Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan

I am fascinated by the workings, and not workings, of the brain--for instance, Oliver Sacks' newest book, Hallucinations, is on my Christmas wish list.  So naturally I said yes, enthusiastically, to the offer of a review copy of Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan (Free Press, November 2012).

Susannah was a healthy, vibrant young reporter when, slowly and insidiously, her brain betrayed her.   At first the signs were subtle--manic mood swings, paranoia, and a sense of not-rightness, but progressively thing got worse.  Fortunately for Susannah, she began having seizures, making it clear that there was something actually, physically, wrong.   And so, instead of being committed to a mental hospital, she spent a month of madness as a neurological mystery.

A team of doctors tested and assessed and observed, and Susannah's condition progressively worsened.  Her self was masked by a cascade of impairment, but her family and her boyfriend continued to believe that the Susannah they loved was still there.

Most fortunately, a new doctor, Souhel Najjar took up her case, one who just happened to be familiar with examples of other young women suffering from similarly catastrophic mental collapse.  Susannah finally had a diagnosis--a newly discovered autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain. With diagnosis came treatment, restoring Susannah to her self.   And Susannah decided to write this book.

Though she herself has few memories of her month of madness, she set out to chronicle with journalist attention to finding out facts just what happened to her.  It is gripping as all get out. 

Susannah's descent into illness is not comfortable reading.  Though I was absorbed, it was a lot like watching a train wreck happening...and I was much more comfortable once the new doctor arrived on the scene, and the tone of the narrative becomes one that's more hopeful, and one that's more focused on the scientific non-fiction aspect of her illness, and less on watching her mind collapse.

And it is fascinating to speculate, along with Susannah, just how this illness, and others like it, might be responsible for misdiagnosed mental dysfunction...and it's scary as all get out to think that had Susannah's first doctor been the only one she saw, a complete and utter misdiagnosis of too much alcohol consumption might have been on her charts as her brain became completely consumed by her sickness.

Highly recommended for those like me who are fascinated by medical mysteries with the human element front and center!


  1. I am glad you liked this. I have it, but with my whole hardly reading problem I haven't had a chance to pick it up! Looking forward to it!

    1. Your reading problem is very sad indeed. But maybe a nice non-fiction would be a tonic....in any event, I hope you enjoy this one at some point!

  2. Oddly enough, I have been interested in this one as well. Great minds, as my father would say.

    1. I can imagine you appreciating it! (and with me, it was my grandfather who would say that....)

  3. Fascinating. I'm adding this to my wishlist -- and the new one by Sacks as well.


Free Blog Counter

Button styles