The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

Susannah Cahalan's new book is a dramatic real-life story told with passion that might have worked better as a true-crime podcast

Book Review by Galen O'Hanlon | 08 Jan 2020
  • The Great Pretender
Book title: The Great Pretender
Author: Susannah Cahalan

This is a dramatic story of an undercover exposé that reshaped psychiatry. In the 1970s, a Stanford psychologist and seven other sane people walked into asylums, feigned madness, received various diagnoses and witnessesd a lot of wrongdoing. The research that was later published transformed the way mental health was understood and treated – exposing serious cases of misdiagnosis and mistreatment of people. The paper also led to the mass de-funding of psychiatric care in the US, so it has a complicated and problematic history.

One problem is that lots of the data was cooked. Here, Susannah Cahalan shows that nothing is quite as it seems when it comes to Dr Rosenhan and his pseudo-patients. The science isn’t quite sound: the stories were carefully selected to fit a certain narrative, while things that didn’t fit were ignored. 

The book is the result of meticulous research and relentless digging. It’s a ripe subject: the story itself is bizarre and brazen and you can feel Cahalan’s consuming passion for it. But in places it can feel over-dramatised, with the kind of rich cheesiness that might do well in a true-crime podcast, but on the page it seems overdone. Despite this, it’s an interesting premise, especially given Cahalan’s personal connection (she was falsely diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder).

Canongate, out now, £16.99