Book Review: “Brain on Fire”

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness is an amazing memoir about journalist Susannah Cahalan’s battle with rediscovering herself after an uncommon-at-the-time brain disease took away almost all she was in a matter of a few weeks.

This book was recommended to me by my best friend who read it herself after we graduated from college and for my birthday this last year she sent me a copy to read myself. It was shortly afterward that I decided to crack it open and I devoured it in two sittings.

Though I had moments of hypochondria while Susannah was going through her long diagnosis process, it was amazing to read about her whole journey from when she began having minor symptoms to when she was finally diagnosed. That final diagnosis was anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis which at the time was only being diagnosed and studied by a single neuro-oncologist Dr. Josep Dalmau. Susannah became the 217th patient worldwide to ever be officially diagnosed with the specific form of encephalitis which was only put on paper two years earlier.

Susannah’s experience of being misdiagnosed and almost being written off as terminally mentally ill and condemned to a psychiatric ward for the remainder of her life was most likely the norm for many young women at the time, and before 2007, due to the lack of information and research that was conducted before then. It’s amazing to think that even in the 21st century there are diseases that are treatable but still undiagnosable. Cahalan’s life could have been a lot different if she didn’t have Dr. Souhel Najjar on her team fighting to uncover what was truly wrong with her.

Her recollection of the whole process was muddy and she had to piece together a lot of what she went through from her father’s journal, notes from her various doctors, and EEG videotapes of moments in the hospital. She also used the people who were there to support her at the time; her parents, her friends, and her boyfriend to help her gather the puzzle pieces of those weeks where her memories were unreliable. With all these elements, she was able to write her memoir snapping together the puzzle pieces and comprehending what happened to her in the process of writing it all down.

Cahalan’s honesty in her writing is what I think I like most about her story. She starts the book off with an author’s note and writes “I readily admit that I’m an unreliable source. No matter how much research I’ve done, the consciousness that defines me as a person wasn’t present then.” That sentence alone, on page one, encompasses the epitome of what I liked most about the story and her writing. There is no sugar-coating, no skirting around the truth, no fluff. As an award-winning journalist, I expected that, but her writing style went beyond that and was easy to follow and I thoroughly enjoyed it. She also kept in the medical jargon and explained the different diagnoses which made it educational in the best way. I could actually follow along and understand what she was going through. I wanted to keep reading after every chapter ended.

I think this book is a great read that I hope to recommend to many. Though it’s a memoir, I think a lot of readers will enjoy it, hopefully as much as I did. The story is so compelling and the struggles, perseverance, and madness that came through with each entry had me engaged and of course, rooting for Susannah throughout.

Please take note that I do recommend with some caution and the Washington Post puts it best: “This story has a happy ending, but take heed: It is a powerfully scary book.”

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