I am pleased to announce my first can’t-put-it-down book of the year: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan.
This gripping memoir tells the story of Susannah’s “month of madness,” which remains largely a mystery to herself and, for a while, many doctors. At 24 years old, Susannah was a reporter for the New York Post, living in her own apartment in the city, and beginning a serious relationship. Within weeks, she was waking up strapped to a hospital bed, paranoid, immobile, and unrecognizable.
What happened to her?
That’s the question that kept me turning page after page, desperately searching for the answer almost as if I were uncovering it for the first time. It took a large team of highly specialized doctors, most of them neurologists (!), to unravel her rare and severe case. Still, much of her illness is a mystery to Susannah: she can’t remember large chunks of time when she was sick.
Susannah uses videotapes from the hospital, her medical files, and interviews with those who interacted with her while she was sick to piece together her story. The book includes drawings Susannah made at the time, and we are able to experience just how drastically her entire personality changed. I was in awe of the human brain and its complexity throughout the book, and also gripped with the looming questions, How did this happen to her? What if it happened to me?
That is the core of the book and the reason behind its engrossing nature: realizing your own vulnerability and powerlessness over your own body. It is an awful, beautiful, amazing thing, and Susannah’s memoir gives readers a glimpse of how deeply that realization is felt when experiencing neurological disease.
I can’t wait for Nathan to read this book! I bet he’ll get even more out of it than I did. There is quite a bit of medical jargon throughout, but Susannah does a good job of explaining everything so readers are able to keep up. This book was a wonderful distraction for me as we counted down the days until Match Day, and it made me even more excited for the field Nathan is going into – neurology! I have a feeling I’m in for a lifetime of fascinating stories like this.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Stats: 288 pages
Recommended for: Adults – some of the concepts here would be extremely unsettling for younger readers. Anyone with a penchant for medical or psych themes would also enjoy this. As someone with a journalism background, I also enjoyed her take on it from that perspective.
Up next: My Antonia by Willa Cather. I read this about five years ago but feel like I didn’t savor it enough, so I’m diving back in for another round!