Stephen Grywalski Never Left Susannah’s Side

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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Who is Stephen Grywalski? How did Susannah Cahalan’s boyfriend support her through her condition?

Stephen Grywalski is Susannah Cahalan’s boyfriend in Brain on Fire. Even though they had only been dating briefly, he stuck by her through the ordeal.

Read more about Susannah Cahalan and Stephen Grywalski.

Paranoia About Stephen Grywalski

A few days later, Susannah wakes up contentedly, the pitch meeting, the bedbugs, and the migraine all forgotten. She’s alone in her boyfriend’s bed; Stephen’s a musician, and he’s already at rehearsal.

Susannah Cahalan and Stephen Grywalski have only been dating for a short time, but their relationship is trusting and comfortable. Suddenly Susannah is hit by another thought that’s completely out of character—an overwhelming compulsion to read his emails. Without thinking about what she’s doing, she opens his computer and combs through his correspondence, not stopping until she finds old messages from his ex.

She tiptoes to his dresser to find other potential signs of betrayal. Suddenly she freezes, overwhelmed by a paranoid sense that he’s watching her via hidden cameras. Although the unfamiliar feeling frightens her, she keeps digging through his things, flinging his clothes on the floor, until she finds a cardboard box full of pictures and letters from exes dating back to his teens.

She reads through the letters, cackling at grammatical errors. As she reaches for another picture, she catches sight of herself in the mirror. Clad only in her underwear, her hair wild, her boyfriend’s letters clutched between her thighs, she sees a stranger staring back at her. The image disgusts her. “I don’t act like this,” she thinks to herself. “What is wrong with me?”

The Seizures Take Over

Stephen pampers Susannah by cooking her an elaborate meal, but she uncharacteristically lies to him about going to the bar with Angela. Her thoughts run wild. She paces and chain-smokes. She gags over dinner. She’s consumed by the desire to escape. Though she hasn’t slept in three days, she can’t fall asleep. She tries watching a cooking show, then everything goes hazy.

And dark.

Susannah has her first seizure.

Susannah awakes in the emergency room. Susannah Cahalan’s boyfriend is by her side. When she sees a homeless man vomiting a few feet away and a bloody man handcuffed to a gurney, surrounded by police officers, she demands to be moved to another room. The doctor agrees, and she’s filled with a triumphant sense of power. En route to her new room, she inexplicably screams that she’s going to sue the MRI technician for flirting with her. Looking back, Susannah views this as the moment when her personality begins to evaporate as she succumbs to the disease. 

A young resident discharges Susannah from the hospital. They’ve already done a CT scan, blood test, and basic neurological exam, and they can do nothing more for her. Stephen objects, but the resident tells him that sometimes seizures happen once and never return. Nevertheless, he tells Susannah to see a neurologist the next day. 

Alerted to Susannah’s seizure by Stephen, Susannah’s mom and stepdad pick up Susannah the following morning to bring her to their home in New Jersey, where they can look after her. Susannah’s stepdad, Allen, has a schizophrenic brother. As Susannah’s condition deteriorates, Allen’s familiarity with mental illness will prove to be a huge asset.

Struggling With Self and Stephen Grywalski

In the morning, Susannah writes the first document that would later function as a diary of this period—a suggestion made by Allen. Writing things down makes Susannah feel like she’s piecing together what’s wrong with her. “I’m bipolar,” she writes. “That’s why I’m me. I love work. I have to break up with Stephen. I’m jumbly. Work takes too much out of my life.”

That night Susannah wanders into the sitting room to tell her mom and Allen that she wants to leave Stephen. 

The night before Susannah is to see Dr. Bailey, Stephen comes to New Jersey to take Susannah out to dinner. Susannah’s family has told him about her condition, but he believes she needs to maintain some semblance of normalcy. When they enter the crowded restaurant, Susannah feels everyone is staring at her. She hears them whispering, “Susannah, Susannah.” Her breathing gets shallow and she begins to sweat. Stephen grabs her hand and they leave. At the next restaurant, she can’t eat. On their way back to the car, Susannah has two conflicting thoughts: She either has to break up with Stephen, or she has to tell him she loves him. 

She tells him she loves him, and he says he loves her too. 

The next day, stomping her feet like a two-year-old, Susannah refuses to go to Dr. Bailey’s for her EEG. Finally, Stephen convinces her to go. On the way to the doctor’s fancy office in New York City, Susannah has a hallucination: Allen is speaking without moving his lips. She thinks he says, “You’re a slut and Stephen should know.” 

Enraged, she tries to throw herself out of the moving car. 

Stephen tells her that her behavior is not okay. She notices that he’s using a new tone of voice and obeys him. After settling down, she goes into panic mode again and flings herself against the locked car door. Finally, she falls asleep on Stephen’s shoulder.

Loyalty From Stephen Grywalski

Stephen, too, has made a pact to stay by Susannah’s side as long as she needs him. He comes every day, bringing nature documentaries that relax Susannah without her knowing it. In spite of her wretched condition, the people who love her will not give up hope.

“She’s still in there,” Stephen tells Susannah’s dad.

The dedication from Stephen Grywalski pays off. When Susannah recovers, Susannah Cahalan and Stephen Grywalski move in together. In a few months, she feels comfortable in her own skin again. There’s no longer a gap between what she feels inside and how other people see her. She doesn’t struggle for words anymore. She feels in control. Most importantly, she’s regained her old sense of humor.

Stephen Grywalski Never Left Susannah’s Side

———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

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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