The Brain on Fire Story: Susannah’s Missing Month

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Brain On Fire" by Susannah Cahalan. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is the Brain on Fire story about? How did Susannah Cahalan suddenly lose a month of time?

The Brain on Fire story is about Susannah’s descent into what appears to be a psychosis. She is paranoid about her family members and doesn’t remember the time after she recovers.

Read more about the Brain on Fire story and the time Susannah can’t remember.

The Brain on Fire Story and Paranoia

Allen and Susannah’s mom agreed to let Susannah return to Manhattan under her father and stepmother’s care. All goes well at first, but as Susannah and her dad head for the subway, Susannah’s paranoia returns. She starts screaming on the street, and her father has to push her into a cab to get her to his home in Brooklyn. “They’re kidnapping me!” Susannah yells at the cabbie. She tells her dad she’s calling the police. She’s convinced she isn’t safe in his care.

Exhausted by the time they get to her dad’s place, Susannah just sits on the couch and stares as her dad and stepmom, Giselle, prepare her favorite meal, pasta. Susannah has another hallucination; the tomato sauce is too bright. The basil pulsates. The cheese glistens. Susannah refuses to eat. After dinner, she has another hallucination like the one she had in the car with Allen. She thinks she hears Giselle saying, “You’re a spoiled brat,” even though Giselle’s lips don’t move.

Susannah has other hallucinations that night. A painting comes alive. A bust of Lincoln follows her with its eyes. Her childhood dollhouse is haunted. Her father is beating Giselle.

Convinced her father is going to kill her, Susannah is desperate to get out. She runs to the front door of the brownstone and bangs her fists against the door, screaming, “Let me out! Help!” 

She hears her father run downstairs, and she scoots into the bathroom, locking herself in. She’s about to jump out the window when she spots a statue of Buddha on the bathroom counter. It convinces her that everything will be all right, and she smiles. 

It takes Susannah’s dad an hour to coax her out of the bathroom. When Susannah falls asleep in his lap, he calls Susannah’s mom; they both agree she must be admitted to a hospital. However, both insist that she not be put in a psych ward.

Allen and Susannah’s mom drive in from New Jersey the next morning to take Susannah to Dr. Bailey’s, where they ask him to draw up admittance papers. He refuses, insisting that her EEG was normal, along with her MRI, exam, and bloodwork.

As soon as they arrive at the hospital, Susannah has a seizure in the Admitting Room.


The Brain on Fire story continues, but Susannah has no memories of the next month. No longer are there any glimmers of the “I” she had been for twenty-four years. She is unable to access her rational consciousness, and the break with her self is complete.

The Brain on Fire Story: Susannah’s Missing Month

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain On Fire" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Brain On Fire summary:

  • How a high-functioning reporter became virtually disabled within a matter of weeks
  • How the author Cahalan recovered through a lengthy process and pieced together what happened to her
  • How Cahalan's sickness reveals the many failures of the US healthcare system

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