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.