Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

In Susannah Cahalan’s memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, the author explores a strange medical incident that turned her from a successful young reporter at The New York Post to someone doctors thought was schizophrenic or severely bipolar. She has many of the hallucinations common to schizophrenics such as hearing voices and believing people she knows are being impersonated by actors. The disease she is eventually diagnosed with debilitates her to the point where it becomes hard for her to speak. While she can still write a few coherent thoughts, she also loses the ability to read. To friends and family, Cahalan turns into a person they feel like they don’t know who shows only the occasional glimpse of her former self.

Despite rather heavy subject matter and some lengthy sections on how the brain works, Brain on Fire is a page turner. And even though the rare disease the author is diagnosed with is not likely to happen to most people, the book shows the difficulty of correctly diagnosing someone and the assumptions doctors sometimes make about patients. For example, one of the first doctors Cahalan sees decides she is an alcoholic who is in denial that she has a drinking problem. He believes this despite Cahalan’s assertion that she only drinks socially. This and many other unexpected developments make Brain on Fire a book that will fascinate nonfiction readers and might even hook those who generally read fiction.


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