Books, Booze + Brains: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

An award-winning memoir and instant New York Times bestseller that goes far beyond its riveting medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity.

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?

In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Cahalan tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

I want to start by saying that, even though the subtitle is “My Month of Madness,” this is not a book about mental illness, but autoimmune disease. This is a very key difference, because Cahalan’s story ends with a cure that does not exist for those patients suffering from the mental disorders that her physical one mimicked. She does sort of address that at the very end of the book, but as someone who read this partially because it seemed a book about psychosis–that could be triggering or harmful to someone looking for answers or hope.

That disclaimer out of the way, Brain on Fire, is a fascinating, albeit horrifying book. It’s labeled a memoir, but Cahalan admits that she remembers little of the experience, and relies on her family, doctors, caretakers, and the files and reports documented to write this piece of investigative journalism about her sickness. Unreliable narrators in nonfiction can go either way really:  sketchy or intriguing; and Brain on Fire was clearly agonized over as a way to put the pieces back together.

The result is a pretty terrifying look into Cahalan’s brain as she teeters on the edge of catatonia, along with the fears of her family, and the struggles of the doctors to find a solution.

This was our November read for Books, Booze, & Brains at Broken Beaker Distillery for Quantum Leap, and they live streamed the event. If you’re interested in the discussion, lead by facilitator Dr. Cari Lewis-Tsinovoi and Dr. Bill Sullivan, Professor of Pharmacology, Toxicology, Microbiology and Immunology at the IU School of Medicine check out the video below!

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