Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan: a Fascinating Read

Oh boy, have I been reading like crazy lately…along with working, slaving over homework with my 13-year-old (if anyone has some hints for helping me with that, let me know) and my 7-year-old (weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth), helping to run a Reflections contest, preparing Sunday School lessons, attending various extended family functions, working on writing some grants for my son’s elementary school, and writing posts here and for my writers’ club. I’m in the middle of Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older (a mix of Mortal Instruments and Caribbean legend), Caretaker by Josi Russell (sci-fi), and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (audiobook). I just finished Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. I don’t read non-fiction often, but when I do, I love books like this. It was fascinating.



Book Review: Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire is the memoir of a young woman who suddenly wakes up in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, with no memory of how she’d gotten there. “Days before,” says the back cover, “she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper.” It’s the story of her abrupt and unexplained descent into madness, her month in it (of which she has no memory but which she pulled together from the journals of family members, doctors’ notes, and surveillance footage), and recovery from it.


It is both fascinating and well-written, a treasure because it has both elements. Susannah is detailed in her descriptions of her behavior, her explorations of the various hypotheses put forward by doctors to explain it, and the incredibly convoluted journey towards diagnosis and treatment. When she wakes up, she becomes violent, psychotic, and bent on escape. During her hospital stay, she finds herself repeatedly holding her arms out in front of her body like a zombie, not sure why but unable to control the movement. She also becomes, by turns, paranoid and catatonic.


It is a book that reveals the fragility of the human mind, one of the many ways in which things can go wrong. It makes you at once so very thankful for the sanity that you enjoy while also heartsick for Susannah and her family. It reminds me a lot of Chris Sizemore’s book I’m Eve, a memoir of a person who had at least several personalities and was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder when it was still a relatively new diagnosis. If I had another twenty-four hours in my already-crowded days, I would spend them reading memoirs of people dealing with various kinds of mental illnesses and other issues, so that I can better understand what it’s like to live with them. I’m looking forward to reading The Price of Silence: a Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, and Altered Perceptions, a science fiction/fantasy anthology that is kind of like a bonus DVD full of deleted scenes and alternate versions of some of my favorite authors’ books, written in support of Robison Wells, an author (you have to read his book Black Out) and victim of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I know what it’s like to love someone who has a mental illness, I even deal with it somewhat myself, but I don’t understand all kinds, nor all neurological disorders in general. So, here’s to greater understanding.

Can you recommend other memoirs of people with mental or neurological illnesses?

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