Review: Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire: My Month of MadnessBrain on Fire: My Month of Mad­ness by Susan­nah Caha­lanMy rat­ing: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book in one go, unable to resist the urge to find out where the next chap­ter went. Frankly, I would not rec­om­mend read­ing it in one go (if you can resist) as the sub­ject is quite unset­tling and Caha­lan has such a strong voice that she draws you in far too deep in a very emo­tion­al sto­ry. This is a true sto­ry of a shock­ing descent into mad­ness which is reversed with the dis­cov­ery that the ill­ness is pure­ly phys­i­cal, not men­tal. It is the kind of sus­pense filled plot that is more often the stuff of thrillers than true life med­ical sto­ries. Caha­lan has such an easy to read and ele­gant style that is at times even poet­ic when describ­ing her mad­ness.

Caha­lan man­ages to avoid sound­ing like a plot from a hos­pi­tal dra­ma through bru­tal hon­esty and through self aware­ness of how lucky she was to afford her treat­ment. There’s a clear pas­sion in the writ­ing for get­ting the word out about this ill­ness and help­ing to rethink what men­tal ill­ness is. This book has made me ask more ques­tions about what our real self actu­al­ly is than any psy­chol­o­gy book I’ve read and is full of inter­est­ing facts and plen­ty of detail on many dif­fer­ent men­tal con­di­tions. A must read book if you are inter­est­ed at all in the nature of the mind or want to keep an eye out for rare dis­eases in your friends. For more about encephali­tis go here.

Unlike fic­tion, Caha­lan is lim­it­ed to the facts; how­ev­er, she does not remem­ber most of the peri­od of mad­ness so there is a cer­tain amount of inter­po­la­tion and I expect that, like any­one, she has cho­sen to fit them togeth­er into a suit­able nar­ra­tive. Giv­en how hon­est she is in reveal­ing the details of her hor­ri­fy­ing dis­ease, I don’t have any prob­lem with this, though I feel like some peo­ple may dis­like how much she has inter­po­lat­ed about what was going on.I real­ly appre­ci­at­ed Cahalan’s brisk style, und­outably influ­enced by her jour­nal­is­tic career. It was clear and read­able and I liked that she kept neu­tral rather than drama­tis­ing her expe­ri­ence — it steered it away from more mind, spir­it and body biog­ra­phy and kept it seri­ous.

Inter­est­ing, but unre­lat­ed to the con­tents: the US ver­sion has a red cov­er while the UK one went for yel­low, which is an intrigu­ing change. You don’t see so many yel­low book cov­ers around so it cer­tain­ly made it strik­ing and I won­der if per­haps it is some­thing like the whole yel­low poster for indie films thing?

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