Book Review: Brain on Fire (Cahalan)

Brain on Fire © 2012

Author: Susannah Cahalan

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Genre: Memoir

Subgenre: Medical

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Reviewer: Sara


Twenty-four year-old Susannah Cahalan woke in a hospital bed with no memory of how she came to be there. Over the course of a few weeks, her life disintegrated. Brain on Fire tells the story of how she went from an educated, articulate woman embarking on promising career to a one labeled as psychotic, a flight risk and violent, her eventual diagnosis, treatment and recovery.


Busy moms beware: Journeying with Susannah Cahalan on her month-long descent into “madness” and the grueling climb back out is fascinating and spellbinding, all the while depressing and frightening.

First, from the perspective of the reader, her experience is tangible with every page you turn. Her frustration is yours. The moments of her denial has you shouting and shaking the book “No! No! You’re not fine!” The jubilation at her final diagnosis is also yours, emotionally fatigued and delighted to have an answer. A treatment plan. The light of hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Then, from the perspective of a mother, the truth that not every disease is well understood, that you, your family or your child may suffer some similar experience, will hit you where it hurts. And give you hope that, should you find yourself in a situation so frightening, so unfamiliar, all is not lost. Persistence, faith and hope can result in resolution.

From the memories she retained with the help of her family, written and videotaped medical records, interviews with her medical team, the journal her father wrote and hospital communication notebook her parents maintained, Ms. Cahalan weaves the evasive truth of her illness into a memoir and cautionary tale. Part medical mystery, part memoir, it’s a fascinating tale. I found myself less engaged following her diagnosis and successful treatment, mainly because the tale of her recover seemed anti-climactic. This is not to suggest it was dull, to discount its importance or to downplay the challenges she faced. Rather, for me the primary source of tension in the book was her elusive diagnosis, so what followed after her recovery began, difficult as it was, did not hold my attention as well. Despite this, the book and the story are well-written and will transfix most readers.

This book should be on a ‘must read’ list for busy parents, and medical practitioners. Following a patient, a daughter, a partner, on a dismal decline, hoping in the face of hopelessness and struggling to find the truth, the treatment, the person who was lost to the disease, are life lessons for all of us.

Have you read Brain on Fire? What was your reading experience?

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Happy trails, and may good books (and good health) be plentiful!


Feature image: Cover, photograph provided by author Susannah Cahalan
Design: Mspace/Maura Fadden Rosenthal

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