Jess’s Review of Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

brainonfireThere are moments in one’s life that are so significant, all subsequent life events are marked by “before” and “after” that event. For Susannah Cahalan it was the day she began to go mad. A spark had ignited somewhere within the complicated hard-wiring of her brain and day-by-day she began to lose herself. Brain on Fire is a unique memoir that chronicles Cahalan’s journey to oblivion and back as she details a rare medical condition in which one’s body literally attacks its brain, draining the individual of the essential characteristics which make up one’s personality.

One day, Susannah was a healthy 24-year-old journalist. As her illness began to commandeer her personality, she began to lose her sanity and ability to perform even the most mundane daily tasks.  After a series of seizures and a string of bizarre behavior, the race to salvage Susannah’s brain began with a team of doctors and a dedicated family who would do anything to save her.

One minute she is buying a coffee in a hospital waiting room, and the next thing she remembers is it’s one month later and she is restrained in a hospital bed with no recollection of how she got there. Cahalan writes:

I wish I could understand my behaviors and motivations during this time, but there was no rational consciousness operating, nothing I could access anymore, then or now. This was the beginning of my lost month of madness.

Cahalan’s book is part memoir, part medical mystery, and part love story. Due to the fact that she literally does not have any first hand memory of her month spent in the hospital, Cahalan uses family, friends, doctors, nurses, and hospital footage as sources to help her understand the lost time. Parts of the story require her to explain complex scientific terms and procedures, which she does with great precision and clarity. Cahalan’s background as a journalist helps her to break through the medical jargon to give readers a detailed explanation of her illness.

My favorite part of the book was the way Cahalan not only talked about how her illness affected her on a personal level, but also how it affected her friends and family. By the end of the book, I wanted to look up her boyfriend Steven so I could give the guy a hug.  Not only was Brain on Fire an entertaining and educational read, but the race to save Cahalan’s personality and memory had me on the edge of my seat. Since I finished reading this book, I have really been challenged to think about the fragility of the human body and what it truly means to be “you.”

4 out of 5 Stars

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
Free Press (2012)
Hardcover 288 pages
ISBN: 9781451621372