Renee's Reviews > Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
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it was amazing

I'm not usually one for an interest in medical stories, but this book was completely fascinating. I stayed up way too late reading it on more than a few nights (I'm a slow reader -- a fast reader could have finished this in a day or two).

This book is the true story of Susannah Cahalan, a 24 year old reporter for the New York Post, who quite suddenly begins having seizures and displaying personality traits in line with psychosis. At first, doctors believe that her issues are psychological: all of her tests are coming back normal. Finally, a different doctor, Dr. Najjar, comes in to assess the case, and he's known for his ability to diagnose rare diseases.

It turns out that Susannah is suffering from anti-NMDA-receptor encephalitis. In 2009, this was a rarely seen disease that had just been discovered in 2007, and it's an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain. Dr. Najjar described the condition to Susannah's parents: "her brain is on fire."

During this, she spent a month in the hospital for treatment. This month is largely lost to her. Her divorced parents each came to be with her and put aside their differences for her treatment. Her boyfriend Stephen became her caretaker. Friends would visit her but it was clear that she wasn't the same person she'd been before. She would speak little or not at all, which was the stage, following violent outbursts, of catatonia.

While there is a percentage of people who are permanently disabled or even die from this condition, Susannah was eventually able to return to her position as a reporter at the New York Post, and soon wrote an article detailing her "Month of Madness". This book came out of that article, and both have helped to raise awareness of the condition, even helping families to find a diagnosis when the outlook seemed bleak.

The first thing I did when I finished this book was get online to find out if Susannah and Stephen are married now (they are), because I really felt like Stephen was one of the biggest heroes of this book. Few people would devote their time and patience to the healing process of someone they'd only been dating for 4 months, but he did.

This book is fascinating and also a bit terrifying because it demonstrates just how unreliable our minds can be. Not only are our memories often unreliable, but our brains can come under attack. It can come out of the blue. It can change our lives and even our personalities. In that sense, the book scared me a bit because I'm prone to reading something and then immediately becoming anxious and nervous that the same thing will happen to me. I know this is ridiculous.

One of the creepiest parts of the book, to me, was the chapter called The Exorcist because, first, that movie terrifies me, and second, Susannah talks about how in many ways, that's how patients with this diagnosis can behave. One patient even crab-walked like Regan does in the extended director's cut. That has always scared me. She also talks about how patients can began speaking in tongues and speaking other languages (the way that Regan spoke Latin). She points out that people who were believed to be evil, possessed, and in need of an exorcism could have truly been suffering from this condition. When you can compare it to the Exorcist, that's when things get real scary, in my opinion!

This cover will haunt you. Additionally, the descriptions of the videos of Susannah in her hospital room have a creepy quality about them, too. This is maybe because in my mind, the scenes play out like a horror film.

In any case, I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of medical mysteries, investigative journalism, and/or memoirs. This is a fantastic read.

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Reading Progress

May 27, 2018 – Started Reading
May 27, 2018 – Shelved
May 28, 2018 –
page 0
0.0% "This book is fascinating and I have to force myself to put it down. I would stay up all night to finish this if I could."
June 2, 2018 – Finished Reading

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