Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

4.3 215
by Susannah Cahalan
     
 

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A gripping memoir and medical suspense story about a young New York Post reporter’s struggle with a rare and terrifying disease, opening a new window into the fascinating world of brain science.

One day, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her

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Overview


A gripping memoir and medical suspense story about a young New York Post reporter’s struggle with a rare and terrifying disease, opening a new window into the fascinating world of brain science.

One day, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four year old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter.

Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. As weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning her to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar—nicknamed Dr. House—joined her team. He asked Susannah to draw one simple sketch, which became key to diagnosing her with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain, an illness now thought to be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history.

With sharp reporting drawn from hospital records, scientific research, and interviews with doctors and family, Brain on Fire is a crackling mystery and an unflinching, gripping personal story that marks the debut of an extraordinary writer.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Michael Greenberg
Brain on Fire is at its most captivating when describing the torturous process of how doctors arrived at [the] diagnosis…At its best, Cahalan's prose carries a sharp, unsparing, tabloid punch in the tradition of Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin.
The Washington Post - Maggie Scarf
Cahalan's tale is told in straightforward journalistic prose and is admirably well-researched and described. Because she has no memory of her "month of madness," the story rests on doctors' notes and recollections, hospital films, her father's journals, both parents' recounting of what happened, and the reminiscences of her devoted boyfriend and those of her many friends and relatives. This story has a happy ending, but take heed: It is a powerfully scary book.
Publishers Weekly
In 2009, Cahalan was in a serious relationship and her career as a reporter at the New York Post was taking off. But suddenly, as she tells it in this engaging memoir, she began suffering from a bizarre amalgam of debilitating symptoms including memory loss, paranoia, and severe psychosis that left her in a catatonic state that moved her close to death. Physicians remained baffled until one extraordinary doctor determined that Cahalan was “in the grip of some kind of autoimmune disease.” Released from the hospital after 28 days, she had no memory of her stay there. DVDs recorded in the hospital were the only link she had to her startling condition. “Without this electronic evidence, I could never have imagined myself capable of such madness and misery,” she writes. Focusing her journalistic toolbox on her story, Cahalan untangles the medical mystery surrounding her condition. She is dogged by one question: “How many other people throughout history suffered from my disease and others like it but went untreated? The question is made more pressing by the knowledge that even though the disease was discovered in 2007, some doctors I spoke to believe that it’s been around at least as long as humanity has.” A fast-paced and well-researched trek through a medical mystery to a hard-won recovery. (Nov.)
The Washington Post
“Harrowing . . . Cahalan's tale is . . . admirably well-researched and described. . . . This story has a happy ending, but take heed: It is a powerfully scary book.”
The Lancet
“A dramatic and suspenseful book that draws you into her story and holds you there until the last page. . . I recommend it highly.”
Library Journal
New York Post reporter Cahalan details the madness that briefly robbed her of her independence and ability to write. At first, the author's erratic behavior seemed symptomatic of overwork. Soon, her lack of physical control and frightening, self-destructive behavior became impossible to ignore. Following a string of misdiagnoses, a top neurologist recognized a then newly discovered autoimmune condition called anti-NMDA-receptor encephalitis. With the help of her doctor and supportive family and boyfriend, Cahalan recovered and was back at work within a year. Though more journalistic in tone, the book parallels Sylvia Plath's literary classic The Bell Jar. VERDICT A compelling, quick read with a moving message. Cahalan's hip writing style, sympathetic characters, and suspenseful story will appeal to fans of medical thrillers and the television show House. Brief, informative biology and abnormal psychology discussions throughout the text will interest science students without slowing the narrative. Because Cahalan's condition is rare and its causes unknown, this book may save lives and promote empathy for those struggling with mental illness. [See Prepub Alert, 5/20/12.]—Chrissy Spallone, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
A young journalist's descent into her own baffling medical mystery. In her debut memoir, New York Post reporter Cahalan recounts her struggle to understand an unremembered month lost to illness. Cobbled together from interviews, medical records, notebooks, journals and video footage, the author conjures the traumatic memories of her harrowing ordeal. What began as numbness in her hands and feet soon grew into something more serious, climaxing in a terrifying seizure witnessed by her boyfriend. "My arms suddenly whipped straight out in front of me, like a mummy," she writes, "as my eyes rolled back and my body stiffened….Blood and foam began to spurt out of my mouth through clenched teeth." The mystery thickened as doctors struggled to agree on a diagnosis. While the uncertainty proved maddening for her family members, however, it was also what bonded them together. Cahalan's estranged parents, in particular, found a common purpose as a result of their daughter's plight, putting her health before old hardships. After numerous tests revealed nothing, an observed increase of white blood cells in her cerebrospinal fluid eventually clued in medical professionals. Diagnosed with anti-NMDA-receptor encephalitis--a rare autoimmune disease with a cure--Cahalan and her family embarked on the long, hard road to recovery. Through the lonesomeness of her illness, a community emerged, the members of which were dedicated to returning the author to her former life as a beloved daughter, sister, lover and friend. A valiant attempt to recount a mostly forgotten experience, though the many questions that remain may prove frustrating to some readers.
Booklist (starred review)
“This fascinating memoir by a young New York Post reporter…describes how she crossed the line between sanity and insanity…Cahalan expertly weaves together her own story and relevant scientific information…compelling.”
Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology
“For the neurologist, I highly recommend this book on several grounds…First, it is a well-told story, worth reading for the suspense and the dramatic cadence of events…Second, it is a superb case study of a rare neurologic diagnosis; even experienced neurologists will find much to learn in it…Third, and most important, it gives the neurologist insight into how a patient and her family experienced a complex illness, including the terrifying symptoms, the difficult pace of medical diagnosis, and the slow recovery. This story clearly contains lessons for all of us.”
New York Times Book Review
“Captivating…Cahalan’s prose carries a sharp, unsparing tabloid punch in the tradition of Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin.”
People magazine
“A fascinating look at the disease that – if not for a nick-of-time diagnosis – could have cost this vibrant, vital young woman her life.”
BookForum
"An intense, mesmerizing account of survival. . . Cahalan's deft descriptions of her spooky hallucinations could be right out of a Poe terror tale."
NPR.org
"The best reporters never stop asking questions, and Cahalan is no exception...The result is a kind of anti-memoir, an out-of-body personal account of a young woman's fight to survive one of the cruelest diseases imaginable. And on every level, it's remarkable.....Cahalan is nothing if not tenacious, and she perfectly tempers her brutal honesty with compassion and something like vulnerability. It's indisputable that Cahalan is a gifted reporter, and Brain on Fire is a stunningly brave book. But even more than that, she's a naturally talented prose stylist — whip-smart but always unpretentious — and it's nearly impossible to stop reading her, even in the book's most painful passages....Brain on Fire comes from a place of intense pain and unthinkable isolation, but finds redemption in Cahalan's unflagging, defiant toughness. It's an unexpected gift of a book from one of America's most courageous young journalists."
The Daily Texan
“What is most impressive about “Brain on Fire” is that Cahalan has little recollection of her month of insanity…. Thanks partially to her talent as a journalist and to the fact that her parents kept journals, Cahalan was able to recapture her month, leaving no holes in the narrative.”
Elle
“The bizarre and confounding illness that beset the 24-year-old New York Post reporter in early 2009 so ravaged her mentally and physically that she became unrecognizable to coworkers, family, friends, and—most devastatingly—herself… She dedicates this miracle of a book to ‘those without a diagnosis’… [An] unforgettable memoir.”
Scientific American
“Swift and haunting.”
Booklist
“This fascinating memoir by a young New York Post reporter…describes how she crossed the line between sanity and insanity…Cahalan expertly weaves together her own story and relevant scientific information…compelling.”
Mental Floss
“Compelling…a New York Post reporter recounts her medical nightmare.”
From the Publisher
“A fast-paced and well-researched trek through a medical mystery to a hard-won recovery.”
Publishers Weekly

“Echoing the blend of memoir and journalism, narrator Heather Henderson modulates the story’s shifting emotional undercurrent with her careful use of tone and pacing. . . . Henderson’s voice is crisp, clear, and remarkably unfazed by the . . . medical terminology.”
AudioFile

“A remarkably well-written and well-read account.”
Booklist

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781451621372
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
11/13/2012
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.16(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

Brain on Fire


  • At first, there’s just darkness and silence.

    “Are my eyes open? Hello?”

    I can’t tell if I’m moving my mouth or if there’s even anyone to ask. It’s too dark to see. I blink once, twice, three times. There is a dull foreboding in the pit of my stomach. That, I recognize. My thoughts translate only slowly into language, as if emerging from a pot of molasses. Word by word the questions come: Where am I? Why does my scalp itch? Where is everyone? Then the world around me comes gradually into view, beginning as a pinhole, its diameter steadily expanding. Objects emerge from the murk and sharpen into focus. After a moment I recognize them: TV, curtain, bed.

    I know immediately that I need to get out of here. I lurch forward, but something snaps against me. My fingers find a thick mesh vest at my waist holding me to the bed like a—what’s the word?—straitjacket. The vest connects to two cold metal side rails. I wrap my hands around the rails and pull up, but again the straps dig into my chest, yielding only a few inches. There’s an unopened window to my right that looks onto a street. Cars, yellow cars. Taxis. I am in New York. Home.

    Before the relief finishes washing over me, though, I see her. The purple lady. She is staring at me.

    “Help!” I shout. Her expression never changes, as if I hadn’t said a thing. I shove myself against the straps again.

    “Don’t you go doing that,” she croons in a familiar Jamaican accent.

    “Sybil?” But it couldn’t be. Sybil was my childhood babysitter. I haven’t seen her since I was a child. Why would she choose today to reenter my life? “Sybil? Where am I?”

    “The hospital. You better calm down.” It’s not Sybil.

    “It hurts.”

    The purple lady moves closer, her breasts brushing against my face as she bends across me to unhook the restraints, starting on the right and moving to the left. With my arms free, I instinctually raise my right hand to scratch my head. But instead of hair and scalp, I find a cotton hat. I rip it off, suddenly angry, and raise both hands to inspect my head further. I feel rows and rows of plastic wires. I pluck one out—which makes my scalp sting—and lower it to eye level; it’s pink. On my wrist is an orange plastic band. I squint, unable to focus on the words, but after a few seconds, the block letters sharpen: FLIGHT RISK.

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    What People are saying about this

    David B. Angus
    Brain on Fire reads like a scientific thriller, but with a profound and moving philosophy at its heart.”
    —David B. Agus, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Engineering, University of Southern California, and author of The End of Illness
    Mehmet Oz
    “Engrossing. . . . Unquestionably, an important book on both a human and a medical level. Cahalan’s elegantly-written memoir of her dramatic descent into madness opens up discussion of the cutting-edge neuroscience behind a disease that may affect thousands of people around the world, and it offers powerful insight into the subjective workings of our minds.”
    —Mehmet Oz, M.D., Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Surgery, New York Presbyterian-Columbia Medical Center

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