The Great Pretender
The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan
Pub Date 05 Nov 2019
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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?
A Literary Hub Most Anticipated Books of 2019 Pick
"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."
"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
"Susannah Cahalan has written a wonderful book that reflects years of persistent and remarkable historical detective work. 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. Cahalan herself has experienced this system as both a patient and a reporter, and her background informs every fascinating page of this dogged investigative odyssey. 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.
PRAISE FOR BRAIN ON FIRE
"The bizarre and confounding illness that beset the 24-year-old New York Post reporter in early 2009 so ravaged her mentally and physically that she became unrecognizable to coworkers, family, friends, and-most devastatingly-herself... She dedicates this miracle of a book to 'those without a diagnosis'... [An] unforgettable memoir." —Elle
"This fascinating memoir by a young New York Post reporter...describes how she crossed the line between sanity and insanity...Cahalan expertly weaves together her own story and relevant scientific information...compelling."
—Booklist (starred review)
"Captivating...Cahalan's prose carries a sharp, unsparing tabloid punch in the tradition of Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin."
—New York Times Book Review