BOOK REVIEW: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

by Susannah Cahalan
Free Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4516-2137-2
Adult Autobiography/Memoir


A gripping memoir and medical suspense story about a young New York Post reporter’s struggle with a rare and terrifying disease, opening a new window into the fascinating world of brain science.

One day, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four year old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter.

Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. As weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning her to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar—nicknamed Dr. House—joined her team. He asked Susannah to draw one simple sketch, which became key to diagnosing her with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain, an illness now thought to be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history.

With sharp reporting drawn from hospital records, scientific research, and interviews with doctors and family, Brain on Fire is a crackling mystery and an unflinching, gripping personal story that marks the debut of an extraordinary writer.


Mental illness is such a difficult thing to diagnose.  The brain is such a complex organ and there is still so much that isn't known about it. Unfortunately, Susannah got to experience this first hand. One of the most difficult things to do is simply identify the underlying problem.  Symptoms can vary so much and can be triggered by so many different things that sorting through it all is mind-bogglingly difficult.  This book provides a fascinating account of the author's experiences with 'madness.'  She chronicles her rather rapid decent into seizures, delusions, and hallucinations.  Since she remembers little of the month she spent in the hospital she has gathered her information from doctor's notes, medical records, family and friend memories as well as research about the different theories about what could be causing all of her different symptoms.  In a compelling account, Susannah brings the reader into the world of brain dysfunction. She does a good job of trying to make a complicated topic understandable for the lay reader.  I recommend the book to those interested in brain research as well as a well-told memoir.


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