REVIEW: Brain on Fire

I don’t normally read biographies of any kind (with the incredibly rare exception of Carrie Fisher’s books), but I especially don’t ever read autobiographies about illness. Given my own various mental illness diagnoses, non-fiction books about illnesses tend to trigger a certain kind of anxious paranoia in me that I just can’t shake.

However, if you know anything about me, it’s that for a very long time the Hannibal films have been an obsession of mine, and for a shorter length of time, the television series as well. Through my enjoyment of the show, I have a curiosity about the real-life effects of encephalitis based on Will Graham’s experiences in Bryan Fuller’s adaptation. That curiosity placed this book on my TBR but never pushed me far enough to read it. With the release of the movie adaptation on Netflix (starring Chloe Grace Moretz), I figured it was time to dive in.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan is a more detailed look at an article she wrote for the New York Post and gives a true idea of just how horrifying it can be to lose control of yourself without reason. Very quickly this book terrified me. The initial symptoms Susannah encounters are things that I, myself, and friends of mine as well, have dealt with as – as I mentioned before – I did find myself getting paranoid despite the rational part of my brain knowing full well that I did not have nor probably will ever develop encephalitis.

I won’t get into the details of the symptoms or even Susannah’s patch-work of what she endured while in the hospital, but I do want to talk about the structure and the writing.

Clearly, Susannah Cahalan is okay. Otherwise we wouldn’t have this book. Her writing style is tight and she doesn’t ramble to fill the page. Her narrative has been put together by the vague memories she has, anecdotes from those who were with her, and video footage from the hospital. Given the extensive medical terminology used, Cahalan never ones writes to look down on people. She gives explanations for everything while still not getting overly descriptive and therefore boring the story. You can feel the fear that comes out of early chapters, and the helpless yearning of those close to her in later ones. Even with every diagnosis or misdiagnosis, the hope that the suffering will be over radiates off the page, even more so when it is at last discovered what Cahalan is truly dealing with.

Those who have seen the Hannibal tv show may believe that they have a basic understanding of encephalitis – as I did myself. But the reality is far more terrifying than black outs and spatial neglect.

I learned a lot from this book and am truly pleased to have read it. As a narrative, it is compelling and suspenseful even with the lack of a “countdown” shall we say as is with cancer or other fatal illnesses. As a book about the connection between physical and mental illnesses, it was as fascinating as it was tragic given that, more often than not, patients with encephalitis of any kind can go undiagnosed.

Definitely worth the read.


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Author: Susannah Cahalan
Published: November 13, 2012
Pages: 266
Publisher: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks
ISBN: 9781451621389

Synopsis: 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.

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