The Great Pretender – Susannah Cahalan

four stars black
Genre: Non Fiction, Psychology
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pages: 400
Release Date: November 5, 2019

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? 


The Great Pretender is one of those nonfiction novels that is not for everyone. It’s information heavy and quite dry at times, but full of interesting and thought provoking ideas and concerns about the field of psychology and psychiatry.

The Great Pretender follows the author Cahalan as she dives deep into the 1973 ground breaking study about the treatment of patients at asylums. Cahalan sets out to discover the truth behind the study and interview its participants.

As mentioned previously, The Great Pretender is information heavy. Cahalan paints in detail the sentiments towards psychology and psychiatry at the time. This information is crucial to understanding the impact this study had on the doctors in the field and the public. However, Cahalan gets lost in the weeds at times by giving too much information or going off on tangents for pages that could have been shortened to a few paragraphs. This is especially true when she begins searching for the participants.

If you’re interested in the study and psychology/psychiatry in general, The Great Pretender is a fantastic book to read. Cahalan breaks down the tumultuous field making it easy to understand the culture of the time, the sentiment toward the field itself, and the future of medicine.


Have you read The Great Pretender? What did you think?

4 thoughts on “The Great Pretender – Susannah Cahalan

      1. I do too. I usually try to go for something I know relatively little about or that feels like it could make for a good story regardless. I read Shadow Divers a couple years ago and enjoyed that- it was about a hunt for a lost Spanish Galleon in the Caribbean. I got lots of info about pirates and Spanish fleets, but I was also told a story of how it was rediscovered on the bottom of the ocean. It was pretty cool!

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