Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire by Susannah CahalanBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
Published by Free Press on November 13, 2012
Pages: 250
Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.
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An award-winning memoir and instant New York Times bestseller that goes far beyond its riveting medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity.
When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?
In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Cahalan tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.



Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan’s memoir about surviving a mystery illness, was one scary ride! Cahalan, who is only 24 years old, is enjoying an independent life with a great job and an amazing boyfriend. Suddenly, she begins experiencing a slew of terrifying psychiatric and physical symptoms, and from there things go downhill fast.

Oh my word, it was hard not to judge her first neurologist. (Okay, I definitely judged him. Sorry, not sorry.) Are all doctors shooting in the dark like that? Then again, the disease that almost destroyed Cahalan’s life was only discovered less than 10 years ago. It was easy to see how difficult it is to get a diagnosis for something that is still so new, with treatments so experimental. It was also extremely frustrating to read, especially when Cahalan seemed to get the brush-off that so many female patients get—doctors dismissing symptoms claiming the patient isn’t “getting enough sleep” or has “too much stress,” regardless of what the patient is actually telling them. Cahalan’s story shows how crucial it is to get a second—or third, or fourth—medical opinion, even when the doctor you’re currently seeing is already considered to be “the best.”

But the ability to do that comes from a place of privilege, and the author doesn’t ignore this. She is sure to point out that she had a good job with good insurance, as well as a system of supportive family and friends to cover the rest of her needs. She draws attention to the fact that patients without these things easily slip through the cracks. They often can’t get the testing they need at all, much less hop around from specialist to specialist to find one that can help.

Her family’s view of bipolar disorder made me uncomfortable. Cahalan’s brother thinks she can’t be bipolar because she’s “tough” and “handles stress better than anyone” he knows. I felt including that dialogue without any further commentary didn’t serve much of a purpose; it just perpetuates the misconception that mental illness is a weakness, a character flaw, rather than a medical condition.

Cahalan’s writing style is enjoyable and concise. I never felt bogged down by medical details. She clearly conveys how she felt as she went through this unknown physical and psychological hell. If you enjoy memoirs and medical mysteries, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Brain on Fire.

“We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear go with it.”

  • This book piqued my interest when it first released, but I’d forgotten about it since. I’m happy to see that it’s worth picking up and will look for it at the library.

  • I thought this book was excellent (and terrifying). I’m glad you enjoyed it, apart from the problematic portrayal of mental illness.

  • I really enjoyed this book too – and our book club had a good discussion about it. It really hit home how much there is still to learn about medicine, the brain, body, etc. We put doctors on this all knowing pedestal…