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

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3.63  ·  Rating details ·  7,157 ratings  ·  982 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
...more
Hardcover, 382 pages
Published November 5th 2019 by Grand Central Publishing
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    The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness
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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)

    Community Reviews

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    Average rating 3.63  · 
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     ·  7,157 ratings  ·  982 reviews


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    Start your review of The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness
    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
    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
    Nenia ✨️ Socially Awkward Trash Panda ✨️ 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
    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
    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
    Janelle Janson
    Nov 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
    Shelves: 2019, nonfiction
    Fascinating! Review to come.
    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.
    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
    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 Dahabović
    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
    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
    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.
    Abi
    Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
    Shelves: non-fiction
    This was SO interesting! I loved Brain on Fire so I had high expectations for this and it went above and beyond! I was enthralled the whole time and found the whole concept of people infiltrating institutions really interesting! I also found the chapter about Rose Kennedy really insightful!
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    2,085 followers
    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.

    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...
    61 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.” 4 likes
    “You have to look backward to see the future.” 3 likes
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