Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness


Susannah Cahalan

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness Characters


Susannah, the author and protagonist of the memoir, is a vibrant 24-year-old writer for the New York Post. She lives in New York City and treasures her tiny studio apartment. Susannah is determined… read analysis of Susannah


Stephen is Susannah's boyfriend, who is seven years older than she is. Susannah describes his eyes as being honest and trusting, making Susannah feel as though they've been dating forever. At the start of the… read analysis of Stephen


Mom works at the DA's office. She's very close to Susannah before Susannah becomes ill. Because Mom is a worrier and is deathly afraid of cancer, Susannah resists telling Mom that she's ill until after… read analysis of Mom


Dad lives with his wife, Giselle, in Brooklyn Heights. He and Susannah aren't particularly close at the beginning of the memoir. When Susannah spends the night with Dad just prior to her hospitalization, Susannah… read analysis of Dad

Dr. Najjar

Dr. Najjar is a neurologist working at the NYU hospital. His personal background is a success story—as a child in Syria, he'd been unsuccessful in a private Catholic school, but when his father moved him… read analysis of Dr. Najjar
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Dr. Bailey

Dr. Bailey is a highly regarded neurologist practicing in New York City. Susannah describes him as grandfatherly and kind, and she wants to assure him that everything is fine the first time she sees him… read analysis of Dr. Bailey


James is Susannah's younger brother. Despite their five-year age difference, they're very close. When Susannah becomes ill he's midway through his first year at college, and Mom and Dad keep the severity of Susannah's… read analysis of James


Paul is a Sunday news editor at the New York Post and Susannah's mentor. He's a large man, though he's very comforting, and he uses extremely colorful language. He gave Susannah her first chance… read analysis of Paul


Allen is Mom's third husband. He's a kind and calming man and does his best to support Mom throughout Susannah's illness. At one point Susannah hallucinates that Allen calls her a slut, something that… read analysis of Allen


Giselle is Dad's wife. She is largely a background figure throughout the memoir, as Susannah doesn't know her well and Dad is an exceptionally private person—he doesn't even tell Susannah and James that he… read analysis of Giselle


Emily is a college student who begins experiencing many of the same symptoms Susannah did when she first became ill. Her illness ebbs and flows for several months while her father attempts to convince doctors… read analysis of Emily


Angela is Susannah's best friend at the New York Post. She's a few years older than Susannah, and Susannah says that she often jokes that she'd love it if a future daughter were… read analysis of Angela

Dr. Ian Arslan

Dr. Arslan is a psychopharmacologist (a psychiatrist who specializes in medication management) who joins Susannah's team of doctors at NYU. Susannah describes him as looking more like an old hippie than a doctor, and… read analysis of Dr. Ian Arslan


Julie is one of Susannah's coworkers at the New York Post. At first, she suggests to Susannah that she might have bipolar disorder. When she later visits Susannah in the hospital with Angelaread analysis of Julie
Minor Characters
Steve is the new Sunday editor at the New York Post. Susannah finds him intimidating despite his friendly nature.
Mackenzie is an editor at the New York Post whom Susannah approaches for guidance after she snoops through Stephen's things. Though Mackenzie soothes Susannah in the moment, she later admits that she was worried by how guilty Susannah was.
Dr. Eli Rothstein
Dr. Rothstein is Susannah's gynecologist, though he's also a friend. He's often a laidback medical practitioner, but he's extremely worried when Susannah calls him about the numbness in her left side. He arranges for Susannah to see Dr. Bailey.
Liz is the New York Post's librarian by day and a Wiccan priestess by night. She performs a tarot reading for Susannah.
John Walsh
John Walsh is the host of the television show America's Most Wanted. Susannah has the opportunity to interview him, but the symptoms of her illness prevent her from conducting a successful interview.
Dr. Deborah Russo
Dr. Russo is an attending neurologist on the epilepsy floor at the NYU hospital. She prescribes Susannah more antipsychotic medications and diagnoses Susannah with postictal psychosis, or psychotic behavior following seizures.
Dr. Sarah Levin
Dr. Levin is the first psychologist Susannah sees. She diagnoses Susannah with bipolar disorder and prescribes antipsychotic medications.
Dr. William Siegel
A neurologist on Susannah's initial team of doctors at NYU. He has a stellar reputation and makes a particularly positive impression on Mom, who nicknames him "Bugsy." However, after Susannah continues to not improve, Siegel passes Susannah's case on to Dr. Najjar. Mom is hurt when she discovers this.
Dr. Sabrina Khan
Dr. Khan is the psychiatrist on Susannah's team of doctors at NYU. She is concerned after examining Susannah that the issue isn't psychiatric but neurological. She also recommends that Susannah be assigned a security guard.
Dr. Friedman
Susannah's team of doctors call Dr. Friedman to attend to Susannah's skyrocketing blood pressure.
Hannah is Susannah's cousin and one of the first visitors allowed to come to the hospital. Though she's shocked by Susannah's appearance, she acts naturally and brings Susannah a novel by one of Susannah's favorite authors.
Katie is the first non-family friend who's allowed to visit Susannah. Susannah describes her as goofy and vibrant, and she fully accepts her job of distracting Susannah when she visits.
Dr. Josep Dalmau
Dr. Dalmau is a neuro-oncologist who discovered anti-NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis in 2007. By the time Susannah is in the hospital, Dr. Dalmau had developed two quick tests to screen for the disease. He declined to name the disease after himself.
Karen Gendal
Karen Gendal is a speech pathologist who assesses Susannah's ability to speak and form ideas. Though her tests are inconclusive, she writes that Susannah is absolutely not the same person she was before she became ill.
Dr. Chris Morrison
Dr. Morrison is a neuropsychologist who tests Susannah's cognitive function after her brain biopsy.
Lindsey is one of Susannah's friends from college. She flies in from St. Louis to help move Susannah home after she begins treatment and is released from the hospital.
Jeff is a friend of Susannah's from college. He visits Susannah briefly right after she returns home from the hospital and is frightened by what he sees.
The purple lady
The purple lady is a nurse on the epilepsy floor at NYU. She's a black Jamaican woman, and Susannah at times wonders if she's Sybil, her childhood nanny. She factors into Susannah's hallucinations, and Susannah reunites with her when she returns to visit after her recovery.
Though Sybil never actually appears in the memoir, Susannah remembers and mentions her at several points. Sybil was Susannah's childhood nanny. She was Jamaican, and Susannah often wonders if the purple lady, a nurse who cares for Susannah in the hospital, is Sybil.
Rachael and Bridget
Stephen's sisters. They are shocked at Susannah's condition when she comes to visit them with Stephen, which shows Susannah how far she has to go in her recovery.
Dr. Bertisch
A doctor who performs tests on Susannah and suggests cognitive rehabilitation therapy to address Susannah's depression when she's having trouble communicating.