-Susannah Cahalan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, written by New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan, is a page-turning account about Cahalan’s experience with a sudden illness that altered her personality. Practically overnight, she goes from being a completely functional young writer to someone with angry fits, hallucinations and seizures. She visits several doctors, but no one can find out what’s wrong with her.
Reading Cahalan’s jarring story taught me a lot– not just about the incredible intricacies of the brain, but also about writing. Here’s what I learned:
1) The examined life is far more interesting than the unexamined life. Cahalan’s journalistic style captured my attention from the first page of her memoir. (From this point on, I’ll refer to the author as Cahalan and the first person narrator in the memoir as Susannah to avoid conflating the two.) Even when Susannah is becoming ill and losing brain function, she still keeps a journal (some of which is included in the book) where she tries to examine her problems. As she reflects on these old journal entries, she writes:
Reading these entries now is like peering into a stranger’s stream of consciousness. I don’t recognize the person on the other end of the screen as me.
Even though she doesn’t understand her own actions or words, she continues examining her own mind and looking for answers, even though it takes more time and effort.
This reminds us that, when it comes to telling a story, more research and more examination is always worth the extra effort. Eventually, all these little reflections and ponderings can add up to a more meaningful resolution (or at the very least, a more nuanced one).
2) The personal can be universal. Susannah’s struggle with her illness is brutally personal, and her exchanges with doctors and interaction with her parents, boyfriend, and friends make the reader realize the full impact of the debilitating disease. But from the beginning, Cahalan makes it clear that she and her illness do not exist in a vacuum. When reflecting on how her symptoms were similar to those depicted in The Exorcist, and how people with her condition often go undiagnosed, she asks:
How many children throughout history have been “exorcised” and then left to die when they did not improve?
Cahalan bridges the personal with the public this way, beginning a conversation about mental health treatment in the U.S. By showing how high the stakes are, she makes the reader sit up and take notice.
3) The resolutions we create for ourselves aren’t always the real resolutions. As readers– or rather, as humans– we are always looking for answers and patterns. We’re always anticipating the bottom of a downward curve and guessing when it will start to move upwards again. But when it comes down to it, we often construct endings for our own human comfort, and a lot of times, they end up being superficial or only partly true.
Throughout the book, Susannah attempts to pin down her illness by self-diagnosing herself. Because of her violent mood swings, she first thinks she’s bipolar. Then, her hallucinations make her think she’s schizophrenic or has multiple personality disorder. The seizures make doctors believe she’s epileptic. As all of these things turn out to be wrong, the reader shares her sense of uncertainty.
Cahalan quotes her journal towards the beginning of the book, showing how eager she was to believe that she had a common disorder:
Basically, I’m bipolar and that’s what makes me ME. I just have to get control of my life. I LOVE working. I LOVE it.
I could closely relate to her thirst for a resolution and her rush to identify her problem. But throughout the book, I was reminded again and again that these quick fix resolutions weren’t really resolutions at all.
And so it is with writing. Cahalan reminds us that marinating in questions and gathering evidence is more useful than rushing towards answers. Sometimes the correct solution is the one that takes the longest to find.