Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

by

Susannah Cahalan

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness: Chapter 38 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Susannah spends much of her time waiting for Stephen to arrive on the commuter train. One day, as she sits in the car with Mom waiting for the train, Mom exclaims that Stephen looks different. Susannah doesn't recognize him with his haircut and shaved beard until he reaches the car. As he gets in, Susannah feels a sense of gratitude that she found Stephen. She tells the reader that she's asked Stephen many times why he stayed with her, and he always tells her that he loves her and knew she was “in there.”
Susannah's inability to recognize Stephen sooner is likely the result of her illness, though it also shows that she's now able to engage with the same kind of memory-identity relationship that others are using to think about her. Stephen now doesn't match up with Susannah's memories of him, but they are still able to interact as essentially the same two people as before.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Susannah agrees to attend a barbeque with Stephen several days later. She feels self-conscious that everyone is gawking at her, but realizes now that most of the other guests had never even met her before. As conversation is still difficult, Susannah concentrates on eating burgers and watermelon. Stephen stays close to Susannah's side and takes the lead in conversations, and he wipes watermelon juice off of Susannah's chin.
Soon, Cahalan will begin to conceptualize this period in her recovery as an adolescent coming-of-age of sorts. The feeling that everyone is looking at her is a hallmark of adolescence, and here it shows that Susannah is now truly able to engage with the world around her, and is aware that she's not performing in public as she should.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
The last weekend in May, Susannah attends her stepbrother's wedding. She'd initially been asked to be a bridesmaid, but the bride suggested she step down after she got sick. Susannah interprets this to mean that she's a burden and that people are ashamed of her. Regardless, she dresses up and does her best to style her hair to cover her biopsy scar. At this point, Susannah explains that she's no longer so noticeably off, though she's still puffy and struggles to speak.
Even if she's much better than she was, it's surely untrue that people think of Susannah as a burden—again, this belief shows that Susannah is acutely aware of how others perceive her, and is extremely uncomfortable with the fact that she's obviously not the same as she once was.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Though Mom makes Susannah promise to only have one glass of wine, Susannah rolls her eyes and has several flutes of champagne anyway—she's still bullheaded and tenacious, even if she's ill. Susannah dances with abandon, though she later learns that she looked robotic and dazed. When Susannah speaks to relatives, they all use a very carefully enunciated tone with her. She finds it demoralizing, but realizes now that none of them knew that she was still all there in her mind. Mom is thrilled to see Susannah having fun until another guest offers condolences and remarks that Susannah's spark is gone. Mom angrily tells the woman that Susannah is doing well.
Going forward, Cahalan will fixate on this idea of "spark" being the defining quality of her identity. Notably, this quality isn't entirely definable, but the fixation on it (both on her part and the part of others) suggests that what made Susannah who she was before was her ability to sparkle in conversation, hold her own, and move through the world without fear or hesitation.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
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