Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

13547180Nonfiction — print. Free Press, 2012. 250 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “My Month of Madness”, Cahalan’s memoir recounts the sudden manifestation of psychosis, including intense bouts of paranoia, she experienced at the age of twenty-four. Concerned about her erratic behavior, Cahalan’s family and boyfriend pushed her — and, later, her doctors — to seek a diagnosis for her behavior, rejecting the suggestion that she is detoxing from too much alcohol consumption or presenting with preliminary signs of schizophrenia.

The one saving grace for Cahalan are the seizures she experiences, which land her on the epilepsy ward rather than the psych ward. There, she is cycled through a series of doctors and nurses before being transferred to a neurologist named Souhel Najjar. After a month of suffering, Cahalan receives her diagnosis from Dr. Najjar, the only doctor to recall an article in a medical journal about an obscure form of encephalitis.

I enjoyed the balance of mystery — what could be causing these behaviors? — and contemplation about how memory is a fleeting and unreliable thing. While the quotes cited from Nietzsche on the topic of memory felt pretentious, the actual exploration of this topic in Cahalan’s memoir was well-written and unconceited.

She admits that she is an unreliable narrator as her memories from this time were largely wiped by the disease. Yet, without giving away the ending, she also shows how the moments she knows to be true — moments that her family recalls in similar ways — may, in fact, be false.

Members of my book club described this book as similar to an episode of ‘House’. I’ve never seen the show, but I’m certainly more interested in doing so now after reading this interesting memoir.


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