In the 1970s, psychologist 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. All eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. But, as Cahalan's new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. From the author or Brain on Fire.
Cahalan intersperses her research into the Rosenhan experiment with fascinating, and dispiriting, history about the mistreatment of mentally ill people throughout the ages ... Cahalan is clearly passionate about the subject matter, and her outrage makes The Great Pretender an urgent, personal book. But she's also an incredibly dogged investigative reporter, tracking every lead she gets fully and with a real determination to get to the truth. Her findings are undoubtedly discouraging, but they're also undeniably important ... She's also an absolutely incredible writer. The Great Pretender reads, in parts, like a suspense novel, with the reader unable to stop turning the pages. That's not to say it's sensationalistic or lurid at all — Cahalan is a measured author, but her book is a clarion call, and she writes with a real sense of urgency and with strong, self-assured prose ... With Brain on Fire, Cahalan proved she was an uncommonly courageous journalist, and her follow-up cements her place in the ranks of the country's sharpest writers of nonfiction. The Great Pretender is an essential book, and a plea for the world to come to terms with the way we're treating some of our most vulnerable people.
... absorbing ... the kind of story that has levels to it, only instead of a townhouse it’s more like an Escher print ... reads like a detective story, with Cahalan revealing tantalizing clues at opportune moments so we can experience the thrills of discovery alongside her. Her voice is warm and often charming, though she has a weakness for whimsical asides ... But such amiability was probably what got some reluctant sources to talk ... Without Cahalan’s intrepid reporting, the truth of Rosenhan and his paper might have been lost ... Instead of arrogance, her book counsels humility.
This vital book, full of intelligence and brio, is a must-read for anyone who has mental illness issues somewhere in their life — i.e., everyone ... though some questions remain unanswered, Cahalan crowns the work with a conclusion that offers chilling data about the credibility of research in all fields of science — yet finds a ray of hope for the benighted field of psychiatry.