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The Great Pretender

The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness
Length: 11 hrs and 3 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (52 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A Literary Hub Most Anticipated Books of 2019 Pick

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, 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?

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

©2019 Susannah Cahalan (P)2019 Hachette Audio

Critic Reviews

"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)

"A well-told story fraught with both mystery and real-life aftershocks that set the psychiatric community on its ear." (Kirkus)

"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 best-selling author of Patient H.M.)

"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)

Editor's Pick

What is sanity?
"I loved Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, Brain on Fire, for both its unflinching firsthand portrayal of a young woman’s experience with a mysterious brain condition, as well as its detective-like exploration into her diagnosis. So I’m thrilled to see this brilliant writer tackling the topic of mental health once again in her latest release, The Great Pretender, which focuses on a groundbreaking experiment in which eight healthy individuals voluntarily went undercover into the asylums throughout the US. The outcome is at once a fascinating slice of history, a shocking expose, and an education into the field of psychiatry and mental health treatment—in other words, another captivating combo from Cahalan. I’m thrilled to have the chance to be in this writer’s brain once again."
Sam D., Audible Editor

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Thought provoking

Irresistible, moving unbiased information delivered with unwavering honesty. A must read for psychiatric community, families, caregivers and all touched with the day to day grappling of what we call mental illness.
Highly recommend

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    2 out of 5 stars

Muddy presentation of subject marred by mispronunciations

I’ve never before asked to return a book I’ve purchased, but I will this one.

The author’s position on “mental” versus “physical” illness and health was difficult to discern. At first it appeared that she was arguing for a dichotomy separating mind and brain/body. Her initial dismay at “transfer to psych” reinforces a stigma against which she seems to argue. Hard to follow.

There are many other books by neurologists and psychologists and psychiatrists (as well as lay people) that present more poignant and compelling pictures of the struggle of “mental” versus “physical” illness. See for example anything written by Oliver Sachs; An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison; The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R Saks; Darkness Visible by William Styron; The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon; or The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.

The narration was marred by mispronunciations of words well-known in the professional community. Questioning my own pronunciation and concerned that a colloquial and idiosyncratic accent might have biased my appreciation of the narration, I “googled” several and confirmed my suspicions: the acCENT was often on the wrong syLLAble.

0 of 2 people found this review helpful