The Fiction Fox
Review: Brain on Fire - Susannah Cahalan
Genre: Non Fiction/Memoir
Published: Free Press, November 2012
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
In spring 2009, Susannah Cahalans life gets flipped upside down, as she is struck by a series of seemingly inexplicable symptoms. Between psychosis, wild mood swings, seizures and many a negative test, doctors can’t seem to agree on a diagnosis. In Brain on fire, Susannah documents the joined search of her parents and doctors to solve this real life medical mystery, in order to save their daughter and patient.
Rating memoirs is and will always be tricky, as they are accounts of such personal experiences that it feels almost for me as an outsider to slap a rating on it. Susannah Cahalan did an incredible job of recording her experiences, and those of her parents, over the course of her “month of madness”. From personal experience I can say that it takes a lot of courage to talk openly about your own medical history and experiences, especially if it’s about a disease that is rare or easily misunderstood. I can only imagine how much more bravery it would take to talk about highly stigmatized symptoms like psychosis, which she unfortunately encountered. Revisiting these experiences is challenging enough. Putting them out in the open for people to potentially judge is incredibly brave, and I feel like I’d be amiss not to mention this in my review. My personal experience with this memoir was a little mixed. With regard to the content: I loved it. As a medical student aspiring to become an immunologist, this is exactly the kind of case that fascinates me to no end. I loved to read about it from the patients point of view, but also really enjoyed the scientific and medical explanations (which I see many people mentioning something they disliked). It was the way in which the story was told, that tempered my enthusiasm a bit. Cahalan has a background in popular journalism, and this really shows in her writing style. It’s that typical “popular tabloid writing”: simple and accessible, yet trying to be witty, and often prone to sensationalize the content just a bit too much. It’s a passionate pet peeve of mine, and this type of writing (in Dutch even more so than in English) can actually ruin my enjoyment of a book. In some aspects, it did here as well. This style of writing just doesn’t feel suited for the subject matter at hand. I do however realize this is mostly me picking up on a personal pet peeve, and many of you won’t particularly mind.
As to whether or not I’d recommend the book to others: yes, I probably would. If you are interested in medical science or even if you enjoy shows like Mystery-diagnosis, or House MD; this is a fascinating read. It’s purely my dislike of the writing style that keeps me from rating it higher, but ultimately this is a matter of taste and many readers may not have the same problem I did.
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