BkRev #1785. Brain on Fire. (2012). Susannah Cahalan. New York: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 266 pp. $16.00 (Paperback). ISBN #978-1-4516-2138-9. http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Brain-on-Fire/Susannah-Cahalan/9781451621389.
Academic Advisement Center
Missouri State University
Susannah Cahalan’s memoir provides readers a chance to experience her life-changing journey into and out of her unusual medical condition. Brain on Fire provides a telling perspective of what it is like to no longer be oneself, as well as shows the impact of support and advocacy.
Brain on Fire consists of three parts, each following the chronological stages of Cahalan’s experience, including before, during, and after her illness. In part one, “Crazy,” Cahalan provides readers with an account of her “normal” life. She is an established reporter for the New York Post, is in a budding relationship, and has a fully autonomous life. As she becomes ill, Cahalan loses the ability to function in everyday life and work due to paranoia, seizures, and violent outbursts and her relationships being to strain. With this, the author brings light to what doubt from both others and oneself can do to the mind.
Part two, “The Clock,” details Cahalan’s experiences as she drifts in and out of psychosis and catatonia while ill. Cahalan recounts the numerous theories and diagnosis doctors provided, as well as the emotions that filled her supporters. After weeks of the unknown, Cahalan was introduced to Dr. Souhel Najjar. Through one activity, Dr. Najjar diagnosed Cahalan with the newly discovered anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis, which had been causing her strange behaviors. With this new discovery, Cahalan was given the appropriate treatment and began her journey back through each phase of her illness and eventually to health. Because she cannot remember these events for herself, Cahalan employed her expertise as a reporter and pieced together this missing time though journals, videos, and medical notes. This technique allows the reader to place the pieces together one by one, just as Cahalan did herself.
Cahalan concludes her memoir with part three, “In Search of Lost Time.” This section details her efforts to reestablish her life both personally and professionally, as well as bring light to this disease. Here, Cahalan discusses the resources she used to put the pieces together, her attempts to distinguish real memories from fabricated ones, and do her part to comfort those recently diagnosed. This section does seem brief when compared to the vast detail provided in parts one and two.
Although a memoir may not be a typical resource for advisors, Brain on Fire provides a few themes imperative to advising. First, readers are given a first-hand example of how the human body can betray itself and severely impact the life of an individual. As advisors work with students with both physical and mental illnesses, it is important to remember how much is unknown and to approach with a desire to learn. Second, Brain on Fire is a story of support. Cahalan’s family provided steadfast support through everything. Doubts from doctors and the inability to understand what she was going through did not keep them from advocating for Cahalan at all times. Last, Cahalan’s memoir teaches that the rare and unknown are no less valid than the known. One doctor’s dedication to a very specific disease has led to many lives saved. I found this and the support of her family to be a good reminder that all students deserve the same commitment of advocacy and support. Brain on Fire is a fascinating read that is hard to put down once picked up. I highly recommend it as a both a professional and personal read.