Friday, December 20, 2013
Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susan Cahalan
Author: Susan Cahalan
Enjoyment Rating: ***
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language
Susan Cahalan is a 24-year-old journalist for The New York Post, just getting started in her career and in her relationship with her boyfriend, when she starts to act strange. One day her hand is numb. Then she's feeling grumpy and paranoid. Then she loses her appetite and can't sleep. She goes to doctors who tell her it's nothing or prescribe anti-anxiety drugs that don't begin to touch the problem. Pretty soon, she can't form coherent sentences and is lashing out at the people closest to her. When things finally reach a breaking point and she's admitted to NYU hospital after having seizures, she's finally diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease which, if untreated, can basically destroy the brain and leave patients greatly diminished.
What's amazing to me about Brain on Fire is the way that Cahalan has to go back through the darkest, fuzziest, stupidest part of her life in order to reconstruct the events surrounding her illness, and that she's able to do this as she's coming out of the illness, maybe even as a way to help herself heal from the ordeal she's been through. While we're very familiar with medical dramas where a brilliant doctor diagnoses a rare disease, it's much less common to see the progress of that disease from a patient's perspective, and that's where I think Brain on Fire finds its niche.