Brain on Fire – Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire is a spine-tingling memoir of twenty-four year old Susannah who wakes up one day strapped to a hospital bed unable to speak. She has just lost a month of her life and what follows is her recovery and journey to investigate her lost month. What started as a headache spiralled into a terrifying psychosis that stripped Susannah of her independence, the independence that many of us take for granted. The ability to live on our own, go out where and when we feel like it, even express ourselves and communicate with those around us.


What makes Brain on Fire so captivating is the fact that this could happen to any of us at any time. In fact, as Susannah points out, what happened to her was so relatively unknown and under researched at the time how many people are out there in mental institutions suffering from the same affliction? Something that can be quite treatable? This though terrifies me and makes this novel scarier than any horror book I have ever read.


I read many criticisms of this memoir on the writing style. This is not a literary work of genius. This is one girl investigatory tale of trying to regain her lost time. This is not fiction with flowery prose. It is what it is and does not pretend to be anything more. There is medical jargon and explanations to make what happened understandable that is necessary and really not tedious at all. Realistically it is fascinating understanding how something like this can be missed. It also highlights to the reader just how complicated the medical field is. How many tests were conducted and tried again in an effort to diagnose something? Can you blame how it may be mis-diagnosed as some psychotic disorder? Well, read the book and find out.


Brain on Fire is a fascinating insight into the pieces of the puzzle than is diagnosing a rare, relatively unknown disease. What we, as readers (or less politely, as book nerds) can learn from this is to never judge a book (or diagnosis) by its cover. This was a terrifying and informative journey into a painful but defining event in one woman’s life. Something that could happen to anyone at anytime. There is something in this memoir for each of us to take away and I urge you all to give it a go. I give Brain on Fire four apples, which Susannah craved so desperately in hospital.


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