Written By: Mia Manning
Soon to be a major motion picture, Susannah Cahalan’s novel, Brain on Fire, is a true story based on her own month long experience with a rare illness that doctors have difficulty diagnosing. Despite the truth behind the events, medical facts, and the author’s personal experiences being shown in the novel, due to her first hand perspective, it reads like fiction. This narrative quality, in comparison to typical medical nonfiction works, makes Brain on Fire easier for the audience to grasp, (a novel which could have otherwise been challenging: if Brain on Fire was written more like a report) allowing readers to fully immerse themselves in the novel, characters, and sickness.
Although, as an outsider to the medical world, the terminology could be somewhat perplexing, because Cahalan uses medical terminology freely throughout the chapters, but she also explains what each term means, or adds other guides like pictures for visual representation. Her efforts do not go unnoticed, however, interest or knowledge in the medical field- specifically neurology, could help the reader better understand some of what she is trying to explain when discussing the scientific information that describes what is occurring in her brain. This scientific information was not boring in the slightest, though fully understanding medical concepts without studying in that field regularly is difficult, and thus caused a lack of connection between the common reader and the work in the sense that only so much of the information could be grasped. Nonetheless, being based off of her own experience, Cahalan has no issue making her passions and struggles felt as they radiate off the pages. The reader is intertwined in the madness Cahalan feels throughout her sickness, and the reality of the events, without feeling as if they are sacrificing a piece of narrative that would make the story better: rather than if the story was too focused on one side of the reality in the situation. For instance, the novel could have been severely lacking if the reality of the events were not revealed, and the only perspective received was Cahalan’s reality while she was sick. However, because Cahalan includes experiences outside of her own during the novel, the story becomes both full and three dimensional.
It is safe to say that the novel – as many medical novels do – makes the reader aware of their own mortality. Even when nothing is visibly wrong, when one is young and seemingly healthy, disaster can strike and soon the world can be thrown upside down and sparing no one. This fact is increasingly made obvious through the strained relationships Cahalan has with her coworkers, her parents, and her boyfriend that are shown throughout the novel. These strained relationships also help exemplify to the reader the severity of the situation in a psychological manner, which allows for a good balance between the physical and mental sides of sickness, expanding the readers mindset and understanding of Susana Cahalan’s condition.
Despite Cahalan being 24 years old in the novel’s setting, and the novel primarily targeting a younger audience, without a doubt older age groups would enjoy it as well. There are a multitude of characters that allow the reader to understand the different aspects one faces when going through a medical issue: facing co-workers, family members, old friends, and even your own parents who might not full understand. Because of the variety of characters, every age group is represented fairly, and whether reading as a parent or a child, the reader can surely learn something from the novel. Whether its how to better appreciate one’s livelihood, or something else entirely, it certainly makes one feel grateful for the life they are living. So, even if one does not ever suffer something similar to Cahlahan’s condition, the reader is left with a lasting impact once finishing the novel.
Brain on Fire is filled with convincing fear, sadness, anger, and every other emotion that one and one’s family would feel when going through such a stressful hospitalization, where everything seems to be taken from you at the hands of an unknown source . Shockingly realistic due to the author’s personal experience, Brain on Fire not only heightens the world’s knowledge of Susannah’s medical condition – anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a neurological autoimmune disease – but allows the reader to appreciate their life and good health considerably more.