Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Title: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Author: Susannah Cahalan
Format: ARC
Pub. Date: November 13th 2012
Source: Goodreads First Reads


3.5 Stars, rounded up.

I received this book from Goodreads First Reads.

Susannah Cahalan was a busy New York woman. A promising reporter with the Post, happy with her boyfriend and her life, it all falls apart in a manner of days. A string of mysterious symptoms (seizures, rigid muscle movements, nonsensical talking) leads to her waking up in the hospital, restrained to her bed without an idea as to why she's there. In this memoir, Susannah chronicles her journey through her mysterious illness from the first creeping symptoms, to the final treatment. She shares her triumphs, her downfalls, her heartache, and the bonds between the friends and family that never left her side, even when "old Susannah" was nowhere to be found. This is a story of warning and of sharing, and most importantly, a story of the human mind and the obstacles it can overcome.


This book was a very interesting read. I can't call it "good" without feeling guilty- Miss Cahalan's story is unfortunate. However, I had never heard of this illness until I read this book. It is both informative and personal, making it a deep but not difficult read.

+ One of the most positive traits of this book is the way that it's written. Because of her mental state at the time of her hospitalization, a large part of this memoir is taken from other peoples' perspectives. I feel that this gives the book a vibe of honesty. Upon release, she leafed through the journals kept by both herself and her parents and her charts. She interviewed her doctors and nurses, and the friends and family members who visited her, and even watched the surveillance videos taken from her room. It has to be an odd experience, piecing together one's life in an out of body-esque situation like this. But the book flows and is cohesive, painting a vivid portrait of the struggle that she went through.

+ This book is heavy handed with medical jargon. The author did a very good job of breaking this down as simply as possible (after all, the brain is a very complex thing). Better yet, at the end of this book is a bibliography, showing that Susannah most definitely did her research when writing both her original Post article on this scary new autoimmune disorder, as well as this memoir.

- That being said, this was a negative point for me. I understand that research is crucial to this book. I respect the brain's complexity, this disease's mystery, and the author's need/desire to explain this scary situation to the best description that is medically possible. However, in parts I felt extremely weighted down by the scientific discussion. I had to press on forward. This is just a personal opinion, and again, I realize that it is necessary to the narration.

+ But, an interesting bonus to this book that I wasn't expecting was the breaks in text. There are excerpts from medical charts, her own personal test results. There are pages taken from her journal to chronicle her journey and to fully illustrate her various states of both mental health and emotion. These little images speak volumes, adding an extremely personal glimpse into Susannah's mind.

Overall, I think this is a fascinating read. It is horrifying and amazing that so much is still unknown about the human brain. The fact that something like this could happen to anyone in the blink of the eye is so scary. I'm very grateful to Susannah for writing this memoir. I had never heard of this autoimmune disorder before, and I'm glad that I now know what possible symptoms could be, so that if anyone I know exhibits them, I can keep this in mind. This book strikes a bit of a personal nerve with me, because my own mom was in the hospital for a month with unknown neurological problems (that turned out to be a stroke and a fistula). Many of her symptoms were similar to this, which made this an extremely emotional roller coaster for me.

If you enjoyed books such as Sybil or When Rabbit Howls, are interested in psychology/neurology/disorders, or are a fan of nonfiction in general, I would definitely give this a read.