March 19, 2019  

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“Brain on Fire” Author Susannah Cahalan, USM Alumna Jasmine Whiteside to Recount Their Battle with Rare Disease at University Forum Sept. 18

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Susannah Cahalan

Two individuals who contracted an uncommon illness  – one, a bestselling author, and the other, a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) alumna now pursuing a Ph.D. – will share their story of recovery and resilience Tuesday, Sept.18 at 6:30 p.m. in Bennett Auditorium at the first University Forum of the fall 2018 semester.

Susannah Cahalan was successfully pursuing her dream of becoming a reporter when suddenly everyday tasks became more difficult. She became increasingly paranoid, and her behavior became erratic. It would take months of misdiagnoses before Dr. Souhel Najjar diagnosed her with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, which caused her body to attack the reasoning and emotional centers of the brain. “Her brain,” Dr. Najjar told Cahalan’s distressed parents, “was on fire.” 

Cahalan recovered and wrote a memoir, Brain on Fire, which was made into a Netflix film. After her Forum address about her experience, Cahalan will be joined onstage by Southern Miss alumna Jasmine Whiteside, who in 2013 was diagnosed with the same disease, and spent six months in a coma. Whiteside is now pursuing a doctorate at Ohio State University. Learn more about Whiteside’s story at

“Cahalan’s resilience - and Jasmine Whiteside’s - is remarkable and inspirational. However, their story is also about science and superstition,” said Dr. Andrew Haley, professor of history and director of University Forum. “All too often, society has labelled ‘madwomen’ as witches, or locked them in asylums.

“Their story reminds us that there is still a lot to be learned about how the mind works,” Haley continued. “When we demand answers from science, and don’t surrender to our superstitions, we can solve the problems that bedevil us.”

Presented by the Southern Miss Honors College, University Forum is free and open to the public. For more information about University Forum, visit or join the discussion online at Facebook (Southern Miss Forum) and Twitter (@USMForum). For questions about the series, contact Dr. Haley at