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Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (4/5). A book that makes you afraid of the stranger coughing next to you.

23 Jun

Yet another book club book that I enjoyed and never would have found otherwise. I love book clubs for this reason. It’s always scary for me to pick up non-fiction because I find it very hit or miss. For this book, TOTAL HIT.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

Brain in Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Susannah Cahalan was a successful New York reporter one day, and the next she was confused, having seizures, and paranoid. What happened? Cahalan takes the reader on her journey the way her family experienced it; one day at a time and one clue at a time. Having contracted a rare auto-immune disease that distorted her brain function, Cahalan’s journey is long and scary; the reader knowing it could happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

I liked the way Cahalan structured this book. She make it a mystery for the reader as well, giving them only as much as she and her family had each step of the way. With each diagnosis, guess, and clue, she’s included the medical terminology and explanations she’s gained since regaining herself. She doesn’t have memory of so much of her time that a lot of her story is drawn from what her family and the doctors remember.

It was so strange to hear about Cahalan’s behavior during her illness. The way she behaved changed so drastically from beginning to middle to end that it was almost a study in inconsistent characters. Knowing that a disease mysteriously contacted can do that to a person is alarming.

Cahalan’s boyfriend, Stephen, was my favorite character. He was given an easy way to duck out when things got hard but instead he stuck with Susannah and her family. It would have been a quick and dirty way into a family, but he didn’t shy away and embraced it with full strength. I think that’s a trait all women look for in a man.

Susannah’s parents reminded me of my dad. My mom went through a really terrible accident when I was young and my dad, much like the Cahalans, was at the hospital day and night, waiting for any news: good or bad. I could see him in them and the desperate hope they clung to.

I enjoyed how Cahalan described her disease at the end of the book. She took case studies and notes from her doctor to paint a picture of others suffering from the disease, not just herself. It was interesting to see how the disease takes different forms and affects different individuals in different ways. I thought this was well researched and presented in a way that didn’t feel like a dry research paper.

I didn’t like the parts where Cahalan narrated scenes that had been recorded during her illness. They were scenes of her waking in the middle of the night and having paranoid delusions of which she has no memory. They felt a little too much like ‘Paranormal Activity’ to me and took me out of the story. I wish she’d worked them more into her narrative as they stood apart a lot.

Cahalan’s family was so dedicated to her health and I found that really inspiring. I liked that even when things looked terrible, they stuck with her and wouldn’t leave her side or give up hope that things could return to normal. Everything can get better.

Writer’s Takeaway: Cahalan used a first person narration voice to cover a point of her life from which she has little memory. There’s no better example of blending memoir and autobiography that I can think of. It was researched, yet speculative at the same time and she blended it well. A good example of meshing styles.

A well written story with a harrowing premise. 4 out of 5 stars.

Until next time, write on.

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