Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Brain on Fire I just finished reading Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness which is a first-hand account of a young woman’s terrifying experience of an autoimmune disorder that attacks her brain. She is overtaken by seizures, hallucination, paranoia, and the realization that she is going mad.

Susannah Cahalan’s memoir raises issues around misdiagnosed illnesses, the importance of personal advocacy and the need for a second opinion. She shows us the unconditional love of a supportive network of family and friends, gratitude for medical advances and the sobering reality that there is still so much we don’t know about why and how our bodies fail us. Callahan says:

[My illness] is a good reminder about how fragile our hold on sanity and health is and how much we are at the utter whim of our Brutus bodies, which will inevitably, one day, turn on us for good. I am a prisoner, as we all are. And with that realization comes an aching sense of vulnerability.

This is a quick read that invites us to be sympathetic to all who struggle to find diagnoses for their mental and/or physical suffering. Every member of my book club, myself included, agreed that this is a book worth recommending to others.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think?


Contrary to more ambiguous titles in the book world, this one tells you exactly what you will read about.

This story immediately throws you into a scenario of a devastating predicament for a young soldier, Louis Zamperini. Stranded for weeks in the middle of the ocean on a failing raft, enemy fire from above and sharks looming below. The author then leaves you hanging there in the uncertainty of survival and takes you to Zamperini's early years - all the while knowing that somehow he will end up in this unfortunate introductory scene.

And there was more to come. Violence, isolation, starvation and disease.  It is a true story through and through, and all I could think was, unbelievable. As in, how could one man have endured such atrocity? And, are humans really capable of this kind of brutality toward one another? This is a captivating story, a page-turner that forces you to refer back to the front cover multiple times, simply as a reminder that, as suggested by the title, this man indeed survives.

Here a few take-aways for me in the story:

1. War

It's horrible. It's outrageous. This World War II account takes you into the underbelly of human beings at their worst. I wish it were a thing of the past, but it is not. It is an ever-present reality for our world today, and I fear, for as long as people inhabit this earth. There's an observation in the book about the cost of human dignity. We ought never to forget what war costs, for all of us, everywhere.

2. Resilience

The recent Olympics reminded me of the kind of physical, emotional, and psychological strength that some people are capable of drawing out of themselves. But what if it isn't voluntary or for sport? What if it is a matter of life and death, a test of survival? To be living off a few grains of rice, to be beaten to a pulp, to be force-fed a whopping dose of terror, to be ripped violently of human dignity - and to keep going? Un-freaking-believable. That is resilience.

3. Redemption

We are never too far gone for redemption. And we ought to remember what kind of influence we can have on others in extending grace, love and an opportunity for healing. This part of the story was a surprise for me. We simply wanted our protagonist to survive, and he did. But thrive? Again, unbelievable.

Thank you, Laura Hillenbrand, for working so diligently and writing so beautifully to accurately share this one man's story.

Who else has read this book? What were your impressions?

Why Dignity Matters

But on Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased.

Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

When Atlas Shrugged, Compassion Crumbled

"I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." This is the creed of Ayn Rand’s 1000+ page novel, Atlas Shrugged. It was written in the 1950’s from a woman who had grown up in communist Russia, and the story focuses on the negative consequences of regulating capitalism and individualism.

The book was a page-turner – at times because I was captivated by the mystery of the story and fascinated by Rand’s ability to take me into a world where I rooted for the characters that I would hesitate to endorse in my real life. The other way it became a page-turner was that I ended up skimming past several 30-page monologues (or rants) that were redundant and, quite frankly, self-indulgent. Rand’s arguments are compelling and worthy of consideration, but they were also disturbing – particularly reflecting a worldview that promotes selfish ambition for the sake of happiness and denies the responsibility that we have to one another.

Rand’s words state:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

Atlas Shrugged is an upside-down world where acts of mercy and compassion are deemed sinful, and where selfishness and self-promotion are virtues.

I read this book through the dirt roads of Africa where the desert people of Marsabit are at the mercy of strangers to partner with them in the provision of water. I read this book in western Kenya where a thousand HIV-positive mothers, fathers and children are alive because of the life-saving drugs provided by PEPFAR (The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). I read this book in our nation’s capital as global forces gathered for the International AIDS Conference to protect those who dearly need it. And I read this book back in my inner-city neighborhood that is struggling through the implications of gentrification by the rich in the neighborhood of the poor.

I appreciate the novel’s warning against the destruction of society through communism. Yet, ultimately Ayn Rand’s story mocks the life I am committed to. She simplifies the world’s problems by suggesting that those who matter in the world are the ones who are the most intelligent, reasonable and powerful for their own sake. It is a “God helps those who help themselves” kind of worldview. I do believe in free markets and the rights of individuals. And I do not believe in handouts, and choose to model our work in Africa differently than traditional charity. But I do believe in the story of the Good Samaritan, and in the power of sacrificial love. Therefore, when Atlas shrugged, compassion crumbled.

The Friday Five

Here are my most recent reads of non-fiction books that read like fiction:

1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks gets a terrible case of cervical cancer and is treated at Johns Hopkins. Her cells uncharacteristically multiply, and end up serving as the source of some of the most significant medical advances in the last sixty years. The cells were taken without her knowledge or consent, and the story follows the author's research of the impact of the HeLa cells as well the woman behind them.

2. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

It is nearly impossible to have access to the stories of those who live in North Korea. But those who have escaped have unbelievable stories to tell -- stories of fear, hunger, brainwashing and obedience. It is terrifying to realize that there is a place such as North Korea in the world today. It opened my eyes to an entire world unto itself. Truly riveting.

3. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The White City is Chicago. The Devil is a mass murderer. Dreamers and architects spend years planning and building the World's Fair at the turn of the century. Meanwhile a man utilizes the site of the World's Fair as a place to lure women and eventually murder them. One story shows man's desire to build; the other, a desire to destroy.

4. The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

A zoo in Warsaw becomes a place for refuge and hiding from the Nazis. People and animals share the spaces together, and the author explores the nature of both animals and humanity in the midst of inhumanity. Delightful coverage of a family's love of animals blended with their courage to house and care for as many people as possible. Fascinating to read about a zoo as a center for Polish resistance.

5. Bossypants by Tina Fey

An episodic autobiography of Tina Fey's awkward and hilarious "coming of age" and working on SNL. An honest female voice that says things about the world, especially as a career woman, that you wish you were brave enough to admit yourself. I bought this book on a whim at an airport on the west coast and caught myself laughing out loud by myself on the plane. Oh, and this is definitely at least a PG-13.

What are your favorite "non-fiction read like fiction" books?