Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Calahan
Occasionally, when I am visiting home, my sister will take a long time getting out of school at the end of the day, so I have a moment to kill at Chapters. Usually I read a few pages of anything that looks vaguely interesting while waiting, and leave it at that. Brain on Fire was my book of choice over Christmas break, and the first few pages were so compelling that I ended up going back a few days later to buy a copy.
Brain on Fire is an autobiography by Susannah Calahan, a New York Post journalist who slowly descends into an almost catatonic state after having psychotic and out of body episodes over the course of months. She tells the reader at the outset that she is an unreliable narrator – she is the writer and at the same time the patient, and has almost no memory of the three months she spent while in hospital. She pieces together the story by reading the journal her parents kept, speaking with her doctors, and reviewing her medical files.
Together, these moments present the story of her experience. Interspersed with the few memories she has of the time, Calahan includes the facts, as well as a narrative as though she was lucid when it happened. There are also, reflections from her parents—watching their bright 24-year-old daughter lose everything about her that they recognize.
The book is a little bit of a “whodunit” as the doctors try and fail to diagnose her again and again until it appears as though Susannah has sustained permanent damage. The piece is presented in a very compelling way, weaving in the stories of how her estranged parents manage to get along to try and assist their daughter’s recovery. It also keeps you on edge, as she acts out in increasingly erratic ways that have you worry for her safety and the safety of the people around her. The one quibble I have with this otherwise interesting book is its length – while it’s only 288 pages, there are portions which seem to drag on. Like if an episode of House, M.D. had 12 failed diagnoses instead of the usual 2 or 3.
Overall, a really interesting read about the descent of a 24-year old into madness, and it definitely won’t make you paranoid.
Four stars out of five.
Sakshi Sharma (1L) is a contributor to Juris Diction.