In 2009, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room strapped to a bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records - from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory - reported 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. Weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia. Over one million dollars worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, until the celebrated neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined her team. With the use of a simple - yet ingenious - test, he was able to make a lifesaving diagnosis - revealing a newly discovered autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain.
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.
This is a well-written and interesting memoir by a young woman who suffered through a period of time in which she experienced a form of "madness." Since she doesn't give away the particular disease in the title, I won't give a spoiler here; I have some background in the relevant fields and did not expect the answer. Her look back at this time in her life is thoughtful, and I found her ability to explain her medical condition and its details to be friendly to a general reader but not condescending. In general, the prose reads easily and well. I suspect that this book will be (has been) a very useful vehicle for spreading information about her illness, and will do considerable good. Glad to learn that she has recovered well and wish her the best. The narrator did a fine job of capturing the author's various moods and did some interpretation of the family members' voices as well.
92 of 94 people found this review helpful
I will not seek to give away things that would make listening to this less suspenseful, but rather focus on reasons for listening to this book. Susannah Cahalan tells the very personal and insightful story of her flight into psychosis. Her authorship allows the reader to contemplate what it might be like to become mad, and I believe increase ones compassion for those who also suffer from mental illness. Her investigation into the aftermath also details the emotions that her family felt- something that rounds out her story and at times brought tears to my eyes. The love extended around her I believe brought her through the journey with the ability to write this narrative. The stigma of being mentally ill is overcome by her writing a very detailed account of her journey, which I salute her for! The book also reflects upon the physiological basis of psychosis. Critically, I think that she still stigmatizes the mental hospital although rightly it was not the place that would have been most healing for her. I found her episode similar to what many manic patients I have known experience, as afterwards their episode is shrouded in partial memory which she overcomes by video that was taken and accounts of her loved ones. Her story should challenge doctors to continue investigating when a combination of symptoms don't make complete sense. Her story should allow one more empathy when we encounter those who are suffering with such a mind bending illness.
62 of 64 people found this review helpful
A fascinating story, well-narrated. This is the second book I've read in the space of a year where persistent, even heroic efforts by persons close to someone suddenly manifesting mental illness to find the right doctors and treatment have discovered an underlying physiological cause that, when treated, restored the patient to a normal life. The other book was "Saving Sammy: Curing the Boy Who Caught OCD." It is alarming to think of all those diagnosed with schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc., and consigned to numbing drug treatment and mental institutions who might also be victims of ailments that, if properly diagnosed and treated, would give them a productive life rather than dooming them to the shadows. It cries out for better research into possible physiological causes for the most serious and disabling mental illnesses.
46 of 48 people found this review helpful
What made the experience of listening to Brain on Fire the most enjoyable?
This is a gripping true life story of a young woman who descended into madness and came out of it to tell the story. It is rare to find a first hand account of this sort. Well worth reading.
What about Heather Henderson’s performance did you like?
Excellent narration, felt like she was living it and telling you what happened
20 of 21 people found this review helpful
Mesmerizing - like a bad car wreck- you can't look away. You'll be listening in your car, in your class, in bed instead of sleeping you'll be listening in the dark. So compelling, you will want to keep on listening until the end. Very well done.
19 of 20 people found this review helpful
If you could sum up Brain on Fire in three words, what would they be?
Frustrating reality medicine
What did you like best about this story?
That she recovered
What does Heather Henderson bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
The emotions and the descriptions were real
Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
Very interesting and frustrating at times.
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
I love books that are about real-life situations that are hard to believe, frightening, or otherwise amazing. This is one of those books. They story itself is enough to make you want to listen, but you can tell the author is a journalist because the writing is exceptional -- very tight, very descriptive. And the woman who read the book is perhaps the best I've ever heard (even with her attempt to imitate the accent of a middle eastern man!).
47 of 51 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
True story of a young journalist whose body starts attacking her brain and she goes crazy, with outbursts similar at times to those of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” Turns out to be a disease just identified in 2007. Told without sensation and matter-of-factly, like a newspaper article. She’s very lucky — as she points out — to come from a place of privilege that allowed her good care and the patience to pursue extremely high-end treatment, kind of like an episode of “House.” It definitely makes you realize that people’s actions are not their own.
35 of 38 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
The skilled reading of this book made it very hard to stop listening. What an experience this young woman lived through. If you like medical mysteries, this is a terrific (literally terrifying) tale.
16 of 17 people found this review helpful
A riveting account of a young woman's struggle with what only appeared to be a complete mental breakdown and her struggles to find a correct diagnosis in the hurry-up, conveyor-belt world of American medicine. It is a story both of personal endurance and an indictment of the current medical system, deeply engaging and enlightening at once.
41 of 45 people found this review helpful