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

November 13, 2012 Free Press, Non-Fiction, Review 10

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (November 13, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 145162137X
  • Source: Publisher

Twenty-four year old Susannah Cahalan was a writer for the New York Post. She was a very outgoing young woman, leading an active social life. It’s early 2009 when she wakes to find to small bite marks on her arm. The city is on a big bed bug scare so Susannah instantly thinks she’s been infected. After having her apartment treated, Cahalan’s paranoia about the tiny, pervasive bugs should have diminished. Instead, her paranoia in general increases. This incident is just the precursor for host of other symptoms, including drastic mood swings, sensitivity to bright lights and general feeling of unease.

Her doctors initially diagnose it as mono…yes, the kissing disease. Yet the symptoms not only continue, but intensify, after she receives treatment. Cahalan begins experiencing horrific seizures and hallucinations. It is only the persistence of her family and loved ones that convince doctors to admit her into New York University Hospital.

The doctors don’t actually know how it began for me. What’s clear is that if that man had sneezed on you, you’d most likely just get a cold. For me, it flipped my universe upside down and very nearly sent me to an asylum for life.


The diagnoses ranged from epilepsy to alcohol withdrawal to a host of mental illnesses. The most terrifying part of this ordeal is that Cahalan doesn’t remember most of it. She awakes in a hospital bed, under guard, weeks later, unable to speak.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan’s narrative of her descent into madness. Unable to recall the majority of the events that took place in this month-long time frame, Cahalan uses her doctor’s notes, video recordings, and a journal her father kept to relive the living hell that turned a healthy, ambitious young woman into a catatonic shell of a human being. It wasn’t until her case was reviewed by a doctor (a “real-life Dr. House”) with experiences in cases like this that Cahalan received a legitimate diagnosis for her illness, a newly discovered autoimmune disorder. Essentially, her body was attacking itself, attempting to rid her body of a hidden infection of some sort. Her brain was on fire, under attack by her own body.

Cahalan’s narrative is incredibly haunting. Imagine losing a month of your life, waking with no memories of what transpired? Once she did regain conscious, the recovery was not instant. She had to learn to do many of the things she took for granted. Her relationships were tested; luckily she had a dedicated boyfriend and parents who remained by her side throughout the entire ordeal. When she awoke the relationship she had with her parents, divorced, changed. Before the ordeal, she didn’t have that close a relationship with her father, yet was incredibly close to her mother. After her illness, those relationships shifted. Her father was there by her side almost continuously, supporting her when she herself could not, perhaps making up for lost time.

The amount of knowledge and information contained within this book is truly tremendous. In addition to learning about Cahalan’s harrowing diagnosis and recovery, readers learn a great deal about her illness, an illness just recently discovered. While Cahalan’s story is terrifying, what is more terrifying is the number of individuals suffering from this disorder, yet not diagnosed. Individuals banished to mental institutions for an illness that is not at all psychological.

Bottom line: this is a book that must be read, if not for just the subject matter alone but to raise the awareness of the number of illnesses and disorders that go undiagnosed, unknown. Highly recommended.

10 Responses to “Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan”

  1. Anita
    Twitter: anitalovesbooks

    I loaned my arc of this book to a friend. I plan on reading this in January, it sounds so bizarre yet compelling.
    Thanks for the review.

  2. Susan

    This book sounds quite hair-raising. Luckily it sounds they were able to treat her in the end. Not sure I can imagine being in her situation …

  3. Beth F
    Twitter: BethFishReads

    This was almost too freaky to read. So scary to think of that happening and what if she hadn’t met the doctor who finally found the answer?

    • Jenn
      Twitter: jennbookshelves

      Yes! The statistics she quoted about how many people go untreated is absolutely haunting.

  4. Jennifer
    Twitter: jenhartling

    I’m am so looking forward to reading this! I first heard about it while browsing through an issue of Reader’s Digest. Now it’s coming up in my tbr pile. 🙂

    Thanks for the great review, I’m even more eager to get started on this!

  5. Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)
    Twitter: kimthedork

    Great review, Jenn! I really enjoyed reading about her relationships and how they were changed by her illness, something that I imagine happens to all people who become sick but that we don’t always think about.

  6. Kate miles

    I also suffered from nmda back in 2009 I look forward to reading this.