AUDIO BOOK REVIEW: The Great Pretender:The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Release Date:
 November 5, 2019
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Format: Audio
Length: 11 hours 3  minutes
Narrator: Susannah Cahalan & Christie Moreau
Genre: Psychology, history
Buy: Audible | Kindle


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?


Fascinating investigation on a paper written by Stanford psychologist David Rosenham. What Cahalan finds is that the paper may have been fabricated in many ways but the idea that we see the mentally ill differently which clouds our interaction with them is very true.  Mental illness is very misunderstood and unexplained.  We have more ability now to investigate the brain using imagery, and science which may help people who have been diagnosed with mental illness.  Are the mentally ill just sick? Do they have a brain imbalance that we haven't identified yet? As I learned about in You are the Placebo by Dr. Joe Dispenza the brain is a powerful organ that we know very little about.  This placebo effect is being studied  to see if we can understand is it the thought that the medication is real or is it that the person has faith in the person delivering the medication? There are some interesting studies being conducted now on mental illness and the validity of the DSM which was based on Rosenhams study which we now know was not completely accurate. 

Cahalans experience with Lyme disease and being misdiagnosed as mentally ill and possibly having schizophrenia all because of her body attacking her brain gives her a unique perspective into this work. With a vested interest in mental health Cahalans work brings forth very interesting questions and insights into mental illness. Her book is accessible and easy to understand.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested or touched by mental illness.