Synopses & Reviews
One day in 2009, twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. A wristband marked her as a "flight risk," and 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 on the threshold of a new, adult life: 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 true story of her inexplicable descent into madness and the brilliant, lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didnt happen. A team of doctors would spend a month — and more than a million dollars — trying desperately to pin down a medical explanation for what had gone wrong. Meanwhile, as the days passed and her family, boyfriend, and friends helplessly stood watch by her bed, she began to move inexorably through psychosis into catatonia and, ultimately, toward death. Yet even as this period nearly tore her family apart, it offered an extraordinary testament to their faith in Susannah and their refusal to let her go.
Then, at the last minute, celebrated neurologist Souhel Najjar joined her team and, with the help of a lucky, ingenious test, saved her life. He 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.
Far more than simply a riveting read and a crackling medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman's struggle to recapture her identity and to rediscover herself among the fragments left behind. Using all her considerable journalistic skills, and building from hospital records and surveillance video, interviews with family and friends, and excerpts from the deeply moving journal her father kept during her illness, 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.
"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." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"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
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
andlt;Bandgt;Susannah Cahalanandlt;/Bandgt; is a news reporter at the andlt;iandgt;New York Postandlt;/iandgt; whose award-winning work has also been featured in andlt;iandgt;The New York Timesandlt;/iandgt;. She lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.