Synopses & Reviews
The New York Times
bestseller that NPR calls “stunningly brave…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….An unexpected gift of a book from one of America’s most courageous young journalists.”
One day in 2009, twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, and wearing a wristband that marked her as a “flight risk.” Her medical records — chronicling a month-long hospital stay, of which she had no memory at all — showed hallucinations, violence, and dangerous instability. Only weeks earlier, Susannah had been a healthy, ambitious college grad a few months into her first serious relationship and a promising career as a cub reporter at a major New York newspaper. Who was the stranger who had taken over her body? What was happening to her mind?
In this swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing story of her inexplicable descent into madness, the period that nearly tore her closest friends and family apart, and the brilliant, lifesaving diagnosis that almost didn’t happen. A team of doctors would spend a month — and more than a million dollars — searching for a medical explanation before they recognized the symptoms of a newly discovered autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain, a disease now thought to be tied to both schizophrenia and autism, and perhaps the root of “demonic possessions” throughout history.
Praised as “captivating” (The New York Times Book Review) and “a fascinating look at the disease that…could have cost this vibrant, vital young woman her life” (People), Brain on Fire is the account of one woman’s struggle to rediscover herself among the fragments left behind. Using her considerable journalistic skills, Susannah pieces together the story of her “lost month” to write an unforgettable memoir about memory and identity, faith and love. It is an important, profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.
"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." Elle
"Swift and haunting." Scientific American
"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." Booklist (starred review)
"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." Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology
"Focusing her journalistic toolbox on her story, Cahalan untangles the medical mystery surrounding her condition....A fast-paced and well-researched trek through a medical mystery to a hard-won recovery." Publishers Weekly
"Brain on Fire is a stunningly brave book....[It] 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." NPR.org
“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 Washington Post
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.
About the Author
Susannah Cahalan is a news reporter at the New York Post whose award-winning work has also been featured in The New York Times. She lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.