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Brain on Fire
My Month of Madness
Susannah Cahalan
read on November 1, 2013

Brain of Fire is a remarkable first person account of Susannah Cahalan's months-long battle with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a very recently identified auto-immune disease where a person's body attacks their brain. This book is a trained journalist's honest and objective description of the manic, psychotic, and hallucinogenic symptoms of having one's brain distort and swell. In short, it is the exact opposite of Proof of Heaven.

I loved this book because Cahalan does such a fantastic job of impressing on the reader how fragile our perception of reality is, and how subjectively that perception is driven by our brain. The very slightest imbalance or environmental change to our brain can cause, as she horribly experienced and described: wild visions, crazy mood swings, horrible seizures, memory loss, memory fabrication, etc. During this time Cahalan turns into a completely different person, with only small slivers of her original personality coming through. Even now, after making what her doctors consider a full recovery, she remains insecure about whether or not she really is the same old Susannah.

I especially liked the last part of the book, where she considers how her disease gave her symptoms straight out of the movie The Exorcist. (In fact, her family can no longer watch that movie as it reminds them too much of her while in the hospital). Cahalan wonders explicitly how many people throughout history have been burned as possessed demons, when all they needed were steroids and some fresh blood plasma. Indeed, it was terrifying to learn that her specific condition was only identified in 2007, and took many, many doctors several weeks of dedicated in-patient effort to eventually diagnose.

This really sounded like a nightmare scenario for a 24 year old women (!). But it was a fantastic read, and I'm so happy that she was able to share her story in such a way. Our brains are incredible organs. I've read many books below that say as much, and even the Oliver Sachs book discussed incredible individual cases (in a super sterile, medical, third person perspective), but Calahan's first hand story humanizes the brain's power in an elegant and humbling way.

Author Bio:

Susannah Cahalan (born 1985) is an American journalist and author, known for writing her memoir, Brain on Fire, about her hospitalization with a rare auto-immune disease, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. She has worked for the New York Post. A feature film based on her memoir is being filmed with the release targeted for 2017. Chloë Grace Moretz is playing the role of Cahalan.