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The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness
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The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  155 ratings  ·  62 reviews
From "one of America's most courageous young journalists" (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.

For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published November 5th 2019 by Grand Central Publishing
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Erin Mcleod Hi: I am just starting this book, but near the beginning she makes it clear that modern psychiatry has evolved to the point where it is understood…moreHi: I am just starting this book, but near the beginning she makes it clear that modern psychiatry has evolved to the point where it is understood that all mental illnesses have an underlying neurochemical basis or component. Hers turned out to be physical, i.e. an inflammation of the brain, which she wrote about in another book, "Brain On Fire." But before the inflammation was discovered, she was misdiagnosed as having mental illness, so spent time in treatment for this, which led to this book.(less)

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Jul 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
A writer friend always rates her own books. She explained that if she doesn’t love her own book enough to give it five stars, how can she expect anyone else to do the same? I like this mentality so here I go!
Julie Ehlers
Sep 02, 2019 rated it liked it
Back in the early 1970s, Dr. David Rosenhan published the results of a study wherein he and several other people (so-called “pseudopatients”), none of whom had ever had mental health issues, attempted to get admitted to psychiatric hospitals by showing up and claiming they heard a voice in their head saying “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” All of them got admitted on this basis, most of them receiving a preliminary diagnosis of schizophrenia. Once admitted, they behaved like their normal selves, b ...more
Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader
Oct 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
Have read Susannah Cahalan’s deeply personal memoir, Brain on Fire? She has followed-up that best-selling book with The Great Pretender, which exposes the suspenseful mystery behind an experiment that shaped modern medicine and mental health as we know it today.

David Rosenhan and his brave colleagues entered asylums undercover in order to come out diagnosed out the yin-yang, but better able to expose the atrocities and systemic problems in mental health treatment at the time. On top of that, Ca
Book of the Month
Why I love it
by Maris Kreizman

Susannah Cahalan was not okay. Over the course of a month she went from being a fully functioning young reporter to suffering from psychosis and hallucinations, a step away from being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. In her devastating 2012 memoir, Brain On Fire, Cahalan details how a neurological disease not only caused her body to attack her brain, but also caused her to question her own sanity.

Susannah is fully recovered now, but
Nenia ☠️ Hecka Wicked ☠️ Campbell

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I was so excited to read this book because I loved her first book, BRAIN ON FIRE, which was her own journalism-style memoir chronicling her experience with autoimmune encephalitis that manifested itself with symptoms similar to schizophrenia. Had she been misdiagnosed, she could have ended up with permanent brain damage-- or dead. Given that close call, it's understandable that the author might have some skepticism about psychology. A lot of people do, and like a lot of sciences
Judy Lesley
Sep 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Susannah Cahalan and her family didn't want to accept her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder even though her symptoms easily fit. Instead they continued to search for what was happening to her, what was causing the symptoms she was living with. Finally she was diagnosed with the medical condition of autoimmune encephalitis, received treatment and recovered. Coming that close to such a huge misdiagnosis caused her to wonder how doctors in the field of psychiatry could tell which patient was sa ...more
Oct 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The Great Pretender, by Susannah Cahalan, is one of the most extraordinary, best written works of nonfiction I think I’ve ever read. I have so much to say about it that I’m honestly not sure where to begin! This book takes on our existential fear of mental illness, our cultural dread of asylums, and the possibly unsolvable problem of where mental illnesses come from and how to cure them. Cahalan uses all her skills as a journalist to dig deep into a contentious scholarly and societal argument about the th ...more
Sep 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: mental-health, memoir
Author Susannah Cahalan was diagnosed with schizophrenia -- except she had autoimmune encephalitis. Like many, including myself, with autoimmune diseases, she was presumed to have a severe mental illness. Luckily, during her hospitalization a different doctor ran a different test and found out the truth.

In the mean while, Cahalan was subjected to the kind of treatment that far too many people receive in mental health environments: "Take the meds and be cooperative." When she was suff
Aug 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
*I received a free ARC from the publisher at BookCon*

As a school psychologist who sees rampant misdiagnoses of mental health conditions and autism I found this book to be such an interesting read. I was familiar with some of the history she covers but I had never heard of this study. The book is written in such a way that you share in her journey from respect for the researcher to skepticism of the results to disappointment. Studies like this and researchers like Rosenhan do so much
Sep 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I found this a very interesting read, this study led to some major shifts in how mental illness was thought about, diagnosed and treated and so it’s important that the study be real and accurate. This is a well written and well put together account of what happened. If you are interested in psychiatry, then I would encourage you to take the time to read this book.
Carla (Carla's Book Bits)
Oct 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
From Susannah Cahalan, (author of the eye-opening memoir Brain on Fire), The Great Pretender seeks to shed light again on the mental health world. This one focuses on a (pretty infamous) study done in the 70's; where 7 perfectly healthy people get themselves committed to various mental hospitals, claiming to have serious mental illnesses. The point of the experiment was to see how doctors diagnosed mental illness & the way that the industry perceives patients with mental illness.

I mean, I don
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An engrossing work of investigative journalism with developments that read as page-turning fiction. At the heart of the story is a mystery with major implications on our modern day mental health system. Was shocked and awed by the story and the larger picture Susannah paints with her prose.
Aug 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating look into a published study of psychiatric facilities that influenced their later shuttering and the mental health crisis that resulted. As well as an in-depth look into the history of psychiatry.
Jul 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: the-mind, con, disease, lowr
I read an arc of this. A really interesting delve into how we diagnose and treat mental illness, told against the backdrop of a potentially fraudulent landmark study that started a revolution in psychiatry.
Oct 27, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: giveaways
The Great Pretender touched on the issue of psychiatric institutions, specifically in the United States. In the early 1970's, Dr. Rosenhan was in charge of a study that involved 8 people getting themselves admitted into different psychiatric hospitals around the country. The participants did not have any history of mental health issues and were instead 'undercover' to determine how professionals diagnose patients and treat them during their hospitalization. During the intake interview the partic ...more
Peter Tillman
Nature's review:
Excerpts: Author "Cahalan quotes a former colleague of Rosenhan’s, who notes that he was a good networker, an excellent lecturer and a generally charismatic character. “But some people in the department called him a bullshitter,” Kenneth Gergen says. And through her deeply researched study, Cahalan seems inclined to agree with them. She discovered that the man whom she had initially admired, and who had done so much to change how mental illness was perceived, was not all that
Nov 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I loved Cahalan’s first book “Brain on Fire” and I enjoyed “The Great Pretender” just as much! Both books discuss important concepts and controversies within the psychiatric/psychological community, including misdiagnosis and the differential treatment of individuals based simply on the label of mental illness. The Rosenhan study is one that fascinated me as an undergraduate student in psychology and I actually learned a lot from this book that I didn’t know. I think the author is a fantastic wr ...more
Aug 01, 2019 added it
Shelves: nonfiction
I’m a big fan of Susannah Cahalan’s first book Brain on Fire, and was super excited to learn that she had another work of nonfiction coming out later in 2019. The Great Pretender is about a group of people who went undercover in the 1970s as patients in America’s asylums to see what the mental health system was like from the inside. Cahalan tells the story of this experiment and its impact on treatment of mental illness, and also reflects on its significance and the way we remember it now. —Eliz ...more
Aug 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-expo-2019
I received an uncorrected proof of this book at Book Expo. This book is a must read for anyone with an interest in psychology or psychiatry. It is part history of the field, part detective story, and part rallying cry for hope and change. I was unable to put this book down and finished it in less than 24 hours. I will be highly recommending this book to everyone I know.
Oct 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Explosive. Review to follow soon.
Su Philips
Aug 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I have been waiting for Cahalan's next book from the moment I put down "Brain on Fire". I was hoping that her passion for the topic would not leave me hanging to too long. She does not disappoint in this gripping account of psychiatry. While healthcare is often a topic of debate, the historical inadequacies of the mental health system are rarely talked about. Her book is interesting and informative. A call to action to evaluate how you look at the "mentally ill".
Sep 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley-books
4.5 stars

The author's prior book dealt with her own journey into mental illness due to a neurological condition. This delves deeper into the field of psychology and psychiatry, studying the infamous study done by Dr. David Rosenhan that was influential in dismantling the asylum system. This book definitely started out as one thing and morphed into something much greater and more important. Cahalan deftly establishes the problems with the current state of mental health and how we got
Courtney Roach
Aug 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
With " Brain on Fire" Susannah Cahalan bravely shared with the world her bought with madness that left her forever changed. In " The Great Pretender" Cahalan delves into the world of mental illness again, following an early study conducted in the early seventies by Dr. David Rosenhan. The study placed Rosenhan and seven other sane volunteers into an asylum. Their intended purpose: to prove their sanity in order to be set free.

Cahalan's investigative nature lends itself to an insightf
Jul 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wow. Thanks to the publisher for the ARC from ALA. This is an incredible book. I highly recommend it. More in-depth review to come, but definitely read Brain on Fire and then read this book when it comes out in November!
Travis Sherman
Aug 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I read through the first half of Cahalan's book with a bit of detachment. Her presenting story about her own misdiagnosis of schizophrenia (she had suffered a type of encephalitis which mimicked all the symptoms) made for very interesting reading, and segued naturally into her research on David Rosenhan's vital study, On Being Sane in Insane Places, a nine page article published in Science, January 1973, which helped to revolutionize thinking about the abuses of psychiatric hospitals. She recapp ...more
Diane Hernandez
Nov 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley
The author was initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. Instead, she had autoimmune encephalitis, an organic brain disorder often called The Great Pretender for its ability to mimic the signs of psychiatric disease. Even though she was labeled as a mental patient for only a week, wondering what would have happened if the initial diagnosis wasn’t overturned compels her to investigate the US mental health care system. In fact, she finds someone who spent years in the mental health system before be ...more
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
In "The Great Pretender," Susannah Cahalan gives us a brief overview of how the mentally ill have been treated throughout the centuries. This does not make for pleasant reading. Among the remedies in vogue at one time or another were beating people to chase out their demons; placing them in ice baths; restraining or caging them in confined spaces for long periods of time; performing lobotomies that sometimes obliterated their personalities; and dosing them with drugs that caused them to drool, s ...more
Claire Taylor
Oct 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Wow, this was a really eye-opening look at the history of how we deal with people struggling with mental illness in this country. I read Cahalan's previous book, Brain on Fire, and really loved the description of her progression from how she wrote that book into this one. In short, she came to the realization that people (including doctors, nurses, etc) treated her differently once she was diagnosed with auto-immune disease vs. thinking she likely had developed a mental illness. Why? Isn't menta ...more
Nov 06, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved Brain on Fire, and most of the first third or so of this book was an interesting study in how several "normals" or pseudopatients committed themselves into a modern-day mental hospital and found they couldn't easily get out. It's an indictment of the whole psychiatric profession. Most of the subjects came in saying they repeatedly heard the words "thud," "hollow," and "empty," and almost all of them were diagnosed as schizophrenics upon their intake interviews. That to me was fascinating ...more
Rachel Quinn
Nov 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
My Rating: 2/5 stars

Let me start by saying I typically tend to enjoy an non-fiction reads. I love learning and the plot of this book was so interesting to me. I mean it claims to be the real story of eight people who went undercover as psych patients into asylums in the 1970s. It sounds so exciting and enlighting. Well the most exciting part was the summary on the back cover.

The writing style of this book is awful. It’s like a drunk
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Book of The Month: The Great Pretender 2 12 Nov 01, 2019 04:57AM  
Susannah Cahalan is the New York Times bestselling author of "Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness," a memoir about her struggle with a rare autoimmune disease of the brain. She writes for the New York Post. Her work has also been featured in the New York Times, Scientific American Magazine, Glamour, Psychology Today, and others.