The Great Pretender: Book summary and reviews of The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender

The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness

by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan X
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
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Book Summary

From "one of America's most courageous young journalists" (NPR) and the author of the blockbuster #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Brain on Fire 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, 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 psychiatry's labels. Forced to remain inside until they'd "proven" themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan's watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.

But, as Cahalan's explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Cahalan draws a vivid and critical picture of Rosenhan and the ramifications of his most prominent work. A well-told story fraught with both mystery and real-life aftershocks that set the psychiatric community on its ear." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Fascinating...Cahalan sets a new standard for investigative journalism...Her impeccable inquiry into the shadowy reality of Rosenhan's study makes an urgent case that the psychological and psychiatric fields must recover the public trust that 'Rosenhan helped shatter.'" - Publishers Weekly

"Cahalan researched The Great Pretender over the course of five years, but the pages practically turn themselves. It's absorbing, sometimes sobering, sometimes seriously funny. Cahalan's narration makes the reading great fun, with an urgency occasionally akin to a thriller." - Shelf Awareness

"Breathtaking! Cahalan's brilliant, timely, and important book reshaped my understanding of mental health, psychiatric hospitals, and the history of scientific research. A must-read for anyone who's ever been to therapy, taken a brain-altering drug, or wondered why mental patients were released in droves in the 1980s. And a thrilling, eye-opening read even for those who thought they weren't affected by the psychiatric world." - Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead and Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give

"The Great Pretender is an extraordinary look at the life of a Stanford professor and a famous paper he published in 1973, one that dramatically transformed American psychiatry in ways that still echo today. The book is fast-paced and artfully constructed—an incredible story that constitutes a tribute to Cahalan's powers as both a writer and a sleuth." - Andrew Scull, author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity

"The Great Pretender is a tight, propulsive, true-life detective story which somehow also doubles as a sweeping history of our broken mental health-care system...It is an amazing achievement, and there is no question it will go down as the definitive account of one of the most influential psychology experiments of all time." - Luke Dittrich, New York Times bestselling author of Patient H.M.

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Author Information

Susannah Cahalan

Susannah Cahalan is the award-winning, 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 other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.

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