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'The Great Pretender' Investigates A Landmark Moment In Psychiatric History

Some writers search for their signature subjects; Susannah Cahalan had her subject thrust upon her. In 2009, she was a young reporter for the New York Post when, one day, she began feeling like she had the flu. Shortly thereafter, she was hospitalized, in the throes of full-blown hallucinations and paranoia.

As Cahalan recounted in Brain on Fire, the bestselling 2012 memoir she wrote about this harrowing experience, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and, then, with schizophrenia. She was on the verge of being transferred to a psychiatric unit when one gifted doctor played out a hunch. After a spinal tap and biopsy of her brain, he diagnosed her with autoimmune encephalitis.

Cahalan says that this physical diagnosis, as opposed to a psychiatric one, made all the difference. Looking back on the ordeal in her latest book, The Great Pretender, Cahalan recalls:

Brain on Fire was a tense, yet ultimately reassuring read, largely because of the interventions of that one doctor who saw things others missed. But the figure at the center of Cahalan's new book is more vexed, and as a result, The Great Pretender tells a blurrier story about diagnoses and outcomes.

David Rosenhanwas a professor of psychology and law at Stanford University when in 1973 he published a nine-page article in the respected journal Science called "On Being Sane in Insane Places." That article rocked the psychiatric world and, Cahalan says, continues to be one of the most cited papers in the field.

Rosenhan argued that psychiatry had no sure way to distinguish the sane from the insane. To empirically prove his thesis, he and seven volunteers — including a grad student, three psychologists and two doctors — went undercover in 12 mental health wards. These "pseudopatients" posed as people who were hearing voices that said the words "thud, empty, hollow."

On that basis, these otherwise healthy people were all admitted, most of them receiving diagnoses of schizophrenia. Though they behaved "normally" once they were inside the wards, all the volunteers had difficulty getting released. Rosenhan wrote, "Having once been labeled schizophrenic, there is nothing the pseudopatient can do to overcome the tag."

Given Cahalan's personal horror story of being trapped for a time in a false psychiatric diagnosis, she's understandably drawn to the story of Rosenhan's famous exposé. In The Great Pretender, Cahalan takes readers on a mostly journalistic adventure story, describing her lucky discovery of Rosenhan's personal notes on the experiment and the mental and physical legwork she did to locate and interview some of the still-living pseudopatients.

But, then, Cahalan's investigation hits a snag, and then another snag. Her suspicions are aroused: She can't confirm some evidence supporting Rosenhan's landmark essay. In fact, some of the pseudopatients and their stories seem to be made up. What does it mean if the great debunker of psychiatry was instead — at least, in part — "the great pretender"?

Cahalan seems at sea at this end of this book. I think she went in intending to write one kind of book — about a reformer and his crusade to expose the tyranny of psychiatric labels — and then inadvertently ended up writing an exposé about the faulty policing of scientific research papers and the professionals who publish them.

The Great Pretender is still worth reading because it illuminates a game-changing moment in the history of psychiatry in the U.S.; it just isn't as satisfying a book as Brain on Fire because it ends in the muddled middle of things. The patient, so to speak — in this case, the field of psychiatry itself —remains riddled with afflictions, without a sharp-eyed diagnostician at the door, ready to save the day.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.