Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness/Susannah Cahalan: Reflections

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Susannah Cahalan tells a terrifying true story in Brain on Fire about losing control, slipping away from a "true" (happy, ambitious, newly in love, well-employed) self, and coming far too close to forfeiting everything she was to a mysterious affliction. It all happened quickly. It all seemed, at first, to be viral or perhaps anxiety induced. Crowds overwhelmed her. Work (her life as a journalist) made no sense. She grew paranoid and raging, impossible to calm, numb or tingling, migraine prone, on the verge, always of running away, dangerous to herself, "barbaric." Soon she would find herself labeled a flight risk in the epilepsy ward of a New York City hospital—her father and mother vigilant at her side, her new boyfriend determined to find the Susannah he sensed was still inside. One doctor after another misread the scant clues. The electrodes glued to Susannah's head would not reveal the secret.

It took a neurologist named Souhel Najjar, a simple test (draw a clock, he said), and the quick cooperation of a University of Pennsylvania physician, Dr. Josep Dalmau, to finally discover what had happened to Susannah's brain—and to treat the rare autoimmune disorder that had attacked her so virulently. Many months would go by before Susannah would recover. This book, her first, maps that journey.

It is a memoir of sorts—an investigation into the author's own life assisted by medical records and the observations of those who were near through the ordeal. It's a generous book—and story—that has already helped others, and it is important for that reason. As literature, as memoir, I worried about the liberal use of dialogue that had been clearly recreated by those whom Susannah interviewed. I wished, as well, for something less strictly documentary and more (in places) transcendent.

But I honor the achievement of this narrative, the intelligence of the doctors, the kindness of Susannah's family and boyfriend, and the marvel of the brain itself. I am proud, as well, to be a University of Pennsylvania alum and adjunct. It's a school where important work gets done.

For more on the memoirs I read (and sometimes teach), please visit the Handling the Truth  page.


Katrina said...

Any writer is blessed to be reviewed by you. I so appreciate your willingness to find the best in every work, your kindness, your innate sense of what transcendence actually is.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like an important contribution. The brain--so much who we are--when it's vulnerable...I'm glad she got properly dx and treated.

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