s life. From the reviews I’ve seen on Goodreads, it seems that this happened to other readers as well.

Cahalan gives us facts and some data, but it was the story that kept me reading: the strong support of her family during this trying episode, the commitment of her boyfriend, and Cahalan’s determination to get better. Those emotional bonds kept me returning to the book as well as my interest in finding out what was wrong with Cahalan and how she became better.

Overall: ★★★★★

A great read.

The book is well-written and Cahalan’s experience is both scary and illuminating. Illuminating because it shows how our body and mind can sometimes turn against us and how far we’ve come in the study of mental illness and our mental faculties; and scary because there must have been many others who suffered from the same disease but were misdiagnosed, committed to mental institutions without receiving treatment, or worse, condemned for being “possessed,” all of which Cahalan mentions in her memoir.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

Although many probably won’t think they need to own it.

This is one I’d highly recommend, especially to those who would like to read nonfiction but want something more like a story. Cahalan did a great job of mixing the storytelling needed for a memoir with reportage, which she had to do since she had forgotten most of the month she spent in the hospital.

Reading this book set off a trend for me. It sparked an interest in books about mental health, which, though I am interested in the topic and have done some research on mental illnesses, I haven’t read many first-hand accounts on mental illness. So when I visited the library, I picked up Marya Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life, which was also a good read. Review coming soon.


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

  1. I read this book in January and also LOVED it! I listened to it via audiobook. It felt more like a medical thriller, and often found myself not believing that it was indeed nonfiction. It really was terrifying reading what she went through, and had they not have figured it out, she would not have been here today. I thought it was a very well written book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. I also loved this books, I read this one a couple of years ago and it was when I was first exploring non fiction, now I read a lot of memoirs.


  3. I too bought this book two or so years ago and have yet to read it. I think I’ll make it a priority as I continue to see more and more reviews saying how important and good it is. I enjoyed your review.


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