Rummanah Aasi
 Students at my high school are required to do summer reading as part of their English assignments. I found Brain on Fire on their list and the title caught my eye. Brain on Fire is a engrossing read, giving us an insight into a rare autoimmune disease called Anti-NMDA Receptor Autoimmune Encephalitis, which causes the body to attack itself and in the author's case the brain.

Description: When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she'd gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

Review: Part medical mystery and part memoir, Brain on Fire is a fascinating and harrowing true story of a healthy young woman descent into madness and the struggle to find out answers to her mental disorder. Susannah Cahalan is a bright, ambitious young reporter for the New York Post. She describes how she wasn't feeling well one day. Her physical discomfort grew to paranoia, hearing voices, and even attempts to jump out of a moving car. As Cahalan's condition deteriorated she sought medical advice from several doctors who repeatedly misdiagnosed her with either having bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and even perhaps linking it to alcoholism. Still unsatisfied with not having answers, Cahalan and her family pursued other opinions. Her divorced parents put aside their differences and rose to the occasion, sitting by her during the month she was confined to the hospital, about which she remembers nothing. Her boyfriend stayed with her, and one wonderful doctor was determined to get to the bottom of her medical mystery.   It turns out that Cahalan has a very rare autoimmune disease in which an unknown pathogen invaded her body and caused an autoimmune reaction that jump-started brain inflammation, paranoia, and seizures.  Luckily, she was insured, since her medical costs were about $1 million.
 Cahalan expertly weaves together her own story and relevant scientific and medical information about autoimmune diseases, which are about two-thirds environmental and one-third genetic in origin. I was fascinated with the medical mystery aspect of the story. It was truly horrifying reliving her hallucinations and paranoia. She is very upfront in telling the reader that she doesn't remember everything about her story, but I don't think this hinders the book at all. Actually the lack of information is very telling on how far behind we are in understanding the brain and on mental illness. This is a very important story to remind us to fight for our own health and seeking answers when you instinctively know that there is something wrong with you.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language. Recommended for strong Grade 9 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Welcome to My Country by Lauren Slater, Madness by Marya Hornbacher, Falling Into the Fire by Christine Montross
6 Responses
  1. danya Says:

    I read this one last year and was completely absorbed by it. So terrifying! In some ways I think the fact that she didn't remember anything and had to piece together things later kept me glued to the pages even more, because it was such a mystery O_O

  2. Jenny Says:

    Not sure this is the book for me Rummanah, I'm definitely not a medical mystery person. I'm WAY too much of a hypochondriac for this type of read, I always end up convinced I have whatever symptoms are being discussed. I'm glad this was such a solid read for you though!!! Beautiful review:)

  3. Oh I need to read this one. I am curious as to how she came to her conclusion. This sounds gripping!

  4. Small Review Says:

    I'm so intrigued by this book and have read a lot about it, but I don't think I could ever read it. Too scary!

  5. This sounds so fascinating, Rummanah! I don't typically read memoirs but like the sound of this one because of my neuroscience background. And Cahalan is really lucky to have been insured!

  6. Aylee Says:

    O.O Weird. Never heard of such a thing! I can see why this would make for such a fascinating read though.

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