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

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3.63  ·  Rating details ·  8,190 ratings  ·  1,126 reviews
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, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people -- sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society -- went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychi ...more
Hardcover, 382 pages
Published November 5th 2019 by Grand Central Publishing
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Francesca Pohlman Not at all. She writes to seek help for both types of disorders, stating it is unfair to ignore either as if one type were someone’s fault. Her goal i…moreNot at all. She writes to seek help for both types of disorders, stating it is unfair to ignore either as if one type were someone’s fault. Her goal is to raise awareness and treat both types with equal care and compassion, completely the opposite of causing demonizing of any type of mental illness. (less)

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Susannah
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
Nenia ✨ I yeet my books back and forth ✨ 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 lo
...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
...more
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 what would have happened
...more
Trevor
Dec 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is the year where I have gotten to learn that so many of the social psychology experiments I’d always assumed to have been completely above board are actually anything but. The Milgram, the Stanford prison, those experiments on the effect of plate size on how much you eat, and even the great marshmallow of delayed gratification – the real story behind each of these being somewhat different from the marketing hype. And learning that has proven to be deeply disturbing, because people have mad ...more
D
Nov 15, 2019 rated it did not like it
Very disappointing. This book is rather poorly written and its approach is exceedingly scattered. In my opinion, the author is not really qualified by either education or experience to write about the topics discussed. The actual purpose of the work remains elusive to the reader. Cannot recommend either the purchase or taking the time to read this.
Jenna Bookish
Dec 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you’re going into this book expecting an in-depth rehashing of the Rosenhan experiment and its conclusions, you may be disappointed. I hold a BA in psychology, so I was already somewhat familiar with this study going into the book. While I did get some new information from The Great Pretender, it was not nearly as much as I’d hoped. Part of the reason for this is that the focus of the book is not super specific. The synopsis from the publisher gave me an impression of a very different book th ...more
Woman Reading
2.5 Stars - rambling and poor organization mitigated the impact of her research findings
If sanity and insanity exist ... how shall we know them?
- David Rosenhan
These questions not only began Rosenhan's seminal study, they shaped the bulk of Cahalan's The Great Pretender. Rosenhan was a Stanford professor of psychology and law when he published "On Being Sane in Insane Places" (OBSIP) in 1973 in Science. He described how eight healthy adults presented themselves as having auditory halluc
...more
Sierra Smith
Dec 04, 2019 rated it it was ok
I love non-fiction. I love psychology. I thought I was going to love this book. I was wrong.

I hate that I found this book so very disappointing. The author states the book is about Rosenhan and his pseudopatient study which I was excited to learn more about after it was mentioned briefly during my undergrad degree. Maybe 1 1/2 chapters is about Rosenhan’s experience in a psychiatric hospital along with a few experiences mentioned by the other pseudopatients. This book is mostly a history of psyc
...more
Krystin Rachel
Book Blog | Bookstagram

Opening Thesis: Everyone needs drugs
Main Diagnosis: SCHIZOPHRENIA
Plot Researchy-ness: Up to your eyeballs in straight FACTS

Before you go into reading this book, you must first understand the true premise. It is NOT a history of psychiatry and psychiatric hospitals, though those things are discussed to fully understand what Dr. David Rosenhan was doing. But this book is almost totally about Dr. David Rosenhan and his study from the 1970s that looked to expose how psychiatry
...more
Ashley
When I read Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan's memoir about her experience with psychosis, I became a little obsessed with it. (The Netflix adaptation was disappointing, as the clever hook in the book was her investigating her own illness from an outside perspective, something she could do as she lost most of her memory from when she was sick. The film just follows it straight. But that's a digression.) Brain on Fire is an extremely readable memoir about a very scary and rare thing that happened ...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 aunt or a wild college
...more
britt_brooke
Dec 11, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
Cahalan questions the validity of David Rosenhan’s undercover psychiatric study. I’m skeptical of this book’s purpose. It just seems like a platform to further shout her disdain for psychiatry. Perhaps this could’ve been a worthwhile article, but as a book, it lacks the sagacity of Brain on Fire.
Mariah Roze
Sep 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
I loved Susannah Cahalan's first book: Brain on Fire, so I had to read her second book when it came out.

This book taught me so much about mental health, psychology and its developments and discoveries over the years and I learned A LOT about the lack of basis for diagnosing people.


"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, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Ro
...more
Robert Sheard
Feb 06, 2020 rated it liked it
I'm having a difficult time deciding how I feel about this one. First of all, the promotional text on the front cover is somewhat misleading and doesn't give me warm fuzzies about the actual conclusions of the book. But without telling you why (spoilers), this book is all about undercutting what you know regarding the field of psychiatry. In some ways, I think it may have been a better long-form article than an entire book, and the digressions to flesh out the history were the parts where my int ...more
Ashley Mullins
Nov 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
While this was an interesting book, it is a dnf for me. The research is there and I understand the point of the book, however, it seems like a book written only to support her lack of belief in the mental health industry while ignoring all the beneficial and essential treatments available today.
Janelle Janson
Nov 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019, nonfiction
Fascinating! Review to come.
Diane S ☔
Jun 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nfr-2020
Thought soon.
Leah Rachel von Essen
May 27, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
In The Great Pretender, Susannah Cahalan wishes to write about mental illness and the ways that the system of psychiatry is broken. Her starting point was her own experience, when a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia almost kept doctors from finding her rare brain condition.

This book had a lot of potential to describe the true failings of past and modern psychiatry through the lens of Rosenhan’s famous study where several healthy people had themselves committed to mental institutions to see how they
...more
Book Lovers Pizza
Oct 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Full review on my blog: https://bookloverspizza.com/book-revi...

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. thin
...more
Morgan
Jun 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It would not be remiss to call this book an exposé.

A fascinating and in-depth exploration into David Rosenhan’s ground-breaking experiment published in 1973 "On Being Sane in Insane Places".

The experiment involved 7 (or 8?) pseudopatients (including Rosenhan himself) having themselves admitted into mental institutions under false pretenses. Rosenthan’s paper presented some damming results for the institutions and psychiatry in general.

The publication of this ‘experiment’ shook the psychiatric
...more
Chloe Smith
Dec 12, 2019 rated it it was ok
While reading this book, I felt that the author after her (terribly distressing) experiences chronicled in Brain on Fire, developed a personal vendetta against psychiatry that colored her re-telling of the Rosenhan study.

She lambasted psychiatrists who have spent decades studying their discipline and cast doubts on the fact that psychiatry is directly related to the science of the brain (which it like.. totally is). Don't get me wrong, she also would mention very important topics that merit mor
...more
Nadine
Nov 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Great Pretender is one of those nonfiction novels that is not for everyone. It’s information heavy and quite dry at times, but full of interesting and thought provoking ideas and concerns about the field of psychology and psychiatry.

The Great Pretender follows the author Cahalan as she dives deep into the 1973 ground breaking study about the treatment of patients at asylums. Cahalan sets out to discover the truth behind the study and interview its participants.

As mentioned previously, The
...more
vanessa
My main issue with this book is how disjointed it feels. It wants to be a narrative about David Rosenhan and his 1973 pseudo-patient experiment. However, it does not deliver a cohesive detailing or explanation of the study. Cahalan attempts to track down the people who took part in the experiment, she enumerates all of the valid criticisms of Rosehan's study, and she tells us random tidbits about the history of psychiatry.
The author often discusses a number of points, but then will meander to o
...more
SARA ABUDAHAB
Feb 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
I'm having a hard time deciding if this book deserves 4 or 5 stars. I have always loved Susannah's enthusiasm and writing style and I REALLY enjoyed this book, but then at some parts, I felt that she was jumping between ideas; she would start with the history of a professor or a psychologist and before getting into the point of why she brought them up she would go into several rabbit trails. If anything it reminded me with my conversations with my Ph.D. supervisor where 99% of the time we go int ...more
Jessica Jeffers
Mar 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This would have been five stars if Cahalan had sunken her teeth into the meat of her story before the last 90-100 pages. The first half of the book gets bogged down by extensive histories of psychiatry as a science and as a practice, as well as the challenges of accurately diagnosing psychiatric conditions. This information is important, but I can imagine many readers growing bored before they get to the point where the story begins to grow truly interesting.

Trust me, once you get to chapter 19
...more
Laci Long || Book Pairings
Nov 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
When I saw Susannah Cahalan had a new book coming out, I knew I needed to read it. I read Brain on Fire when I was going through my own neurological issues and it really hit me in the feels and has stuck with me. The Great Pretender does make references to Susannah’s experiences in Brain on Fire, so if you are interested in reading both I’d recommend reading Brain on Fire first.

Alright, back to The Great Pretender. This book explores the misdiagnosis of mental illness and the differential treat
...more
Tess Taylor
2- This really kills me, because as a psychology grad student and a big fan of Cahalan's Brain on Fire, I was really hoping to love The Great Pretender. Unfortunately, the main idea that this book occupies itself with never comes to fruition, which makes it feel unsatisfying and half baked. Reading this book felt like Cahalan was trying to put a puzzle together with pieces from 5 different puzzles. The Great Pretender probably would have been better as a more condensed piece of writing, like a V ...more
Sharon
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.
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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. ...more

Articles featuring this book

There's something great about a paperback book: They're perfect book club choices, you can throw them in your bag and go, and they've been out in...
62 likes · 19 comments
“But once you’ve come face-to-face with real madness and returned, once you’ve found yourself to be a bridge between the two worlds, you can never turn your back again.” 5 likes
“Psychiatric epidemiologists are also finding that people born in winter months—during times of heightened flu and viral infections—may be more likely to develop serious mental illness (though people with more severe forms of the illnesses are more likely to be born in the summer months, so who knows).” 3 likes
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