Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

brain on fireI have been waiting to read Brain on Fire since Christmas. It received so much unbelievable press, I knew I had to read it. The author, Susannah Cahalan, was at every media outlet possible and did a great job of hooking you into her story. The book recounts her month long descent into madness as a result of brain inflammation (encephalitis). She has painstakingly pieced together what happened during a month when she was utterly unlike herself and unable to remember what happened.

As her symptoms first presented themselves she sought medical care. MRIs, blood work, everything came back negative. The doctors concluded that physically she was fine. Symptoms grew worse including highly erratic and irrational behavior and seizures; one doctor diagnosed her with “partying to hard”. Finally, she ends up in a seizure ward at NYU but they still can’t figure out what is wrong with her. If it weren’t for one very good doctor and diagnostician, she may well have ended up in a psych ward for the rest of her life.

Before and after this episode of Cahalan’s life she worked as a journalist, so it comes as no surprise that Brain on Fire is a well written read. I often avoid books about tragedies for fear that they will slip into sentimentality. Cahalan avoids this at all costs and tells a straight forward story about her month of madness and the perils of the medical system. She is unflinchingly honest where she could just as easily gloss over details to portray herself in a more flattering light.

Who would like this book? This book would appeal to anyone interested in mental health and the mechanics of the brain. It reminded me of Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg, a wonderful account of Greenberg’s daughters struggle with manic depression. Both books are honestly told and gripping. Both books also reveal faults in the way in which mental health issues are treated in our society. Both books receive a 5/5 from me.

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4 Comments

  1. One of the young girls in the ABI support group has brain damage caused by encephalitis. This might be a good book to read to get some insight into her ABI. April

    From: 52 books or bust >To: akanec296@rogers.com >Sent: Monday, April 15, 2013 2:58:43 PM >Subject: [New post] Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan > >tanya posted: “I have been waiting to read Brain on Fire since Christmas. Itreceivedso much unbelievable press, I knew I had to read it. The author, Susannah Cahalan, was at every media outlet possible and did a great job of hooking you into her story. The book recoun” >

  2. I found this book very interesting and at the same time scary because this can happen to anybody. Susannah Cahalan was lucky to have a great support system that didn’t give up and kept pushing the doctors to do more tests and research and also lucky to end up with a doctor that with one simple test solved the medical mystery. But what happens if there isn’t that support system in place or you are not lucky to get doctors that keep trying out different ideas and don’t just give up? How many cases like that have been misdiagnosed and a patient has been locked up with no help? Very interesting book!

    Pearls, Diamonds and Everything Else

  3. Pingback: Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder by Amy Butcher | 52 books or bust

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