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1-Page Summary of Brain on Fire

Overall Summary

Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, Brain on Fire, details her fight against a rare autoimmune disease. She woke up in the hospital with no memory of how she got there and was violent and delusional for weeks while doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. Eventually they diagnosed it as an autoimmune disease that affects the brain. Her story is inspiring because she fought through so much to get better.

In her book, Cahalan details how she was attacked by her own body and recovered. She begins with the limitations of her ability to tell us what happened to her as a result of those attacks. In addition, she presents evidence that these limitations are necessary for an authentic account of what happened to her during this time.

The book begins with the narrator’s daily life in New York City. She has many friends and a boyfriend, but her parents are divorced and she doesn’t see them much. The author also mentions that she is very close to her younger brother, James. Throughout the story, we will learn about what happened to Susannah when she was hospitalized for a rare illness called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Her medical records are included in the book, along with journal entries from family members and other sources.

In the beginning of this book, Cahalan talks about how she had strange thoughts and didn’t tell anyone about them. Later in the story, her symptoms got worse and more frequent. She was taken to a doctor who listened to her complaints. The doctor treated her like an actual human being instead of someone who is just complaining for no reason.

Cahalan’s recovery from her disease was difficult, but she used her experience to help others who suffer from similar diseases.

Author’s Note

In this book, Cahalan states that the purpose of writing it is to try and understand what happened. She admits that she is biased in her approach to the events, but overall, this book is non-fiction. There are some details that have been changed for accuracy reasons, but she understands there will be inaccuracies.


Cahalan wakes up in a hospital with a straitjacket on. She thinks her babysitter is there, but she isn’t sure if it’s real or not. Cahalan panics because she can’t move and doesn’t know what is real anymore. Words on her wrist read “Flight Risk.”

Chapter 1

The book begins with the author’s life in 2009, when she was a reporter for The New York Post. She worked at the paper for seven years and had a stable job there. In her free time, she hung out with her friend Angela and solved bedbug problems that many people faced in New York City. However, this picture of stability is misleading because it was around this time that Cahalan began to unravel psychologically. Although she never discussed these issues with anyone else, she experienced hallucinations and paranoia as well as other unusual behavior traits.

Chapter 2

Cahalan introduces the reader to her mother, Rhona, and stepfather, Allen. She also mentions her father but not by name. Her relationship with him is strained because he had remarried without telling either of his children about it. Cahalan’s headaches become severe migraines that interfere with her daily life. She becomes paranoid and mistrustful of people around her; she accuses Stephen (her boyfriend) of having an affair even though he has given no reason for suspicion or distrust on Cahalan’s part. The author describes how she loses the ability to tell time and experiences numbness in parts of her body as well as pain in other areas.

Chapter 3

Cahalan is finally taken to a doctor and told that she has mononucleosis. She withholds some of her symptoms, however, during the doctors’ examinations. They do not press her for more information about what’s wrong with her body and take her word for it when she says that she has mono. The pain, numbness and tingling in Cahalan’s left side increase over time. She misplaces a ring that belongs to her future self at one of the doctors’ offices; this symbolizes how healthy she feels physically and mentally after going to see these two doctors.

Brain on Fire Book Summary, by Susannah Cahalan