Susannah Cahalan’s best-selling memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, is a terrifyingly real glimpse into a young woman’s struggle with a mysterious illness that threatens to obliterate her physical, mental and emotional health. The bewildering onset of her symptoms, her family’s desperate search for a legitimate diagnosis, and her slow journey back to a normal life form the timeline of this riveting and fast-paced autobiography, now in paperback.
When the book begins in 2010, Cahalan, a 23-year-old reporter for the New York Post, is a vivacious, bright young woman with a sparkling future, a New York City apartment and a devoted hipster boyfriend. Over the course of the following days and weeks, however, we witness her dizzying descent into paranoid episodes, schizophrenic-like fugue states, seizures, cognitive deterioration and a complete alteration of her personality.
As Cahalan takes the reader through a whirlwind of confusion and fear, the reader is made to experience no small amount of disorientation and doubt as well—because Cahalan herself doesn’t know what is real and what is not, neither do we. It is in the interplay between identity and memory, recovery and loss, that the book strikes its most poignant chords.
After myriad misdiagnoses, ranging from bipolar disorder to simple stress to epilepsy, the hero of the piece appears: Dr. Najjar, a kind, humble, extremely talented neurologist who diagnoses Cahalan with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disease of unknown origin and uncertain outlook for full recovery.
As Cahalan claws her way back from the devastation of NMDA, unexpected gifts bloom around her. In particular, her most intimate relationships—those with her father, mother, brother and boyfriend—pass through the forge of her illness and come out the other side strengthened and refined. In this sense Cahalan does not so much get her “old” self back as rebuild on the detritus of her pre-illness life.
Brain on Fire is a fascinating and compelling story told in a smart, succinct style by a woman who could have, we are made profoundly aware, just as easily not come back from the edge of the abyss to tell her tale.
Ms. Cahalan, in an appearance co-sponsored by the UNM Center for Life and Bookworks, will be speaking and signing books on at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Domenici Center Auditorium, UNM Medical School (1001 Stanford NE). Tickets are available at Bookworks, at the door and via bkwrks.com.