“Brain on Fire”


Stella Veazey, Staff Reporter

Susannah Cahalan was a passionate young writer. Fresh out of college, she was starting a new chapter of her life as a writer for the Washington Post. Susannah was excited for the start of her “real adult” life, with a serious boyfriend and a job she loved. Everything started to shift, however, in November of 2009, when she was unexpectedly admitted to the epilepsy wing at the NYU Medical Center. 

Susannah did not have epilepsy. No one knew what she had. All they knew was that over the course of a month she had developed terrible mood swings, paranoia, cognitive dissonance, loss of appetite, depressive symptoms, and occasional amnesia. Susanah was driven, focused, stable. Yet after one month of her stay in the epilepsy ward, she couldn’t form coherent sentences, couldn’t write, couldn’t groom herself, and the 10-foot journey from her hospital bed to her bathroom was barely achievable. She could hardly walk; she moved in an uncoordinated, zombie-like walk. Bending her elbows felt like an insurmountable task. What went wrong? Doctor after doctor visited her—no one could figure out what had disabled her. 

“Brain on Fire” by Susannah Cahalan is a captivating first person account of her medical mystery: anti-NMDA-receptor-encephalitis. Do not be intimidated by this book’s educational tilt; it is a captivating story I was unable to put down. Not only does this book shine a light on the unknowns and ignorances of the medical world, but it highlights touching relationships between father and daughter, doctor and patient, and boyfriend and girlfriend. Published in the fall of 2012, the memoir was inspired by Cahalan’s journalism friends who pushed her to write an article about her condition. The article, “My Month of Madness,” spread information about her rare condition and actually saved lives. 

This book is a must read for anyone who has ever stepped foot in a doctor’s office. It will make you gasp, laugh, cry, and gush all at once. This is one of my all-time favorite memoirs, and after blowing through it in less than a week, I was recommending it to everyone I saw. I personally feel like truly fresh stories are few and far between—and this is one of them.