Books,  Non-Fiction,  Reviews

Strength in Vulnerability – A review of Brain On Fire

brain on fire

Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan


You’re a vibrant woman in her twenties with the beginnings of a great career in journalism, an attentive boyfriend and an apartment in New York City. One day you wake up in a hospital, delirious, restrained and with no memory of how you got there. Your family and boyfriend can’t recognize the person you have become.

It sounds like the makings of a psychological thriller or a horror movie.

For Susannah Cahalan it was her very real, living nightmare.

Scary Because It’s True

Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan chronicles her dissent into psychosis thanks to a rare autoimmune disease. Cahalan guides the reader from her vivacious days as a journalist through paranoia, hospitalization and recovery in three parts.

Part one, “Crazy,” vividly captures the struggle of self-doubt. Cahalan begins to question the loyalty of those closest to her and finds it difficult to trust – herself and others.

For many in their twenties, self-doubt and fear are natural as we navigate becoming adults and that is what made Part One of Brain On Fire particularly scary. As a young reader you may find yourself connecting with the early experiences of Cahalan as the illness takes over.

What is normal and what is the disease?

You begin to wonder; am I sick too?

Cahalan Lets You Into Her Mind

Cahalan’s writing pulls you in with its simple narration and emotive descriptions. She doesn’t include unnecessary details about the world around her, but instead captures her lived reality through interpersonal dialogue and internal debates.

One internal debate of Cahalan’s captures her struggle between knowing something is wrong, but being driven by an unknown force to act other than herself. In the chapter entitled, “The Girl In The Black Lace Bra,” Cahalan suspects her boyfriend of cheating. She searches through his things when she finds herself alone in his apartment. Cahalan explains the mania of being compelled to rifle though his things and her inability to recognize herself.

“Then, as I reached for the next letter, I caught sight of myself in the mirror of the armoire, wearing only a bra and underwear, clutching Stephen’s private love letters between my thighs. A stranger stared back from my reflection; my hair was wild and my face distorted and unfamiliar. I never act like this, I thought, disgusted (12).”

Cahalan opens herself to the reader; she is infinitely vulnerable. Cahalan trusts the reader with the intimate details of her mind, like someone trusting a best friend with an embarrassing exploit from the previous night.

Reconstructing Memory

The ability of Cahalan to craft a narrative so personal and so detailed demonstrates her agility as a writer. Cahalan builds a relationship with her readers over a story she herself cannot remember.

Cahalan wrote the story of her illness using the anecdotes, medical files and personal journals of family, friends and physicians. “Brain On Fire” begins with an author’s note explaining:

“Because of the nature of my illness, and its effect on my brain, I remember only flashes of actual events, and brief but vivid hallucinations, from the months in which this story takes place.”

Calahan, as a journalist, had to investigate her own life. She calls her story “a blend of memoir and reportage,” colored by her own biases.

Once you read “Brain On Fire” you will understand how difficult her self-investigation must have been. She conducted hours of interviews with those who cared for her at the height of illness, read the personal thoughts of family in their journals and viewed footage of herself hysterical and psychotic.

Learn More About The Disease

Cahalan ends “Brain On Fire” with a discussion of the disease that drastically changed her life. If you’re interested in learning more before reading the book, you can visit the website for the foundation Cahalan started – Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance.


Have you read “Brain On Fire?” What were your thoughts?


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