Book Review: The Great Pretender

THE GREAT PRETENDER | Susannah Cahalan
11.05.2019 | Grand Central Publishing
Rating: 4/5 stars

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Have you ever heard of David Rosenhan’s experiment where he and seven other people went undercover in mental hospitals in order to record what really happened in these places? The premise was that the pseudo-patients, or sane people, could essentially lie their way into a mental hospital simply by pretending to have some sort of symptom of a mental health disorder. The results were alarming with all eight individuals being diagnosed with different disorders and sent away to asylums.

When these individuals were finally able to emerge from the facilities after proving themselves mentally stable, the information that they brought with them about the treatment of patients was nothing short of horrific and disturbing. Rosenhan would go on to publish a study that is credited with breaking open the field of psychiatry, closing down several institutions, and changing mental health diagnosis forever. Cahalan’s recent investigations into Rosenhan’s study shows there was very little information known about this project and that perhaps one of America’s greatest displays of research was not completely factual.

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Susannah Cahalan has put together an exhaustive history of research into the field of mental health diagnosis and subsequent treatment within the pages of THE GREAT PRETENDER. This book is a wealth of knowledge compiled in a fluid story to walk any reader through America’s progress in this field. Starting with the early creation of asylums there has been much controversy over the treatment provided in them. Cahalan acknowledges this start by beginning her book here before doing an in-depth analysis of David Rosenhan’s famous research experiment.

Once the groundwork has been laid Cahalan takes the reader through every available detail from Rosenhan’s study. Everything from the identities of those who went in as pseudo-patients, what their stays in mental hospitals were truly like, and the differences between these facts and what ended up in Rosenhan’s final publication.

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Cahalan has created a fascinating, factual story that kept my attention glued to the pages of this book. Coming from a background in psychology, I have a natural curiosity about this topic, but I think anyone without the same background would also enjoy this book. Cahalan does a great job of keeping to the facts without getting lost in the minute details that can pull a reader’s attention from the story. 

I always struggle with reading nonfiction, so I opted for the audiobook and genuinely think it made my experience even better. The narrator was fantastic and helped to keep the momentum of the story going even through parts that were duller than others.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys nonfiction or psychology. I think this book is an incredible story of a controversial side to America’s history. I learned so many fascinating facts while reading this book and went down many Google rabbit holes trying to find out more information. I highly recommend giving this one a go!


This book is available to buy from: Amazon | Book Depository

Disclosure: What Jess Reads is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This in no way influences my opinion of the above book.

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