Book Reviews / Food for Thought

Book Review: The Great Pretender

I really enjoyed Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, “Brain On Fire,” about her psychotic break that turned out to be encephalitis, not psychosis – a discovery that saved lives. This brush with madness gives Cahalan a unique perspective for her second book, “The Great Pretender,” which details an experiment in the 70s that has altered the field of psychiatry.

Like Nellie Bly, David Rosenhan recognized serious flaws in the psychiatric hospital system and decided to embark on an undercover mission wherein he committed himself. Unlike, Bly, he approached the issue as a psychologist, not a journalist, and utilized a more scientific approach. Several of his students followed suit, resulting in 12 institutional stays across the country and a wildly popular piece titled “On Being Sane in Insane Places.” Once inside, the pseudopatients dropped any “symptoms” and observed how they were treated and what damning labels they were given.

I nerd out on this kind of stuff so I loved all the background Cahalan offered when it came to the history of psychiatry and the evolution of hospitals over the last century or two. What I didn’t expect was the twist that came about halfway through. While Rosenhan’s scientific approach is what made his study stand out (and what gave it enough credibility to change standard psychology practice), Cahalan starts to realize some of the data may not have been as straightforward as it seemed. This was not the book Cahalan set out to write, but she stumbled upon an even more interesting subject.

4 out of 5

Pair with: A glass of Pinot noir

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