I finally finished reading Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. I say “finally finished” not because it was a bad book, or boring, or anything like that. Quite the opposite. It was such an intense story, so dense in detail and facts and emotion, that I could only read it for so long at a time to absorb it properly. It is the story of a fast-tracking journalist in NYC who all of a sudden starts experiencing some strange behaviors outside of her control, visions, and other sensory hallucinations. She is a young woman, in the prime of life, who has everything going for her who descends into a hell she cannot understand or control. Imagine scenes from The Exorcist, but it’s real life. Quoting The Washington Post: “This story has a happy ending, but take heed: It is a powerfully scary book.” The inspiration in the book comes from her family’s steadfast belief that she will get well again, despite the diagnosis of experts. What is truly frightening is the fact that these experts had no idea what was wrong with her with misdiagnoses ranging from alcohol poisoning to various forms of schizophrenia. Through it all, Susannah experienced seizures, canonic states, total memory loss, manic behavior, and all manner of terrifying, uncontrolled behavior and memory loss. When a doctor–himself a miracle case who beat the odds–finally diagnosed her with anti-NMDA-receptor auto-immune encephalitis, Susannah starts down a very long road to recovery. Brain on Fire is more than a medical mystery–it is the story of an incredible woman’s fight to save her identity.
Tag Archives: memory
Memories are funny things. Ask any two people about an event, especially a family history-related one , and you are sure to get two very different versions. It is one reason why witnesses are so unreliable–everyone remembers things through their own particular lens. Memories are also part of our definition of character–who we think we are. That is perhaps one reason why fiction, which deals with memory, is so compelling and so popular. Now, take that ability to recall events and corrupt it, and what you get is “amnesia fiction.” A hero or character in the novel has no ability or only an impaired capability to recall past events, even their own past history, and you have the bones of a great mystery, thriller, or even romance. The novel by S.J. Watson, “Before I Go to Sleep,” portrays a woman who awakens each and every morning without any memory of the previous day, as well as most of her past for the last twenty years. She awakens next to her poor, long-suffering husband, who each morning has to re-introduce himself to keep her from panicking, let alone to explain the situation. Then the story gets interesting. As we peel the onion and find out more and more about the woman, Christine, we start to see inconsistencies. The husband, Ben, seems to thwart her attempts to get better, to regain her memory, and thus she starts to hide things from him, which is difficult, since she can’t remember from one day to the next what she did or what she said. (Sadly, that sounds familiar to me somehow. But, back to the story…) Since it is told from Christine’s point of view, the author was faced with the challenge of having to move the story forward, but at the same time fill in for the reader the background events, all using a main character who cannot remember anything. Watson accomplishes this with the use of the character’s journal keeping, and by Christine herself refreshing her memory with what she has learned from day to day through reviewing her journal. Although the author is amazingly adept at keeping it all straight (which must have been quite a feat), I found as a reader that it became a bit tedious by around page 150. The pace of the novel initially was too slow and I became increasingly frustrated with Christine…why didn’t she just get on the computer and google herself? Why didn’t she confront her husband and demand to meet and talk with friends or family? Why did she accept what she was told without question, when she had her doubts? Sadly, the more information is revealed about Christine, the more I disliked her. This is a problem for a novel. She seemed in turn passive and a doormat, and then suddenly emotionally overwrought and irrational, all without believable provocation. The story is written by a male author from a woman’s point of view, and it seems he missed the mark and portrayed what he thought a woman would be thinking and feeling. It didn’t work for this reader. (Sorry, another thumbs down!) Then, I began to dislike the husband, who was a by turns controlling or obsequious. When the action really starts to unfold, and incongruities mount, lending an air of suspicion to everyone around poor Christine (who is lying, and who is telling her the truth?) , I am afraid I just did not really care much what happened to her. The story is a compelling concept, a frightening situation, and would have been truly terrifying in the hands of a more skilled writer. It wan’t long before I figured out who the real villain was in the story ( but I wont spoil it for you). Believe the book is also soon to be made into a film.
Another work of “amnesia fiction” is a classic translated from Japanese called “The Professor and the Housekeeper” by Y. Ogawa. In this story, the amnesia victim, a brilliant mathematics professor, who can only remember things for about eighty minutes, challenging his young housekeeper and son with taking care of him. Even though these two people must be introduced to the professor anew, a unique relationship forms. The mathematical mind of the professor plays a large role in shaping this relationship, bringing unique insights to the housekeeper and son. What Amazon reviewer said about the book, “The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.” Try this one for an amnesia story with a lyrical, poetic twist.
There are dozens of stories out there having to do with memories, and the devastating effect of losing them. Merely search on “amnesia fiction” to find a list so varied, it could satisfy all types of readers’ desires.