Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan

bof-cover_homeIt’s hard to figure out where to approach this review from since this definitely isn’t a horror novel, or even a freakin’ work of fiction at all. In an effort to expand our readership, and to reflect the variety of literature that the staff here in DT-land are interested in, you’re going to see more and more of this sort of content gracing the pages of our humble (pffft) site from here on out.

To get back on topic: Brain on Fire is the very shocking, very real, and very terrifying memoir of a young woman faced with the worst possible thing I can think of outside of losing someone incredibly close to you – the loss of one’s self.

It’s hard to believe that this beautiful young woman, a New York Post reporter, and current New York Times best selling author, has suffered the horrific events that litter the better part of this book. Some of the events chronicled in this word seem vaguely comical in their grandiose displays, but the most unsettling part of the whole story is, with this particular disease, they’re also so damned possible.

Cahalan sets the stage in calm, almost nonchalant way, for what turns out to be one of the most harrowing reads I experienced in 2012, and coming perilously close to what I consider to be “the scariest book EVER” – The Amityville Horror – in terms of the creeping dread and oh-my-god-this-could-happen-to-me-right-now! moments. This book is covered with a very personal realism that was, thankfully, never present in Anson’s supernatural thriller.

One day, I woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to my bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. My medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which I have no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier I had been a healthy twenty-four year old, six months into my first serious relationship and beginning a career as a cub reporter at the New York Post.

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

Everything Ms. Cahalan says in the above description of her book is exactly what most readers are guaranteed to be terrified to experience, let alone read about, and I say that with grave sincerity to both thriller buffs and true-crime aficionados and their “memoirs” that promise a real-life account of some horrible event, but deliver something Rosie Dimanno would write (Dimanno being one of the few journalists I truly cannot stand reading. Talk about blatant sensationalism. Ugh.)

Brain on Fire doesn’t even bother to take a stab at being sensationalist, to reuse the word, or even remotely larger-than-life. Instead, Cahalan delivers her story as if she were having a conversation with the reader, but always remains one step ahead, like she’s meandering through her thoughts at a leisurely pace and freeing the reader to go back over the last scientific tidbit she’s offered up to explain another part of the disease that almost killed her. Truth be told, Calahan made a valiant effort to explain everything in layman’s terms, setting out the intricacies of this invisible enemy that almost destroyed her from the inside out in an accessible way, and doing a fine job of shedding light on some of the more complex designs of the brain. It’s easy for the average reader to get lost in a medical text or any sort of spy-thriller out of the Clancy camp, and given that the line Cahalan walked while writing this piece was razor thin, she does an amazing job of keeping the pace smooth and the prose readable.

I’m having a hard time touching on the subject matter at hand, mostly because I’m pretty much a ridiculous hypochondriac. If I so much as cough, I’m dying. Ask my parents, friends, or other random loved ones (okay… stalking isn’t love… I know…) and they’ll all agree. I’m a whiny baby and I get as scared as a cat in a thunderstorm any time I feel like crap. So it goes to show how seriously strong the author is, being that she went to hell and back and now stands to tell the tale.

It’s also very common knowledge that I’m completely grossed out about some matters relating to the human body, as fascinating as it is, and though I whole-heartedly relish the more pleasurable things that the body can offer, the fact that it can turn on you without a moment’s notice just doesn’t sit easily with me. That and this whole regenerating cells thing. I’m not a lizard, I don’t have a tail, and that’s the end of it. Gross. Ew.

Yeah, I would totally opt to be a brain in a jar, wedged tightly into the command centre of a hulking war-machine. Then maybe I’d be able to go take care of that bastard Steven Seagal and his girly running ways.

Putting my ridiculous worries and idiotic fears aside, Brain on Fire not only tells the story of a young woman on the brink of insanity, and possibly death (though how she didn’t lose her mind after all of this, I have no idea), it also manages to tell an even more terrifying story about the state of the medical system, not only in America, but hell… all over the world. If anyone deserves a wicked, slow-motion high-five and a squishy hug, it’s Cahalan, for sure.

By the time doctor’s has finally figured out what was ailing their patient, the author was only the 217th person in the world to be diagnosed with this newly discovered disease, Anti-NMDA-Receptor Autoimmune Encephalitis, but would definitely not be the last. In fact, as you read in the above synopsis, the illness is now being considered one of the causes of “demonic possessions” in history. Now, and I’m taking a huge liberty here because I’m neither a historian nor am I a researcher of obscure medical conditions that cause people to vibrate like tickle-me-elmo, but I very much doubt that this is the only condition that made the witch-hunters in Salem all torch-happy. I don’t doubt that this ailment is definitely a strong contender, though.

With the firestorm of craziness that paints the inside of this book comes a sort of calm in the face of what we all deal with on a day-to-day basis. The only thing I could do when I finished this book was sit back, relax, be glad that my problems are pretty much all deal-able, and thank Cahalan for bringing this particularly nasty little bastard to the light of day. Maybe now a lot of people out there will get the help they so desperately need. But still… I have a new worry on my plate for the next time I’m a little spacey for no reason…


5 thoughts on “Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan

  1. I’ve seen this book kicking around, but haven’t actually picked it up. I’ll have to now. Sounds like your reaction to this was much like my reaction to Columbine by Dave Cullen and The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. Both of them were non-fic and both of them were more terrifying than any horror novel I’ve ever read.

    • I’m sure it said many wonderful things, including how I am the most beautiful member of DT, etc. etc. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by to visit our site and for the kind words!

    • I checked with WordPress, but it seems they don’t have a widget to show you how happy I am that you liked this.
      Thank you for commenting, and please keep in touch!


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