Because Susannah doesn't remember her time in the hospital and therefore relies heavily on interviews with her friends and family to write her memoir, the book naturally focuses intensely on the roles Susannah's parents, friends, and extended family members played in her diagnosis and recovery. She positions the love and care her parents showed her as being the sole reason she even survived her illness. Though Stephen and Susannah's parents support her because they absolutely and unconditionally love her, her psychotic symptoms don't always make loving her easy—and in the case of her dad, during her illness Susannah firmly expresses a desire to not see him at all or receive any kind of support from him. With this, Brain on Fire explores how love functions in families during terrifying circumstances, especially when showing love to someone else means going against their wishes or doing things for their own good.
When Susannah introduces her parents, it's evident that her relationships with both her mom and dad are strong and caring, though she admits that before she became ill she was much closer to her mom than her dad. Her romantic relationship with Stephen, though only months old, is described as similarly loving and positive. However, all three relationships are tested when Susannah begins experiencing psychotic symptoms that make her cruel and paranoid. She accuses her mom of hiring paid actors to humiliate her and “teach her a lesson,” decides she needs to break up with Stephen, and hallucinates that Dad murdered his wife, Giselle. The night of that hallucination Susannah also admits that she said terrible things to her father that made him cry, though she doesn't remember doing so and he refuses to share what she said. All of Susannah's delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia about her family make her exceptionally difficult to be around and care for, even though care is exactly what she needs. Fortunately for Susannah, her family's love for her and their tenacity in pursuing care despite her insistence on returning alone to her apartment is what saves her from life in a mental institution or an early death, consequences she may have suffered had her family taken her at her word.
Despite the fact that Susannah believes her dad to be a violent murderer, he persists in caring for Susannah in a way that doesn't trigger outbursts but still helps her. When the nursing staff implies that Susannah's escape attempts will force them to move her to a psychiatric ward, he decides to spend his days waiting outside her room at the hospital. He notices that when someone is there, even if Susannah doesn't want him there, the nurses take better care of her. Similarly, during her recovery, Susannah also describes how she resented the fact that her mom had to dole out Susannah's complicated medications six times per day. Though this is a job that her mother takes on out of love for her daughter as much as out of necessity, Susannah resents the fact that her mom must treat her like a child and hound her to take her very necessary medications. Susannah also admits that she (wrongfully) resented her mother for not spending more time with her in the hospital, and this resentment coupled with her frustration at being treated like a child causes Susannah to be purposefully cruel and distant to her mother. Though Susannah understands that she needs her mom's love and help to live (and in her narration recognizes that her dad's vigil outside her hospital room saved her from a psychiatric ward), she desperately longs to be independent and actively resists her mom's love and care in retaliation.
When Mom and Dad persist in caring for Susannah in spite of her rejection and cruelty, the very existence of the memoir itself stands as an example of the positive outcomes that can arise out of this kind of enduring care. Though Susannah takes great pains to credit the skilled doctors at NYU, she reminds the reader again and again that she never would've gotten there without her parents to advocate for her when she couldn't. In this way, the book insists that showing love to others in the form of advocating for their health and care is one of the most important things a person can do, and can absolutely save lives.
Love and Family ThemeTracker
Love and Family Quotes in Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Even during this time when I hardly recognize myself, there are still shadows of the real Susannah, a person who cares what her family and friends think, who doesn't want to cause them pain.
Though my behavior was worsening day by day, it was still difficult for her to reconcile the old image that she had of her daughter as trustworthy, hard working, and independent with the new, unpredictable, and dangerous one.
"Her EEG was completely normal," Bailey protested, looking through my file. "MRI normal, exam normal, blood work normal. It's all normal."
"Well, she's not normal," my mom snapped as I sat there, quiet and polite with my hands folded in my lap. She and Allen had made a pact that they would not leave Dr. Bailey's office without getting me admitted to a hospital.
Though it had been eight years since their divorce, it was still hard for them to be in the same room with each other, and this shared journal allowed them to maintain common ground in the shared fight for my life.
I had asked him many times why he stayed, and he always said the same thing: "Because I love you, and I wanted to, and I knew you were in there." No matter how damaged I had been, he had loved me enough to still see me somewhere inside.
In many ways, during that recovery period at my mother's home, I associated the pills—and the fights they engendered—with her. In a practical sense, I needed her to portion out the pills because it was far too complicated a task for me at the time. In a more emotional sense, though, I began to feel that she, like the pills, embodied my contemptible dependence.
We didn't mean to exclude others. My dad and I had gone off to war, fought in the trenches, and against all odds had come out of it alive and intact. There are few other experiences that can bring two people closer together than staring death in the face.
It was one thing to live at my parents' house for a few months, knowing that I had my own place just a train ride away. Now my only home was with my mom; it was like a complete return to childhood.