Susannah Cahalan wakes up in a hospital room, restrained to the bed, with electrodes all over her head. She doesn’t know why she’s there, how she got there, or what’s going on. She learns that she has spent over a month, none of which she can remember, descending rapidly into madness. She moves robotically, she has erratic outbursts, her speech makes no sense.
Susannah was a young and successful journalist for the New York Post. When she began acting strangely, her colleagues and family assumed she was having a tragic but not-so-unusual mental breakdown. Susannah, however, is extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time– a prominent Philadelphia researcher recently published about women suffering similar afflictions to hers, and while test after test came back negative, he ultimately discovered an extremely rare kind of brain inflammation.
Her family worked together with her tireless and dedicated doctors, and ultimately Susannah recovers. Her memory of her month of madness is nonexistent, and she uses her skills as a journalist to investigate what happened to her and why it happened.
Brain on Fire deals with heavy material, but it’s not a downer. There’s always a glimmer of hope for Susannah (after all, you know from the outset that her story has a happy ending). I was drawn to this book because of I am interested in the interplay between personal memory and the story that can be reconstructed from outside evidence. Cahalan takes care to research and recreate what she can from journals and medical records, but because she has absolutely no memory of most of her illness, that fascinating issue never really presents itself. Because she has no memory, she is distant from her subject, and it’s like she’s researching someone else altogether.
Brain on Fire is full of medical terms and science, but it’s not dry. Although you know the outcome, the journey to getting there is an engaging one. It’s a bit too serious for me to recommend this as summer beachside reading, but it’s perfect for a long plane ride.
Sidenote: If you’re interested in the interplay between memory and outside evidence of events, be sure to check out The Night of the Gun by David Carr. He, too, was a journalist who uses his reporting skills to research some of the darkest nights of his life, in the depths of very desperate drug addiction. He has memories of those dark nights, and it’s fascinating to see the comparison of what he remembers and what his investigation shows.