In the new Netflix movie Brain on Fire, a young journalist suffers suddenly from a rare illness that affects her brain. It happens right after the the woman, Susannah Cahalan (Chloë Grace Moretz), starts a great new job at the New York Post when she's in her early 20s. As shocking as the movie is, Susannah in Brain on Fire is a real person, and the true story is just as terrifying as what's depicted in the Netflix flick.
Part of what makes Brain on Fire so frightening is the fact that, in the movie, none of the doctors that Susannah sees can figure out what is actually wrong with her. Just as the movie portrays, one doctor alone finally figured out the cause of Susannah's symptoms back in 2009, which included paranoia, hallucinations, seizures and memory loss. The Guardian reports that the real-life doctor who diagnosed Susannah is named Dr Souhel Najjar, and he discovered that the right side of Susannah's brain had become inflamed, which occurred because of an auto-immune disease called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. As the real Cahalan told The Guardian, "He turned to my parents and said, 'Her brain is on fire… I'm going to do everything I can for you.'"
The real Susannah wrote a book about the horrifying experience with her mystery diagnoses, called Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, which was published in 2012. In that book, she recounted her feelings about the terrifyingly uncertain time in her life. An excerpt from the book, published by Chatelaine reads, "I suddenly felt in control of every part of my life. That buoyant happiness had returned. But even then I recognized it was a perilous happiness. I feared that if I didn’t express it and appreciate it, the emotion would blaze and burn away as quickly as it came."
While the Netflix movie effectively captures the confusing spurts of jubilance followed by dramatic self-loathing, Susannah's book makes the whole story even more terrifying as it becomes clear that the author really did experience all of this. It's almost too scary to read, but Susannah has provided sufficient evidence as to why you shouldn't walk around every day fearing anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. In an interview with Oprah.com, Cahalan said, "I was only the 217th person in the world to be treated for the disease."
The rare condition is sadly often even more severe than it was for Susannah. In the same interview for Oprah.com, she said, "Many people who get it never recover — and about 13 percent of adults who do recover eventually relapse. So now if I'm sitting in the subway and the lights seem brighter, I'll think, 'Am I seeing things?' Or if I'm feeling moody, I'll worry, 'Could I be losing my mind again?'"
More recently Susannah wrote an essay for the New York Post about yet another strange and uncommon experience: what it felt like to watch her personal horror story play out in the movie that's now on Netflix. "As dramatic as it was to watch these scenes unfold on camera, I hardly remembered the real thing," she wrote.
The real Susannah still writes for the New York Post, the setting where the film's character experiences some of her first noticeable cognitive changes. As Susannah wrote in her essay for the Post, she ended up marrying the boyfriend who's portrayed in the Netflix movie by Thomas Mann. Susannah and Stephen wed in 2015, the same year that she visited the set of the movie Brain on Fire. It's a wild and often heartbreaking story, but one that, as Susannah wrote in the Post, could help save someone's life.