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Book Review: Brain On Fire

Updated on September 1, 2015

The Blurb

An award-winning memoir and instant New York Times bestseller that goes far beyond its riveting medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity.

When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen. “A fascinating look at the disease that . . . could have cost this vibrant, vital young woman her life” (People), Brain on Fire is an unforgettable exploration of memory and identity, faith and love, and a profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.

What I Loved

This book took a lot for me to get through. There is a lot of medical jargon that doesn't quite suit my taste when it comes to literature, but what I did enjoy were the parts towards the end when Susannah began her research for her article in the Post.

To find out that there are so many potential cases of anti NMDA autoimmune encephalitis (an autoimmune disorder that occurs when the antibodies turn on the brain and cause swelling) being misdiagnosed as a mental disorder, specifically schizophrenia is seriously devastating. It's terrifying, actually.

And it happens a lot in children as well, which she compared to The Exorcist and the symptoms that the little girl had when she was possessed by a demon. It was an interesting way to make it relatable to someone who has never had to deal with anything even close to anti-NMDA.

Cahalan also discussed the many people who have reached out to her since her article in the Post was published, which I'm sure was a huge step towards hope for a lot of people going through tests and the unknown just as Susannah had.

For someone, or a family member of someone, who has had a similar disorder, or an unsure diagnosis, it's a ray of light to see that doctors are making breakthroughs and discoveries everyday, which is what I take from this memoir more than anything else.

What I Didn't Love

Now, that we've going through what I actually enjoyed about Brain on Fire, let's talk about what took me forever to get through the book. I have a hard time doing this, because as a writer, I don't like to bash anyone's way of writing, especially if they put themselves out there and published. I totally believe in constructive criticism, but just coming right out and not liking something? Not my thing.

I seriously tried my best to like this, but when a book takes me a whole month to read, and it ends up feeling like a chore, I know I'm in trouble.

It started really slowly even though it got into the details of the first symptoms really quickly. I have no idea what Susannah was really like before her antibodies started attacking her brain, and there weren't many stories throughout where she, or any one else, discussed her past self. Everyone was so concerned with her getting back to normal, but I didn't really know what "normal" was other than being dedicated to her job as a journalist, and hanging out with her boyfriend and divorced mom.

Once her hospitalization began, I was hoping it would become more interesting, but it was really just a few pages of her freaking out about the nurses and her roommates, and tons of medical jargon followed by brief explanations. It was like medical journal.

I started hoping crazier things would happen and that she would get worse, which is terrible, but I'm used to reading fiction, so this made it even more difficult for me.

And, is it wrong for me to think someone else should have written this memoir? I completely understand that she's the writer and journalist, and has a knack for this sort of thing, but she can't exactly interview herself when she can't remember a thing.

We have no idea how she really felt, and it would be impossible to, but in Stephen's point of view, I think we could have gotten a better idea. Or even from her mom and dad's. The entire book didn't need to be written in their perspective, but a few chapters would have made it more interesting for me.

I just don't feel like I got much from this, other than what I stated in the section above. I'm disappointed because I wanted to feel more connected to Susannah in a way that memoirs can often lead, but at the end of this I was just excited that it was done.


In the end, would I recommend this book?


Did I absolutely love it?


But I really think this is a matter of taste. I wanted to like it, but it just isn't my style. I do respect Susannah for everything she went through during her month of madness, and I'm sorry for all those suffering with the same disorder, or another undiagnosable one simply because we haven't yet made those discoveries. But at the same time it left me wanting more. More that I could relate to, more that I could be moved by, I don't know.

It wasn't there for me, but I know that it is for a lot of people.


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