Is Brain On Fire Based On A True Story? Who Is Susannah Cahalan?

Starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Navid Negahban in the lead roles, Brain On Fire is a heart-wrenching emotional drama film. It revolves around a New York Post columnist, Susannah Cahalan, who is suddenly diagnosed with a mysterious illness. Set in an era where hardly any disease is left unexplored, the psychological drama aims to bring a rare condition to the spotlight. The Gerard Barrett directorial efficiently pulls the strings of its viewers’ hearts and narrates a baffling yet poignant tale. Critical acclaim aside, the film has left a lasting trail and has conquered millions of hearts.

Its gripping storyline and realistic characters have paved the way for questions regarding Brain On Fire being based on a true story to flourish incessantly. If you, too, are wondering whether the film is inspired by true events, dive in! 

Is Brain On Fire Based On A True Story?

Is Brain On Fire Based On A True Story?

In early 2014, Charlize Theron began manifesting the psychological thriller along with A. J. Dix, Beth Kono, Rob Meriless. Lindsay Macadam was added to the production team later. However, the filming was delayed due to the alterations in the cast list. While Dakota Fanning was initially considered for the lead role, Chloë Grace Moretz had to take over due to the former’s jam-packed schedule.

Barrett began overlooking the screenplay in January 2015 and concluded the entire filming process in a couple of months. Brain On Fire premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016 and was later acquired by Netflix. Despite the streaming giant licensing the movie officially, it took two years for it to be made available to the viewers.

Similar to its script, which is indeed based on a true story, the film witnessed intense drama and struggle right from its start. Brain On Fire is based on true events and is inspired by Susannah Cahalan, the New York Post columnist’s real-life story. It portrays Cahalan’s relentless pursuit to have her mysterious illness diagnosed and treated. The film is a tribute to all the 217 people who have had to endure the whiplash of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a disease that left the lives of thousands scattered apart.

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Who Is Susannah Cahalan?

Cahalan is a budding writer in her early twenties who began exhibiting strange behaviour in the early 2010s. Back then, she used to reside with her boyfriend, Stephen and enjoyed a rather normal life. Susannah, a minimalist by nature, had everything she ever desired at her fingertips from a flourishing career to supporting parents. She suddenly falls ill, initially exhibiting symptoms of cold and fatigue. Both, Cahalan and Stephen chalk it off to common flu and move on with their lives.

Over time, Susannah begins displaying strange behaviour and begins hearing strange noises. She becomes sensitive to loud noises and prone to intense emotional outbursts. The author becomes increasingly forgetful and begins hallucinating. Her condition keeps deteriorating and she struggles with seizures and disintegrating cognitive abilities. Eventually, Cahalan decides to seek medical help after enduring yet another convulsion.

Susannah’s First Medical Consultation

Susannah’s doctor advises her to stop her late-night parties and prioritise her health. He chalks Cahalan’s symptoms as a side-effect of her “partying too much, working too hard and not getting enough sleep”. Her mother, Rhona, then takes it upon herself to ensure her daughter isn’t neglecting her mental and physical well-being anymore. Susannah begins avoiding parties and tries to seek solace in her family’s care.

Though things seem promising after the doctor’s initial diagnosis and treatment, Susannah’s condition once again declining. The frequency of her convulsions doubles and her mood swings multiply tenfold. Rhona gets Susannah admitted to another clinic and decides to consult a different doctor, who orders her several tests including an MRI and ECG. This new doctor, who is reportedly a reputed psychiatrist, concludes that Susannah is suffering from schizophrenia.

The Cahalan family then begins preparing themselves for Susannah being admitted to a psychiatric ward. They embark on a quest to find a doctor who could help Susannah battle a possible bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But every other doctor they come across labels Susannah’s emotional outbursts as psychotic tendencies and suggests transferring her to a psychiatric ward.

Who Is Dr. Souhel Najjar?

Susannah spent over a million dollars on having her mysterious disease diagnosed and treated. In the end, all she incurred was a badge and some snide glares. Her condition kept worsening and her senses began slowing down. She kept exhibiting erratic behaviour and at one point accepted that she might be suffering from a mental disorder. However, no treatment helped her weave through these tumultuous times.

The Cahalans then reach out to Dr. Souhel Najjar, who finds Susannah’s erratic behaviour extremely irksome. He then asks Cahalan to draw a clock and upon witnessing her inclination towards jotting down all the numbers on the right side, begins suspecting that the right hemisphere of her brain has been impacted. Najjar had her undergo a brain biopsy and discerned that Susannah had caught a rare illness.

Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is an autoimmune disorder and an umbrella term for a plethora of sub-diseases including memory loss, violent behaviour, seizures and crumbling cognitive abilities. Najjar refers to the illness as “brain on fire” and is among a few doctors who could treat it effectively. 

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Susannah’s Memoir Serves As The Inspiration For Netflix’s Brain On Fire

Since the disease was discovered in 2007, a few years prior to Susannah’s diagnosis, no concrete treatment was available at the time. Even Souhel experimented with medications and therapy sessions and dived headfirst into Cahalan’s case. He tried–and succeeded–in discovering the trigger to Susannah’s immune system and immediately went ahead with abolishing the tumour. Najjar kept a close eye on Susannah for the following months and continued her immunotherapy sessions. Eventually, after almost a year, Souhel’s efforts proved to be fruitful and Susannah was able to get rid of the illness.

She became one of the few people to win the battle against Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Susannah returned to her job to kindle her passion and began conjuring columns for The New York Post once again. However, she didn’t limit herself to writing only columns but began working on jotting down her experience, too. Her senior encouraged her to publish an entire memoir instead of a mere article.

After two years of constant hard work, Cahalan was able to publish her memoir which she entitled “Brain On Fire: My Month Of Madness”, drawing inspiration from Najjar’s reference to the disease. Reportedly, Theron was instantly hooked on Susannah’s memoir and became the one to acquire the rights to Brain On Fire in 2014.

Where Is Susannah Cahalan Now?

Cahalan narrates her journey of battling the illness in her memoir and leaves the readers wondering about her struggle to be diagnosed properly. As the author recalls, she consulted multiple top-notch doctors who failed to untangle the mystery of her illness. It was due to the recent discovery of the condition that no doctor was wholly aware of it and most didn’t try to look beyond schizophrenia. The misdiagnosis lulled Susannah and her family into an endless abyss and left each of them feeling more and more helpless over time.

Barrett’s Brain On Fire captures Susannah’s sentiments and her struggle for survival. The biographical film, which aims to spread awareness of Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, hits the mark spot-on. It has become the reason why thousands of people suffering from autoimmune disorder are rightfully diagnosed and treated properly.

After publishing her memoir, Susannah went ahead with her life, keeping in mind the lessons she learnt and harbouring hope and optimism. Currently, the author is residing in New York and spreading awareness about the disorder that knocked her down a decade ago. Fortunately, she hasn’t been caught by the disease again and is healthy enough. Susannah remains the inspiration for thousands of people who are now free from the torment, disease and labels.

Is Brain On Fire Based On A True Story?–FAQs

1. What Is Brain On Fire Film About?

It is a biographical film centred around The New York Post columnist, Susannah Cahalan, who is left to battle with a rare illness. Brain On Fire chronicles Cahalan’s journey of being misdiagnosed by several doctors and struggling to survive a disorder that wreaked havoc on her sanity.

2. Who Is The Creator Of The Brain Of Fire?

The film is directed by Gerard Barrett and is produced by Charlize Theron and her team.

3. Is Brain On Fire Based On A True Story?

Yes, it is based on a true story.

4. Is Brain On Fire Adapted From A Novel

No, it is not adapted from a novel. Rather, the film derives inspiration from Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, Brain On Fire: My Month Of Madness.

5. Where Is Susannah Cahalan Now?

She is currently residing in New York and is raising awareness about anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

6. Where To Watch Brain On Fire Online?

You can stream the film online on Netflix.

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