Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

by

Susannah Cahalan

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At work the following Tuesday, Steve calls Susannah and says that he wants her to interview John Walsh, the host of the show America's Most Wanted. Susannah agrees, but doesn't feel as enthusiastic as normal. She then calls the Post's librarian, Liz, to help her with initial research. Instead of asking for research, however, she asks Liz for a tarot reading. Susannah explains that Liz is a Wiccan priestess when she's not a librarian. Susannah desperately wants to believe in something with all the strange things happening.
Susannah implies that she doesn't necessarily believe in witchcraft; she just wants to. This reinforces the notion that her mysterious illness is very unsettling, and is fundamentally changing who she is and what she's willing to believe in. Neglecting her usual job tasks in favor of a tarot reading is also symptomatic of her changing identity, given that she explains that this entire thing isn't normal.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Liz's tarot reading yields good omens. She reads that Susannah will have a job change and financial success. When Susannah returns to her desk, she finds Angela looking depressed and discovers that a fellow reporter had just died from melanoma. The funeral is scheduled for Friday. Though Susannah knows she needs to prepare for her interview with John Walsh, she can't stop fixating on the reporter's death.
Though Liz isn't wrong in the long run (Cahalan does eventually write this memoir, which was wildly successful), her predictions mirror the diagnoses from Drs. Rothstein and Bailey: they're all silly, given how out-of-sorts Susannah is. Something is wrong, and their diagnoses are just as unhelpful as the tarot reading.
Themes
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion Theme Icon
Responsibility and the Medical System Theme Icon
The next morning, Susannah returns to work after not sleeping all night. Instead of preparing for her interview, she searches melanoma relapse rates. When she walks down the hallway to meet Walsh in an empty office, Susannah is shocked to discover that the framed front pages from the Post that line the walls seem to be closing in on her and breathing. Susannah feels as though the walls are caving in, while the ceiling appears to expand to the height of a cathedral. She isn't afraid, but her heart is racing.
Even if Susannah doesn't recognize it as such, she's experiencing a visual hallucination. The text style (not italicized) in the book is what clues the reader in on the fact that she doesn't recognize this for what it is; it's just an occurrence that feels like it must be real in her deteriorating mind. Her lack of fear also shows that at this point she still trusts her perceptions, and isn’t able to accept that what she’s seeing might not be really there.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion Theme Icon
In the office, Susannah introduces herself to Walsh and his publicist. Susannah is unable to maintain a train of thought and can barely follow Walsh as he talks about drug smuggling. She laughs uproariously at one comment that isn't actually funny, and the publicist insists that Walsh needs to go. Susannah offers to walk them out, but her balance is off and she bumps into the walls of the hallway. When she tries to open a door, she misses the handle by a foot. Susannah tells the reader that this story would never run, and this would be her last interview for seven months.
Here, even a complete stranger can see that there's something very wrong with Susannah, even if she herself is not exactly aware of it. This begins to shift away from Susannah believing that things are wrong to others believing that there's something wrong with her, which in turn sets her up to fight her family and friends when they try to care for her.
Themes
Identity and Illness Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
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