Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

by

Susannah Cahalan

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Brain on Fire can help.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Several days later, Susannah wakes up in her boyfriend Stephen's bed, feeling as though the bedbug scare and her pitch meeting are a distant memory. The night before, Susannah had taken Stephen to meet her father and stepmother, Giselle, for the first time. Susannah explains that though she and Stephen have only been dating for four months, they've known each other for six years.
Susannah describes this perfectly normal life event, but also makes it clear that her illness is swiftly descending upon normality and will interrupt her life. This suggests that Susannah isn't “special” for contracting this disease; it can hit anyone at any time.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Responsibility and the Medical System Theme Icon
Susannah has Stephen's apartment to herself, as Stephen has already left for band practice. As she lies in bed, she suddenly feels an overwhelming urge to read Stephen's emails. This jealousy is entirely unlike her, but she opens up Stephen's laptop and scrolls through his inbox. When Susannah finds an email from Stephen's ex-girlfriend, she opens it to find a seductive selfie. Stephen never replied, but Susannah keeps going through his emails until she finds all the emails from their yearlong relationship. Susannah is extremely angry, though she's not sure why, since she knows that Stephen hasn't spoken to this girl since they started dating.
It's important to note here that Susannah is fully aware of the fact that this rage and jealousy is out of character for her. This creates the sense that Susannah is waging an internal battle between the person she knows she is and the person the disease is turning her into. This act in particular also shows Susannah turning against a person she's very close to, which illustrates how her illness has the potential power to damage her close relationships.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
The urge to continue digging for more incriminating evidence against Stephen persists, and Susannah tiptoes to his dresser. She wonders if he might have cameras going and if this is somehow a test, but she goes through his drawers anyway. She finds a box full of letters and photos from Stephen's exes. As Susannah goes through the letters, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and doesn't recognize herself. She thinks that she never acts like this, and that something is wrong with her.
The possibility that Stephen is testing Susannah is, of course, ridiculous—but her fear of it makes it abundantly clear that Susannah is being paranoid and thus somehow unwell. Not recognizing herself and understanding that something is wrong shows that she's aware that she's fighting against something, but she feels also powerless in her ignorance of what it actually is.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Susannah checks her phone and finds that she's been going through Stephen's things for two hours, even though it only felt like a few minutes. Then her head pain returns with nausea, and Susannah feels as though her left hand is tingling with pins and needles. She replaces Stephen's belongings in his dresser, and by the time she's done, her left hand is entirely numb.
The presence of some physical symptoms suggests that what Susannah's fighting isn't just mental illness; it's also something physiological. This will be important as Susannah later delves into the lack of communication between psychiatrists and neurologists.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Responsibility and the Medical System Theme Icon
Get the entire Brain on Fire LitChart as a printable PDF.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness PDF