What happens when our brains betray our bodies? When our internal mechanisms break down, rendering us unrecognizable from the people we were before?In 2009, Susannah Cahalan’s immune system attacked her brain, causing one side to become inflamed. This led to seizures, paranoia, hallucinations, and an extended NYU hospital stay in which doctor’s could not figure out what was wrong with her; all the traditional tests came back clean.
Cahalan takes us through this disorienting and murky period with journalistic integrity; she is a reporter for the New York Post and it shows in her prose. Perhaps because she cannot remember much of this period, but also perhaps because she was trained to write objectively, much of this book is clear reporting. There’s very little introspection, reflection, subjectivity – it’s just what happened – from symptoms to diagnosis to recovery.
She does ultimately reflect but it doesn’t come until much later in the book – the last 50 pages or so. Till I got there I continually asked myself SO WHAT? while reading. Yes, this happened to her and it’s unusual and unfortunate but what else am I supposed to get out of this? Then finally, she made her point: What if her doctors hadn’t been so determined to figure out the cause? What if they’d just labeled her insane and sent her off to a mental institution (where so many others are languishing today?) She wouldn’t have an identity, she wouldn’t have a job, she wouldn’t have her very life.
So ultimately Cahalan is grateful. I get it now: She wrote this book to increase awareness that this illness exists and doctors should be on the lookout for it in patients who have inexplicably gone mad. Indeed, Cahalan’s diagnosis was written up in countless medical journals and was a major breakthrough for doctors. So yes, doctors should read this book and treat it as a long interesting case study. But layreaders? I might tell them to forget it.
I’m not sure what was missing for me. Maybe it was the writing, which was just okay, mediocre really, and I expected more from a journalist. Maybe it was the lack of depth – Cahalan definitely waited too long to take her story to the next level. Or maybe it was the science passages about memory, the brain and disease that felt like an unnecessary lecture. Ultimately, this book was a laborious read – not because the writing was hard or the subject matter intricate, but because I didn’t want to stay in Cahalan’s company anymore. She felt like a guest who had stayed long past her welcome, someone I was just humoring until she decided to make her exit.