Were the countless cases of “demonic possession” that have frightened people through history actually manifestations of a rare autoimmune disease with symptoms ranging from numbness, paranoia, and erratic behavior to hallucinations and catatonia?

This was one of the possibilities raised today during a fascinating Fresh Air interview with Susannah Cahalan, a young New York Post reporter who chronicles her trip to hell and back in her new book Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.

Cahalan told Fresh Air:

I’ve talked to many people who’ve had this disease, and one woman I spoke to actually asked for a priest because she said, ‘The devil is inside of me. I need it out.’ A little girl was grunting — they had a monitor in her room — and she was grunting so unnaturally that her parents looked at each other and said, ‘Is she, is she possessed?’

Eventually, Cahalan was diagnosed by Dr. Souhel Najjar as having Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis and she went on to publish her story in the New York Post (“My mysterious lost month of madness,” October 4, 2009).

Susannah Cahalan speaking in 2013 at TEDxAmsterdamWomen.


And this last segment is from the Today show this morning with Willie Geist. In it, Susannah Cahalan is joined by Bill Gavigan and his daughter Emily. Emily was suffering from the same disorder as Cahalan — but it was initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenia.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan

Susannah Cahalan’s website is SusannahCahalan.com.

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