The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of


“One of America’s most courageous young journalists” and the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Brain on Fire investigates the shocking mystery behind the dramatic experiment that revolutionized modern medicine (NPR).

Doctors have struggled for centuries to define insanity–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, healthy, 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 in this real-life detective story, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors?



An Amazon Best Book of November 2019: Susannah Cahalan’s first book Brain on Fire documented her experience with a treatable autoimmune disease that masqueraded as mental illness. The disease did so by causing inflammation on her brain, and after being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, she was given antipsychotic drugs and nearly transferred to the psych ward. Luckily, an insightful doctor saved her from being committed to a very different life than the one she is living now. Diseases like that are called the great pretenders, because their symptoms mimic the behaviors of psychiatric illnesses. Cahalan’s personal experience led her deeper into the study of mental health, where she learned of a groundbreaking 1973 study called “On Being Sane in Insane Places.” In that study, a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan, along with seven other sane people, volunteered to get themselves committed into asylums by repeating the words “thud, empty, hollow.” That was pretty much all it took. Eventually, they had to find their way out.

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