Susannah Cahalan: Book Reconstructs Lost Time

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 Susannah Cahalan book, Brain on Fire about? How did she research the story and write about her experience with

The Susannah Cahalan book, Brain on Fire, is an account of what happened to her, even though she doesn’t truly remember. Susannah reconstructed the time that is lost by researching the way she would in any other assignment as a journalist.

Read more about Susannah Cahalan’s book and how she wrote it.

Susannah Cahalan: Book’s Early Stages

Susannah’s old self finally reawakens when she’s in the hospital for another round of treatments. She begins reading again. She begins keeping a diary to understand what’s happened to her. 

Susannah’s father encourages her to draw upon her memory to create a timeline of events. As she tries to remember, she can recall only numbness, sleepiness, and three seizures. She remembers nothing from her time in the hospital.

Alarmed by the depth of her memory loss, Susannah’s dad invents a new motto: “You must leave the past behind in order to move forward.” With this, Susannah Cahalan’s book took shape.

Rebuilding Memories

As time progresses, Susannah regains former functions and personality traits. When people ask her to explain her illness, she tells them only that her body attacked her brain. However, when Paul, her Post editor, asks her to explain it, she decides to summarize her experiences. She sends Paul a one-paragraph email, ending with “I know what it’s like to go crazy.” It’s enough for Paul to assure her that her writing skills have returned.

Paul’s encouragement is all Susannah needs. She begins a program of research and becomes obsessed with understanding how a human body attacks itself.

Susannah maintains a regular correspondence with Paul, who actively encourages Susannah to return to work. They hit on a strategy: Susannah will casually stop by the Post offices to say hello in mid-July.

On the appointed day, Susannah dresses up and takes a train into the city. However, as soon as she arrives at the Post office building, the adrenaline that’s bolstered her confidence rushes out of her body. It’s too soon, she thinks.

She texts Paul to meet her outside. He tries to banter with her, as in the old days, but Susannah can’t keep up. He struggles to maintain a careless facade, but they both know she can’t handle her duties. “Your desk is ready for you,” he says nevertheless. “Come on upstairs.” Looking at the ground, she admits she’s not ready to go back right now. They hug briefly, then Paul disappears inside the building, worried that the new Susannah is not the Susannah he once knew.

Returning to Work

In spite of this disastrous meeting, two weeks later Susannah gets an assignment to write a piece for the Post’s entertainment section. She manically jumps into researching the story, phoning sources and compiling her notes, but when she sits down to write, she’s suddenly overwhelmed by writer’s block. She stares at the screen. Slowly, an hour later, the first words come, then others. Soon they’re coming like a fountain.  For Susannah Cahalan, book writing was the next natural step.

Susannah’s article runs in the Post on July 28. She’s published hundreds of pieces before, but none have meant more than this one. It signals her redemption. It shouts, “Susannah’s back!” The article was the first step for Susannah Cahalan and the book was next. Susannah Cahalan’s book, Brain on Fire, was published in 2012.

Susannah Cahalan: Book Reconstructs Lost Time

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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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