Review: The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
I put this book into my BOTM box as soon as I saw that it was written by Susannah Cahalan. Her memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness came out in 2012 and tells the story of an illness she suffered that presented as a schizophrenia but eventually turned out to be a very rare form of autoimmune encephalitis (basically, the antibodies in her body were attacking her brain; and she spent a month being diagnosed with a psychotic mental illness because she was presenting with paranoid delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, depression, and an inability to focus or go to work. But the entire time her body was attacking her brain). I absolutely adored that book and tore through it in one sitting - Susannah Cahalan is a brilliant writer, and her story is fascinating and gripping. So when I saw that she'd written a second book, I was immediately intrigued.
Second time's the charm - I tore through this book in one sitting as well. I think the weather today helped, as I basically just got into bed this afternoon and just ripped through it. The story is a fascinating one: Cahalan goes on to investigate a paper published in 1973, on the Rosenhan experiment that rocked the psychiatric ward by proving that psychologists and psychiatrists couldn't actually tell the difference between pseudopatients sent in undercover by Rosenhan into psychiatric hospitals, and patients with actual psychotic disorder diagnoses. I can't really tell you much more without spoiling the denouement of the story - but I will recommend that you do not Google anything about this experiment before reading the book, so you can be surprised and taken aback in all the right places as you go on the journey with Cahalan.
It might seem strange to think of a nonfiction analysis as being gripping and containing spoilers, but this one definitely does. There was one stretch of 3-4 chapters where I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to see how the investigation would resolve and whether or not Cahalan would get the answers she was looking for. I think the fact that the author had such a personal connection to her subject, both from her history and her interest in the subject matter, makes for an even more compelling read.
Cahalan is also just an excellent writer. Her prose is precise, clear, and easy to read, she's got a recognizable voice that never overwhelms the facts of the story she's telling while still allowing for personal touches, and she's also quite funny. My only criticism of this book is that she gets a bit repetitive in the points she's making, especially after 300 pages; but perhaps a more ruthless editor would have helped with that.
Another very small critique: I think the book could have been longer. She goes off on tangents a few times, and then has to cycle back to her main thread rather clunkily; plus there was space for a wider exploration of the context of the history of the treatment of madness. Yes, yes, those types of books have been written many times before; but there was space for her analysis of that history through the lens of the experiment that she was researching and studying. It also ends a bit abruptly, and I feel like there could have been a lot more said that she's held back, or didn't develop all the way through to its fruition.
All in all, I can highly recommend both this book and her memoir. Susannah Cahalan has a deft hand while telling these difficult stories, and making them fascinating while never veering into voyeurism. I always feel like I've learned something when I finish a book of hers, and curious to read more about the subject she's invoking. I'm certainly hoping she writes a third, and I'll definitely read whatever that third book is.