In a controversial experiment in 1973, Stanford University psychologist David Rosenhan recruited seven healthy volunteers and made them feign symptoms of mental illness to get admitted to hospitals. This undercover mission was to test the legitimacy of some psychiatric labels. The results left a lasting influence on the field, with some psychiatric hospitals shutting down and psychiatry trying to reinvent itself thereafter. The experiment is the subject of the second book from award-winning author Susannah Cahalan, who ends up questioning the legitimacy of the pathbreaking study itself.
The Great Pretender has Cahalan, an investigative journalist, tracking down the volunteers, about whom nothing was known so far other than their pseudonyms. In the process, she gives the reader a glimpse into the workings of the mental health industry, refers to its diagnostic system as “flawed and arbitrary”, notes contradictions in Rosenhan’s work, and questions the extent to which the world understands madness and mental illness.
Cahalan’s interest in the theme of madness is drawn from her own experience with several mis-diagnosis of auto-immune disorder and her journey through the recovery phase. “Despite all of our medical progress — of which I am a direct recipient — the sickest among us are getting sicker,” Cahalan writes. Referring to the author’s realisation about the contradictions in Rosenhan’s work, the promotional note on Amazon says, “It may also serve as a reminder that it’s not always good for us to meet our heroes.”
Cahalan’s first book was The New York Times bestseller Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, a memoir that dealt with her struggle with a rare auto-immune disorder of the brain.