Book Review BRAIN ON FIRE: My Month of Madness

A life of a young talented journalist that every girl could ever dream of turned out to be a nightmare rapidly.


Originally published2013

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks

Author: Susannah Cahalan

GenreHealth, Mental Health, Biography

Page count266

ISBN:   978-1-4516-2137-2

978-1-4516-2138-9 (pbk)

978-1-4516-2139-6 (ebook)

CountryUnited States of America


The book I’ve read is about a New York Post journalist who was healthy and dynamic, but on the next days she became paranoid and psychotic instantly. From having an outgoing and talkative personality, her behavior changed into erratic.

This book is actually a short autobiography of a beautiful Susannah Cahalan in the beginning of her adult life. The time when she was suddenly struck by a mysterious illness that caused an unbearable change to her brain. The way her brain worked had been attacked by her own antibodies so that made her became completely a different person in time.

She lost her memory, identity and personality during her sickness but she gained true love from her divorced parents, brother and boyfriend. Even more love from her doctors and nurses. Her struggle to restore her mind back and the constant support from her significant others are really dramatic.

Her family was so frustrated and exhausted dealing with the sick Susannah, who really lost herself, without knowing what kind of sickness attacking her. Still more worse, one of the best doctors in the country had given up on Susannah case. However in her worsened condition, her family and boyfriend still kept faith in that Susannah was still in there.

But fortunately  a diagnose for Susannah’s illness was found. At the NYU hospital worked a Syrian brilliant doctor who saved her life at the right time when she was already very close to the edge. Susannah stayed twenty-eight days in the epilepsy unit during her ill state. After the team of her doctors had identified her disease, she got aggresive treatment that gradually made her recover.

This rare disease, anti-NMDA-receptor encephalitis, had been discovered in 2007, just two years before Susannah was suddenly suffering from by paranoia and seizures. Although it sounds so unfamiliar, it is one of the more than one hundred different kinds of autoimmune disease that distress an estimated 50 million people in the USA.

At first I thought this book was sort of a psychological book based on a true story like Torey Hayden’s. The difference is Torey Hayden is the psychologist herself and she told her patient’s story dealing with mental illness, while Susannah told her own story from the patient’s side. Regardless of some personal experience in this book, it is more scientific in autoimmune diseases because of the author’s journalistic instinct. Sometimes I just couldn’t keep up with the medical research explained.

On top of that, Brain on Fire opens up a new awareness and discussion about the anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis. I quoted some words from the afterword:

”What used to be called a “zebra” (in doctor parlance, a very rare disease) is now increasingly recognized and swiftly treated. When I was diagnosed, it was believed that 90 percent of cases went undiagnosed. Now many doctors know to test for it, and if it is found early and treated aggressively, 81 percent of patients recover fully, a staggeringly high figure considering how utterly devastating the disease appears at its height.”

Susannah Cahalan received the Silurian Award of Excellence in Journalism for Feauture Writing for the article “The Month of Madness,” on which this book is based. Her article was published on Sunday, October 4 2009 by New York Post with headline: “My Mysterious Lost Month of Madness: I was a happy 24-year-old suddenly stricken by paranoia and seizures. Was I going crazy?” Her book itself has become an instant New York Times bestseller.

Brain on Fire is divided into three parts and fifty-three chapters. Part one: Crazy, part two: The Clock and part three: In Search of Lost Time. Part one is about pre-illness Susannah, part two is about Susannah during her illness and then part three is about her post-illness recovery time. Despite its dark and quite scary story, you will find that Susannah message throughout the passage is illuminating. Yet again her courage and honesty is empowering her readers. We will begin to adore her as an outstanding and stunning survivor.


P.S. I got Brain on Fire book from Janin Gantz, a volunteer from Germany, after my mini belated 27th birthday celebration on February the 13th at the Learning Center after we taught the class. I was recovering from sore throat and common cold.

Thanks Janin for giving me this great book and helping me with the editing of this book review.


4 thoughts on “Book Review BRAIN ON FIRE: My Month of Madness

  1. Nice book review, Intan. I have some experience with autoimmune disorders, since my beloved niece suffered from a very rare attack of one such disorder, and barely recovered. It was a traumatic time for our whole family. Fortunately, as rare as her condition was, a treatment was found in time and she is now a healthy college student, planning to become a doctor herself! If you have a particular interest in medical literature (or any other particular literary genre in English) I’d be willing to send you a book sometime…

    • I’m so sorry to hear that your beloved niece had autoimmune disorders, but it is such a relief that she is healthy now and on her way to be a doctor!
      Yes yes yes, Daniel… I have an interest to read another similar genre with Brain On Fire, it is “My Lovely Wife in Psych Ward” by Mark Lukach. So I will be very grateful if you have the willingness to send me that book 😀
      Thanks a lot for the US Magazines! I used to read Reader’s Digest too, and a joke that I submitted to Reader’s Digest was published once (I sent many humor submission).

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