When asked to name their greatest fear, people can list anything: oblivion, dying alone, failure. Heights, depths, sharks. Clowns. While I’m afraid of some of those things, my greatest fear isn’t so common. My greatest fear is that I could, through some stroke of misfortune, lose the ability to read.
A lot of terrible things happen to Susannah Cahalan in Brain on Fire, many that are objectively worse but, to me, that was the scariest moment in the book.
Brain on Fire is a unique memoir in many ways. In writing it, Cahalan documented her “month of madness,” from the minor personality lapses that were the first sign something was wrong to her recover as she fought to get her life back. Most interestingly, there were long stretches of time where she lacked full consciousness. With no recollection of her own to draw on, Cahalan instead relies on cryptic journal entries, spotty surveillance tapes, and other people’s partial accounts to piece her story together. A typical memoir relies on distance in time to give it weight. Her lack of recall gives Cahalan a different distance, putting her closer to her readers’ level. This changes the tone: the reader is afraid for her though they know she’s right there. The suspense gives them a reason to keep reading while the camaraderie gives them the courage to go on.
Her pacing encourages this tone. The book is subtitled, “My Month of Madness,” but it feels longer as doctor after doctor fails to diagnose her. Besides the fear of not know what was happening or how to fix it, she also shows frustration, especially as some physicians dismiss her concerns or doubt her answers to questions of drugs and drinking, answers that significantly affect their diagnosis. Women face problems like this all the time and seeing the effect this can have in the face of a major crisis makes the story more personal.
From the beginning, it is clear to the reader that Susannah must get better. It’s the only way she could have written the book. But the journey Cahalan takes us on to get there is terrifying and long, while always allowing the reader hope and a good person to cling to. Despite its horrors, Brain on Fire is an enjoyable read and a reminder about all the good things in life.