Friday, June 07, 2013

Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan

(File under "Not Exactly Horror But Pretty Freaking Horrible.")

Brain on Fire is a fascinating -- and not a little terrifying -- first-hand account of what it's like to have your own brain suddenly turn on you. Cahalan was a rising young reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper when her brain and body began to spin out of control. After enduring frightening seizures, numbness in her limbs, aural and visual hallucinations, and uncontrollable outbursts and mood swings, she was finally hospitalized as she became more and more unstable. Cahalan suffered numerous misdiagnoses (alcoholic, epileptic, manic, psychotic and, finally, catatonic) from several doctors before a brilliant diagnostician discovered the answer at the 11th hour, and miraculously saved her life.

Sounds like an episode of "House," right? But this one's scary because it's actually true. (And no, it's not sarcoidosis.)

Cahalan reconstructs her own story, much of which she can't remember, by playing the painstaking reporter: she conducts interviews about her own behavior with her doctors, family, co-workers and friends, and watches hours of horrifying security camera footage from her hospital stay -- all of which reveal a feral stranger bearing no resemblance to Susannah Cahalan. The story is gripping (I was afraid for her at times, even though I knew she recovered enough to write this book), and the science cutting edge; in fact her "Dr. House" (actually a team of two) quite literally discovered the illness plaguing Cahalan while trying to treat it.

Over all, Brain on Fire is a tight and fascinating read. The last couple of chapters, which detail progress in Cahalan's life and recovery, as well as the further game-changing findings of her diagnostic team, feel a little tacked on, though I know they are an important coda to the story. Still, one of the most exciting and well-written medical mysteries I've read . . . four solid stars.

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