Brain Kinda on Fire

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Mystery: the element that sucks most people into watching shows like Law and Order from beginning to end, even when they were supposed to have left the house within the first ten minutes of the opening. Mystery: the suspense that keeps you hanging on, sitting on the edge of your seat, desperately waiting to know what in the hell happened, and God forbid if you don’t find out tonight; you’re not sleeping until you know.

Mystery: something I never actually read a great deal of for some reason.

Reading mysteries is probably more difficult for some people than watching them, especially because it requires one to sit down and read the text in a fairly punctual manner, a skill I may or may not possess, depending on the book. However, this was not the case with Susannah Cahalan’s 2012 medical mystery memoir, Brain on Fire.

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God bless this girl, and everything she suffered. In a very unusual manner for my reading habits, I literally flew through this book that depicts Cahalan’s terrifying encounter with an illness where her body began to attack her brain, leaving her manic, catatonic and unable to remember anything that happened during her hospital stay and subsequent intensive treatment.

If anything, Brain on Fire gives hope that modern medicine can accomplish so many incredible things, and I would say it’s safe for anyone who considers themselves squeamish beyond all recognition, because I was crowned Queen of that corner years ago. However, without even considering the actual events surrounding Cahalan’s illness and focusing strictly on her text, Brain on Fire overall leaves a lot to be desired.

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Cahalan, a former New York Post reporter, reports a fascinating story, but that’s about all she does: she reports. I did appreciate that she was extremely upfront with readers in the preface of the memoir, explaining that because of the trauma she experienced with her illness, she had little-to-no memory of what actually occurred while she was hospitalized. Everything in the text is pieced together from doctor’s reports, video from the epileptic floor of her New York hospital, her divorced parents’ personal journals they kept to communicate with each other, and, of course, hearsay.

This unfortunate fact makes the reader feel as if the content of the text is not genuine, that it was all fabricated to sell the book. It possibly was for all we know; it’s vague as to what actually happened and what didn’t happen in Cahalan’s story. To counter argue, I will admit that this adds a certain appeal to her story. How would it feel to have no memory from an extended period of your life? But overall, I walked away in confusion and doubting the story that lay before me.

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The other tricky thing about Brain on Fire is that it does not move. It is a relatively short story; the actual illness and recovery depicted by Cahalan takes place over the course of a year or so. The chapters are deceivingly short (there’s 40+ chapters, but they usually only last about three pages), but the story tends to drag. The last one hundred pages were almost painstaking to finish, but like watching a good SVU episode that I started at the time I was supposed to be at work, I waited it out and stayed to the very end, only to admit to myself, “I knew it was him” and contemplate taking up an alternative career in criminal justice.

But before you also consider switching majors, I’ll leave you with my thoughts that sum up Brain on Fire, “Is this what actually happened based on the doctor’s notes, Susannah? Or is that all hearsay, because that don’t fly in Law and Order, and it certainly don’t fly with me.”

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