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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

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  2,678 ratings  ·  420 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
Hardcover, 400 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…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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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, ...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,
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
Nenia ⚡ Aspiring Evil Overlord ⚡ 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
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 ...more
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.
Janelle | She Reads with Cats
Nov 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, 2019
Fascinating! Review to come.
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
Book Lovers Pizza
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 ...more
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Dec 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
3.75 stars

I absolutely loved Brain on Fire, the earlier release by Cahalan, but this is nothing like that book.

This is the in-depth study of a professor who faked “insanity” to get inside an asylum to see its inner workings. More of his students followed suit, giving him research for an explosive report on the horrible treatment of the mentally-ill.
Or did it????
What starts as deep report of uncovering the notes on this ‘project’ turns into discrepancies and possibly falsified information that
In Susannah Cahalan's first novel, Brain On Fire, she reveals her misdiagnosis, finding the accurate one, and then following up with the proper care towards her recovery. In this second novel, Cahalan deeply explores the mental health care issues in this country, plowing through documents, interviews, and records from 1970's famed Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and his study on the treatment in mental health facilities. But while she travels further down the rabbit hole, she begins to ...more
Book Pairings (Laci Long)
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
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 ...more
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.
Nov 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The Great Pretender is an in-depth exploration of a 1970s study that involved pseudo patients being admitted to mental institutions and the results of their findings, led by a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan. The book looks at the details of this study, its effect on the future of mental health, the history of psychology and psychiatry, and the holes in what Rosenhan revealed to the world.

“Psychiatry at its best is what all medicine needs more of - humanity, art, listening, and
Jan 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Susannah Cahalan has a perspective on psychiatry that is rarely, if ever, heard in the mainstream conversation— she has experienced psychosis herself, endured a critical misdiagnosis, and fully recovered (see Brain on Fire). She “gets it” in a way that most academics without such personal experience don’t, and psychiatry needs to hear from voices like hers. That said, I’m not sure she was the best author for this story. Without giving too much away, The Great Pretenders discusses David Rosenhan’ ...more
Kate ☀️ Olson
Dec 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
A fascinating read for the general consumer (non-medical-professional) about a lot of the history of the mental health profession. Yes it was kind of about debunking a famous study, but not only that and not actually that, and it’s not a narrative style - lots of citations and history. The author has a very personal interest in and perspective on this issue and that shone through. For a pretty academic book, I raced through it.
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
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 ...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 sufficiently
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 damage to
Dec 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Have you ever heard of David Rosenhan’s experiment where he and seven other people went undercover in mental hospitals in order to record what really happened in these places? The premise was that the pseudo-patients, or sane people, could essentially lie their way into a mental hospital simply by pretending to have some sort of symptom of a mental health disorder. The results were alarming with all eight individuals being diagnosed with different disorders and sent away to asylums.

When these
Genevieve Trono
Nov 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Great Pretender was initially intriguing to me as mental health diagnoses and treatment is a topic I am very passionate about and has also been a part of my life personally. Author Susannah Cahalan shares an in-depth look at a study from the 1970s that I had previously never heard of before but still affects the diagnosis process to this day. It was an eye-opening experience to see how mental health has been treated both historically and some practices that still continue today.

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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.
“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.” 1 likes
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