Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reading Brain on Fire, A Sudden Descent into Mental Illness, as Chronicled by Susannah Cahalan, Journalist and Victim.

I know several folks who like what we call disease memoirs. Pretty much anything fits the bill, but it doesn’t hurt if it’s a disease that hasn’t been suitably covered before. I think actually there is one other detail—it’s better of the disease is neurological in some way. I think we were calling this “sick lit.”

So last June I was at Book Expo, and Jason and I ran back from Brooklyn to attend the buzz panel, that forum where six editors are chosen to talk about their upcoming titles. Apparently there is a huge group of candidates for this honor, particularly after last year netted the breakouts The Art of Fielding and The Night Circus. When one sat down to talk to publishers at the show, a title being shortlisted for the buzz panel often came up in conversation, with the aside that the title in question was probably better than the titles that actually got chosen.

Well, they all sounded interesting to me (and we actually had good advance reads on The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and In the Shadow of the Banyan) but when we left, there were no advance copies to be seen. Perhaps they decided this group could get their advances on net galley. Maybe somebody swept clean the room before we let out. Or possible publishers now feel that if you don’t wait 30 minutes on a signing line, you aren’t really hungry to read the book. All valid possibilities, I suppose.

But Jason moved a little faster than I did, and actually did grab a few titles. And the book he spent the rest of the show talking about was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan, November 13. Cheers to Millicent Bennett for setting us all up for a great read.

Cahalan was a young reporter at the New York Post, who’d nonetheless built up a support network there, being that she started as a 17-year-old intern. It starts with what seems to be bedbug paranoia. She felt a little sick, like the flu, and then the strange symptoms started. She couldn’t prepare for a pitch meeting. She decided her boyfriend might be cheating on her. She throws away her personal clippings. The garbage piles up. She starts thinking that folks might be talking about her. Mood swings.

The symptoms slowly get more serious, with periodic waning of symptoms. And then the seizures began.

One of Jason’s big selling points to me as that as a reporter, Cahalan must revisit her own life as an outsider, because firstly, she had big memory gaps, and secondly, as somebody with delusions, she didn’t really know what was going on.

He’s so right. You are there, and Cahalan plays both victim and investigator. As much as anyone’s memoir, you get become totally wound up in a young woman’s life on the cusp of professional success, in the first bloom of love, coping with divorced parents.

It’s also a cutting edge neuroscience narrative, a medical investigation, with insight into what could unlock the key to many cases of mental illness. And more than that, an insight into what we’ve looked at historically as not just madness, but possession.

Sick lit and more. It’s a combination of Girl, Interrupted, The Hot Zone, and The Exorcist? How’s that for a handle?

Addendum: I wrote this piece just after I read the book and in the time between that and publication, a lot has happened. The good news was that the ABA released their November Indie Next selections and Brain on Fire made the list, using my quote.

On a sadder note, Free Press, the division that published Brain on Fire, was reorganized with imprints moving to the Simon, Scribner, and Atria divisions of Simon and Schuster, and Martha Levin, who ran the division, left the company. I kept saying, "I'm going to get behind one of your books but first I need to find the right book." Well I did, but it was a little too late.

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