Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

by

Susannah Cahalan

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Susannah is relieved to have a diagnosis of mono. She spends Saturday in bed and then decides she's well enough to join Stephen, his sister, and her husband at a Ryan Adams show. They meet at an Irish pub beforehand, and Susannah can barely stomach the sight of her fish and chips. She can hardly make conversation and doesn't eat any of her food. When they arrive at the show venue, Susannah tries to follow Stephen to the front but is suddenly nauseous and dizzy. She and Stephen stand next to a pillar in the back of the room, and Susannah leans on it. She can't focus on the music at all. Afterwards, when Stephen asks Susannah how she liked the show, she admits she can't remember it.
Susannah's relief makes it clear early on that there's a great deal of comfort that comes from being able to name and understand one's illness, despite the fact that this particular diagnosis isn't correct. Her inability to remember the concert shows too that her memory is already in the process of being compromised by her illness, which suggests that there are other events from this time period that she's then left out of her narrative (and also highlights the inaccuracy of the mono diagnosis).
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion Theme Icon
Susannah takes three days off of work. Finally, she calls Mom. Mom is worried about the numbness especially, but Susannah assures her she's fine. On her third day off of work, Dad insists on coming to see Susannah. He takes her out to a matinee of the movie The Wrestler. As Susannah watches a touching father-daughter scene in the movie, she starts crying. Embarrassed, she gets up, runs to the bathroom, and weeps. She wonders why she's experiencing this kind of emotion, especially since Dad isn't very affectionate.
Mom and Dad's concern is one way that they show their love for Susannah. However, Susannah's insistence that she's fine begins to show that she's unwilling to fully accept this intensity of love and care—though she does so because she in turn cares about Mom and Dad. Systems of familial love are complicated, and accepting and giving love isn't always easy or straightforward.
Themes
Love and Family Theme Icon
After the movie, Dad walks Susannah back to her apartment to check it for bedbugs. When they get close to her apartment, however, Susannah's stomach fills with dread and she realizes she doesn't want him to come in. She feels ashamed of her messy room. When she opens the door, Dad comments on the smell. Susannah grabs a bag of litter box waste from her cat and throws it away. Dad chastises her for her messy apartment. Susannah surveys the room, which is covered in dirty clothes and the garbage bags she'd never taken out a week ago. Susannah's bites are gone, and she wonders if they were ever there.
Because Susannah's apartment is a symbol of her independence and adulthood, its messiness and smell suggests that these things are tenuous—even if Susannah is technically an adult, she's still struggling to embody the full meaning of that persona. Her desire to not have Dad see this shows that she also wants to perform adulthood for him so that he treats her like a peer, not like a child.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon