Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire is the true account of Cahalan's battle with a mysterious neurological illness which caused her to become paranoid, hallucinate, and completely forget a month of her life. The story is helped by the fact that Cahalan was a young, attractive, New York Post reporter--in short, a person going places--when everything began.

What I found most interesting about Cahalan's story was the way in which the medical establishment is ill-equipped to treat unusual illnesses. This fact makes sense--after all, most illnesses do fall into pre-established categories--but it also means that people who fall outside the norm are easily dismissed. In particular, it was frightening how quickly doctors were willing to write Cahalan off as a young person drinking too much, or later as just another case of mental illness. Cahalan notes that if it weren't for her privileged position and a supportive family, she easily could have ended up in a mental institution for the rest of her life.

Cahalan's bizarre behavior and the search for the cure are compelling stuff, but not enough to sustain an entire book. The other space is filled with medical descriptions of disease--relevant, but dull material. I was left feeling that the book would have been better as a lengthy essay rather than a standalone piece.

In short, I'd try Cahalan's original article in the New York Post first and only pick the book up if you're left wanting more.

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