Read this book. You won’t regret it. ‘Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness’


Having learned of Richard Armitage’s latest film project, rather late last night I decided to purchase (via my Nook) Susannah Calahan’s harrowing account of her battle with a mysterious illness that threatened her sanity and her life. I fully intended to read a couple of chapters at most. So much for good intentions.

I stayed up until close to dawn with only 40 or so pages (including the afterword) left to go. I finished reading it this morning. CJw1a8IUYAEmFgr

Photo tweeted by Richard Armitage as he headed back to Canada for his latest film project, based on Susannah Calahan’s best seller. Looks as if he’s started his note taking on his character, Tom Calahan, Susannah’s father.


There are best sellers that I don’t think deserve to be best sellers. Thank heavens this non-fiction account is not in that category.   Susannah has to put all her well-honed journalistic skills to use to write this memoir. Her “month of madness” is all an incredibly muddled blur for the reporter, a painful period she seeks to reconstruct by interviewing medical personnel, co-workers, family members, her boyfriend and others. She reads their journal entries and watches the videotapes shot while she is in the hospital.

What she sees is this pasty-faced, underfed creature prone to seizures and hallucinations, riddled with paranoia, struggling at times to form her words. Someone who can be violent and combative, forced to wear restraints, or silent and rigidly staring into space.

That Susannah is barely recognizable as the bright, outgoing, ambitious and fiercely independent young New York Post reporter everybody knows.

The book recounts her struggle to discover what is causing her physical and mental decline as she tries to make her way back to some semblance of normality and sanity. Early on, one doctor tells her to quit drinking and going out and get more sleep and she will be just fine. Another puts her on antipsychotics for schizophrenia. Susannah is doggedly determined she is bi-polar. Physicians seemingly give up on her when a battery of medical tests and examinations keep ruling out various diseases and conditions.

However, her boyfriend Stephen and her family do not give up. The moral support they give her throughout her ordeal  is inspiring and heartbreaking all at the same time.

Richard will be playing the role of Tom Calahan, father of Susannah. Tom and Susannah’s mother are divorced. Both remarried, they make a point of avoiding one another whenever possible (it was clearly not an amicable split).  Yet when this crisis arises, they manage to put aside their mutual animosity to focus on their daughter and her needs. And she has never needed them more as her inflamed brain continues to attack her body.

An emotionally detached man whose relationship with his own father was strained, Tom and Susannah have never been particularly close. Behind that wall of reserve, however, beats a fiercely loyal, protective and caring heart. There is no doubt he loves his child. If he has to curse out a group of medical students so Susannah can get a little peace and quiet, then so be it. He gives her positive words to repeat like mantras. Sometimes, he cries.
I have absolutely no doubt Richard will bring all the shading, all the complexity to this role we could desire and more. He makes a great onscreen dad (think of Porter and Lexi in Strike Back, Peter Macduff in Shakespeare Retold or Gary in Into the Storm, not to mention Thorin serving as a father figure to his nephews in the TH trilogy).  Plenty of opportunity to share fatherly angst and protectiveness and love here.





The fact that Susannah was able to write this book lets you know there is ultimately a happy ending for her.  By sharing her story of battling what turned out to be auto-immune encephalitis, first via an article for the Post and later in her book, she has helped others with the same condition ultimately get the right diagnosis and treatment. She has given people true hope, and that is always a good thing to give.

(Above is a link to learn more about the condition)

It took courage to write her story.  Courage to go back and retrace the steps of her “month of madness” and read those words, see those images, to hear how much she had frightened and dismayed those who loved her, to discover just how sick she truly was.



Calahan speaking to an audience at Yale about the early signs something was amiss. On the screen to her left are images of her in her hospital bed.

It will be a challenging role for any actress. At only 18, Chloe Grace Moretz is actually several years younger than Calahan was when she fell ill (24), yet she has a certain maturity for her age that will bode well for her portrayal.  I’ve read interviews with her and was impressed with her maturity and level-headedness.

I first saw Chloe in “Let Me In,” the English language version of the Swedish horror thriller “Let the Right Ones In” and she made a strong impression on me. She was also delightful, alternating between tough crime fighter and vulnerable kid in the irreverent “Kick-Ass” and has appeared in a diverse collection of films, from the remake of “Carrie” to YA favorite “If I Stay.”  It doesn’t hurt that she also bears a good resemblance to the author. Photos of both Calahan and Moretz.

Susannah Cahalan recently returned to her beat at the New York Post after recovering from autoimmune encephahalitis.  Photo by Zandy Mangold

Susannah Cahalan recently returned to her beat at the New York Post after recovering from autoimmune encephahalitis. Photo by Zandy Mangold

Chloe Grace Moretz 5a


The fact that the gifted actress Charlize Theron is a producer for the film is another plus for me.

I will be eager to learn more about the upcoming film, and eager to hear your own thoughts as you read Calahan’s memoir. A highly recommended read, and not just for Richard Armitage fans.  The book is available for Nook and Kindle and there is an audio edition from as well as in traditional book form.

Here’s a link to the author’s official website

11 responses »

    • You are welcome! 😀 Carrie-Anne might be Sussanah’s mom or her stepmom, Giselle (for some reason I can’t remember her mom’s name–it will hit me around 2 a.m. no doubt!). Speaking of Carrie-Anne, I remember her performance in “Memento” and that film is actually mentioned in this book, re the protagonist’s memory loss.

      • Also Memento is referenced for Sleepwalker as well I believe, And Carrie Anne Moss is a Vancouver native if I remember correctly. I lived in Vancouver from grade 2 to 11 and absolutely LOVED it there. RA is going to enjoy Vancouver very much. Too bad it’s not ski season for him…but I bet he’ll be checking them out! We used to go wild blueberry picking on the mountains during summer, skiing in the winter. Although it was so mild jeans and a shirt was all that was needed most of the time. I envy his travelling lifestyle!

  1. I read this about a year ago and it gave me some solace . I recommend it for anyone who feels alone in their own brain. We’re really not alone.

    • Thanks for commenting, and welcome, Sonia. I found it a good read on a number of levels–as someone who has been battling FMS/CFS for a couple of decades now and having some understanding of what it feels like for your body to betray you; as a fellow newspaper writer, I could relate to her and also as someone who has been caregiver to family members battling serious health conditions and your desire to protect them and make them all better and the recognition you have to sometimes fight for them and for yourself to get the health care you NEED. Provides great food for thought in several ways.

  2. I wouldn’t hold up very well these days to all the travel he does (alas, because I always did enjoy traveling when my health allowed it) but I know it must be wonderful to visit so many beautiful and interesting places for his various projects, try local cuisine, see the sights.

  3. Thanks for the review, Angie. It’s good to hear from you, as always. I will certainly read the book, probably an old fashioned paper copy from the library. I just wish that these projects of RA’s that he’s been flying all over to film would actually be released to theaters so we could see them.

    Hannibal excepted. I read the book, so I can understand why he would want to interpret this role. A few weeks ago I watched one episode of the show. It was so completely riddled with commercials that I refuse to subject myself to that crap, even to see lovely Mr. Armitage. What I really can’t fathom is why the viewing public permits themselves to be disrespected in this manner. I only watch public TV (excepy for grand slam tennis, when I use the mute button a lot.)

  4. Hey, girl, I am trying to post a little more frequently as time and energy allows. I volunteered myself as the chair for our humane society pet calendar (previous chair is burned out) and told Benny that I might very well decide to NEVER do it again, but I am going to give it the old college try. We don’t have enough willing bodies who also have some degree of computer savvy who will volunteer, and now that the newspaper here is going to publish it, I will be working with my old comrade and friend to put it all together.

    I know how you feel wishing these films would be released— and I would add that somewhere I can see them without having to travel for half-a-day would also be grand! I really am eager to see Urban in particular and now this film. I think it’s a good role and he will be working with another group of talented folks.

    I watch PBS and Turner Classic Movies more than anything, I suppose. No commercials there, either!

  5. Pingback: Servetus on “Brain on Fire” | Me + Richard Armitage

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