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Discussing “Brain on Fire” by Susannah Cahalan [CC Book Club]


Welcome back for the latest edition of CC Book Club! Our January pick was a recent non-fiction bestseller, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan. I’m a psych major, so when I saw there was a new book with the subtitle “My Month of Madness”, it was a no-brainer pick. As always, this post may contain some SPOILERS, so read at your own risk!

Brain on Fire is the memoir of Susannah Cahalan, a successful, young journalist living in NYC. Suddenly, she begins suffering from a myriad of disturbing symptoms: seizures, extreme sensitivity to light and sound and episodes of paranoia. Eventually, her condition deteriorates to the point where she is hospitalized. Doctors initially believe that she is suffering from a mental illness, possibly schizophrenia, but then her diagnosis takes a completely different turn when Dr. Souhel Najjar becomes involved and recognizes that Susannah is suffering from a new autoimmune disease. Because Susannah suffered from extreme memory loss during this time, she had to reconstruct her whole experience through video surveillance and recounts from her friends and family members.

As a psychology student, Susannah’s diagnosis floored me. She was exhibiting hallmark symptoms of schizophrenia; if not for the tireless efforts of her family and medical team, I dare to say that she would have been committed and considered a lost cause. Susannah’s story and the work of Dr. Najjar serve to really shake up the current conceptualization of psychology and neurology and the biological basis for disorders. Do you think that the public and medical community need to start rethinking mental illness as a result of stories and research such as this?

Susannah is a brutally honest writer; she doesn’t hold back any of the more horrific details of her ordeal. She is also shockingly honest about the likelihood of full recovery and her current condition. This all really appealed to me, as I can’t stand when writers end a story with the old “And they all lived happily ever after,” or a slightly longer variation. Why do you think she chose to share her experiences in such a blatant way? Did this add to your appreciation of the book or leave you feeling hopeless?

A review that I recently read of Brain on Fire named it the scariest book the reviewer had ever read. He claimed that Susannah’s story terrified him even more than Dean Koontz and Stephen King and I’m sure you can guess why: because it’s true and it could very well happen to you. Brain on Fire is a great and, I believe, important modern piece of non-fiction. If you couldn’t join in this month, do yourself a favour and read it!

And for our fabulous February pick we’re going to go with Anatomy of a Single Girl by Daria Snadowsky! See you back here in a month!

I love my little hometown and all that goes with living in the Great White North - snow, skiing, hot chocolate, bulky knit sweaters. I'm passionate about a lot of things, but you'll most often find me writing about books, makeup and fashion. As I like to put it, I've got beauty AND brains.