By Sierra Maciorowski

Flight risk. Those words re­verberate through her mind, as she pictures the orange wristband over and over again. Flight risk. What does it mean? Why is she here, in an un­known hospital? It takes one month to find out.

Journalist Susannah Caha­lan was 24 years old, finally begin­ning to settle down into her life and skin. With a steady relationship, a job at the New York Post, and her own apartment, everything seems smooth and generally easy- until two bug bites appear on her arm. Fearing bed­bugs, Susannah tells no one about the red marks, but, in the end, she would have fared better if she did.

Brain on Fire is the true, albeit terrifying story of a normal young adult, faced with the greatest challenge of her life: anti-NMDA re­ceptor encephalitis. What’s that, you ask? The answer, unfortunately for Susannah, can not be explained in a mere sentence. A rare autoimmune disorder, characterized by tumors, symptoms of psychosis, seizures, and confusing other symptoms, this spe­cific type of encephalitis is relatively unknown.

And, with no knowledge of her actual problem, Susannah re­mains in the hospital for a month. Filled with tears, laughter, and sud­den mental shortcomings, that monthis probably the longest of her life- although she will have no genuine recollection of it, once recovered.

As friends and family re­main in the dark about her actual condition, excepting her parents and brother, Susannah essential­ly loses her mind. And, perhaps worse, she begins to lose her ability to speak, and the use of her limbs and balance, as well.

With consistent dedication to research on her month of mind­lessness, author Susannah Cahalan manages to create a memoir with­out memory. The result, Brain of Fire, reads as either the witty, fasci­nating tale of an unfortunate adven­ ture, or a grave warning: after all, Susannah was lucky, as she reveals.

People with rare diseases may never know what ails them. They may rot in psychological care wards for years, merely because no one understands the true nature of their illness, or they may find them­selves without the financial means to pay for treatment, when there is one. And, although Cahalan’s story may read more like a work of fic­tion than a lecture, she attempts to impart that one fact to her readers: brushing off people as psychotic, and lumping them under one blan­ket, is dangerous and dehumaniz­ing. Many people have expe­rienced the cramped quarters of nursing homes, or the lack of care with which the mentally unstable of our society are treated. But Ca­halan offers readers the perspec­tive rarely heard- coming from the mouth of the undiagnosed psychot­ic. And, through the video tapes of her hospital stay, interviews, and the article which she shared with the world, that perspective gains a larger voice.

In short, Brain on Fire is a book, yes. But it’s also the story of a woman who struggled for her life, and lived to tell that tale to thou­sands, not just acquaintances. Her words have changed lives, giving parents the insight to suggest her disorder as their own child’s diag­nosis, and other young adults the strength to understand their own experiences with the madness of that particular type of encephalitis.

That power, although it stretches beyond the book, begins with the book’s dedication to those without diagnoses, and ends with Cahalan’s acknowledgement of the unknown hospital staff who helped to save her life and mind. The 256-odd pages in between span little more than a month, with more de­tails than ever imaginable about moments forgotten by the author, but remembered by her friends.

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