As a journalist, Susannah possesses a natural talent for storytelling and crafting compelling narratives from truthful events. She prefaces her memoir by making it exceptionally clear that Brain on Fire is as much a memoir as it is a piece of reportage, given that she doesn't remember her month in the hospital and had to piece together what happened as though she were investigating someone else's story. In this way, the memoir explores how personal storytelling works when the narrator doesn't remember their own story, as well as how when memories themselves are compromised, either by emotion or by other means, they stand to compromise the very truth and reliability of a narrative.
Though the first and third parts of the memoir are written mostly from Susannah's memory, the second part is constructed entirely from interviews with family members, doctors, and Stephen, as well as her medical records and videos from the EEG monitoring system. In drawing from these different sources, Susannah's memoir becomes both an attempt to tell her story for a reader and an attempt to recreate a memory of sorts of what happened during her "month of madness." By drawing from objective sources, such as the EEG videos, as well as the more emotional accounts from her family, including her dad's personal journal, Susannah begins to piece together both the emotional and factual landscape of what happened to her. In drawing from personal narratives in particular, however, Susannah admits that the intense emotional roller coaster that most of her friends and family experienced greatly colors their accounts, and sometimes make them unwilling to share information. This makes it abundantly clear that at least in the case of those intimate, first-person sources, the fact that they are emotional means that it might not be possible to take those accounts at face value, given the intensity of the feelings that are embedded in those accounts. Even in the case of the comparatively impartial EEG videos or notes from Susannah's doctors, Susannah begins to understand that it's impossible to separate these encapsulated stories and memories from emotions. When she writes her article for the New York Post about her experience and watches her EEG videos for the first time, Susannah is struck both by the raw emotion she sees in herself in the video, as well as her lived and actually remembered visceral reaction to seeing herself in that state. In this way, she begins to understand that memory itself isn't something static or unchanging. Emotion intrinsically affects how people form memories to begin with and how they experience them later, or even if they experience them later at all.
This idea that emotion is tied to memory carries through when Susannah describes her hallucinations. She vividly remembers her hallucinations, both before and during her hospital stay, even though she doesn't remember much or even anything of what actually happened. She explains that though doctors aren't sure how exactly the brain creates hallucinations, they do know that hallucinations tend to be so vivid and memorable because they're something the brain actively created, rather than a memory formed by the brain taking in information and then flagging it as important. Hallucinations are also often emotional, making them even more memorable. Thus, though Susannah vividly remembers wearing an orange "FLIGHT RISK" wristband and being restrained by the purple lady, the event never happened; it was created entirely in Susannah's brain. Similarly, her coworkers never wrote about her or talked about her on the news, fears that occupied much of her time while she was in the hospital.
These false memories introduce elements into Susannah's story that she herself verifies are untrue, leading readers to doubt her reliability as a narrator. Although she makes a point of distinguishing between events that she knows were hallucinations and the rest of the narrative, she also admits that there are surely moments she will never be able to fully verify. As hard as she tried to tell the truth to the best of her ability, Susannah's account represents only one possible version of events, and one that will continue to change in her mind long after the memoir was published; she mentions that she'll continue to regain memories as she experiences sounds, smells, and sights that trigger memories her brain made, but didn't flag as important. In this way, Susannah offers a positive takeaway that the act of storytelling, whether or not the story itself is wholly factual, is a powerful way to reclaim one's memory and to find meaning in the shifting emotions and experiences of life.
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Memory, and Emotion Quotes in Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
There are times when you feel like the best in the business, and other times when you're certain that you're a complete and total hack and should start looking for an office job. But in the end, the ups and downs even out. So why was everything in such upheaval for me? It had been weeks since I felt comfortable in my own journalist skin, and that frightened me.
"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.
Unlike before, there are now no glimmers of the reliable "I," the Susannah I had been for the previous twenty-four years. Though I had been gradually losing more and more of myself over the past few weeks, the break between my consciousness and my physical body was now finally fully complete. In essence, I was gone.
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.
The raw panic makes me uncomfortable, but the thing that truly unsettles me is the realization that emotions I once felt so profoundly, so viscerally, have now completely vanished. This petrified person is as foreign to me as a stranger, and it's impossible for me to imagine what it must have been like to be her. Without this electronic evidence, I could never have imagined myself capable of such madness and misery.
Perhaps because the diary provides physical evidence of my budding self...I can in essence begin to remember what it was like to be her, unlike the earlier Susannah from those paranoid diary entries before the hospital, who was more like a figment of a shadowy memory, so distant that she might have been a character in a horror movie.
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.
When I worried about being fat forever...I was actually worried about who I was going to be: Will I be as slow, dour, unfunny, and stupid as I now felt for the rest of my life? Will I ever again regain that spark that defines who I am?
Buoyed by this new ability to explain, I began to research the disease in earnest and became obsessed with understanding how our bodies are capable of such underhanded betrayal. I found, to my frustration, that there's more we don't know about the disease than we do know.
"He's talking about my brain," I whispered, although I didn't understand then what these slides portrayed. All I knew was that a very intimate part of myself was on display in front of a hundred strangers. How many people can say that they've allowed others to literally see inside their heads?
Evil. To the untrained eye, anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis can certainly appear malevolent. Afflicted sons and daughters suddenly become possessed, demonic, like creatures out of our most appalling nightmares.
The girl in the video is a reminder about how fragile our hold on sanity and health is and how much we are at the utter whim of our Brutus bodies, which will inevitably, one day, turn on us for good. I am a prisoner, as we all are. And with that realization comes an aching sense of vulnerability.
Psychology professor Dr. Henry Roedigger calls what happened with the FLIGHT RISK band a form of social contagion: if one person remembers incorrectly and shares this with others, it can spread...
Did I harbor this false memory? Was I the one who spread it? I am sure I remember vividly seeing the words FLIGHT RISK on my arm. Or am I?