My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Description: 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.
My thoughts: I rarely read memoirs. Too often the author spends far too much time painting themselves in the best possible light and/or justifying their behavior. It is a rare and gifted author that can objectively describe a personal event without infusing it with strong emotions.
Perhaps Susannah was able to accomplish this huge feat due to the simple fact that she was unaware of herself much of the time that her brain was inflamed. She begins with the first noticeable symptom; a couple of bed bug bites that were probably hallucinations and escalates from there. Some of it remembers in bits and pieces right up until her major seizure which wasn't a pretty picture, nor did she try to paint it as such. Rushed to the hospital, her mind is blank for the next month until she is correctly diagnosed and begins the slow healing process.
I found Susannah's story absolutely fascinating. She fairly balances her experiences with simple medical terminology, cites doctors notes and tries to piece together a chronological picture of her sickness, interactions with those who love her, and hospital video. She describes her intense and insane mindset without previously establishing her basic personality. This is an excellent strategy as her writing style and brief "normal" clearly defines her as an intelligent and engaging young woman. The fact that she is confident enough to allow the reader to arrive at this conclusion endeared her to me all the more by trusting the reader.
Although I recoil when an author writes a book with an agenda, Susannah's agenda is simply awareness of the possibility that mental illness can be physiological in nature, caused by a virus or bacteria, changing the personality of a person to such an extreme that mental illness is diagnosed and the person spends the rest of her life in an institution. Susannah was greatly blessed by intersecting with a doctor who had recently made the discovery of this malady.
It's an amazing story and Susannah is an extremely gifted writer. This reader was stunned to do the math on Susannah's age. She was 24 when she fell victim to this illness and no more than 27 or 28 when she reconstructed the time period and wrote the book. I can't wait to see what else she publishes.
*I received a free copy of this book from publishing company in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are my own.