In 2009, Susannah Cahalan was working as a reporter for the New York Post when she got sick. What started out with apparent bug bites on her left arm and migraines turned into paranoia, hallucinations, and violet seizures. She was hospitalized for nearly a month, going through a number of doctors and possible diagnoses (among them: withdrawals from excessive alcohol consumption, bipolar disorder, and multiple sclerosis) before finally getting a proper diagnosis.
When she returned to work several months later, with no memory of her time in the hospital and only hazy memories of the time before and after, one of her first assignments was to use her journalistic skills to cobble together her own story. That article “My mysterious month of madness,” eventually became Brain on Fire, part memoir, part investigative journalism.
What I Liked
Cahalan splits her story into three parts: her decline into illness, hospitalization, and recovery. What with the memory loss and her distrust of what little memory she does have, she relies heavily on the accounts from her family, friends, and coworkers, as well as the doctors and nurses who worked on her case. She seamlessly weaves them together, and in part two (about her hospitalization) includes anatomical information about what was found to be going on in her brain.
I think I found her story especially compelling for how it tugged at my own fear of losing my memory (or losing my mind.) She details some of the moments she wished she could take back and things she could have left unsaid. The confessional nature was interesting, but even more so was that in her reporting of her story, she went back and revisited some of those moments with the people in question. I am someone who already worries too much what other people think about me – reading her account made me both cringe and sympathize.
As an example: she asked her boyfriend, with whom she’d been together only a few months before her illness, “why did you stay with me?”
What I Didn’t Like
The author at times seems removed from her own story, probably from having no memory of a full third of it. I got the impression that the information about the brain was included not just to be explanatory, but also to beef up the middle part of her story so that it wouldn’t just read as “he said, she said” from the people who spent time with her. I personally found the information interesting and think it has merit in the story, but I admit that the parts of the book about her decline and recovery, in which she includes her own insights, were more engaging than the part about her hospitalization.
And although I enjoyed the blend of memoir and journalism, at times Cahalan relied on her sources to describe her personality and behavior before her illness, rather than detailing the differences from her inner experience. I get the sense that she did so because as a journalist, source accounts are more trustworthy and her job is to report them, but again, some parts of the book read like she removed herself from it. Because of it, she also came across as a bit cold.
I really enjoyed Brain on Fire: it’s interesting and thoughtful. I had a hard time putting it down, and an equally hard time getting it out of my head after I’d finished reading.
The film adaptation of the book is currently in production. Here’s a link to the Publisher’s Weekly review.