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The Great Pretender

Susannah Cahalan’s new book challenges an experiment that changed psychiatry


As an undergraduate psychology major, I was taught about the Rosenhan study in several of my courses. My professors lectured about the shocking findings psychologist David Rosenhan, PhD, documented in a 1973 Science article, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” and these findings lent themselves to lecture hall drama. Eight people presented to hospitals and said they heard voices saying: “empty, hollow, thud.” These “pseudopatients” exhibited no other psychiatric symptoms but were admitted, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and observations of their behavior were made. The charts included notes such as, “Patient exhibits writing behavior,” my professors said. The pseudopatients were kept for an average of 19 days, and one for as long as 51 days. The decades have passed, and there are many things I learned in college that I have since forgotten, but I remember “empty, hollow, thud,” and the famous Rosenhan experiment.

The author puts the late David L. Rosenhan, PhD, and his pseudopatient study under a microscope. Courtesy Grand Central Publishing

I was eager to read Susannah Cahalan’s book, “The Great Pretender” (Grand Central Publishing, 2019), which puts both Dr. Rosenhan and his pseudopatient study under a microscope. Ms. Cahalan is the author of the page-turner, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (Free Press, 2012), where she recounted her own struggle with a psychotic episode. Ms. Cahalan, a young reporter in New York City, became psychotic and then catatonic; her condition perplexed the neurologists who were treating her on an inpatient unit, and they were on the verge of transferring her to psychiatry when a diagnosis of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis was suspected and then confirmed with a brain biopsy. Ms. Cahalan made a full recovery after treatment with steroids, intravenous immunoglobulin, and plasmapheresis. While Ms. Cahalan’s symptoms were classic for a severe psychotic disorder, there was reason to believe that this was not a primary psychiatric disorder: She was having grand mal seizures. Her book was a bestseller, and she has spoken widely to make others aware of this rare illness that masquerades as psychosis. I heard her speak at the opening session of the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in May of 2017.“My family, like many families before them, fought against the tyranny of the mental illness label,” Ms. Cahalan writes at the very beginning of “The Great Pretender.” She goes on to talk about how psychiatry differs from other medical fields: It’s the only specialty where people can be treated against their will; psychiatry casts judgments on the person; mental illness is poorly defined – perhaps there is no clear divide between normal and mad; and psychiatric disorders are less “real” than other illnesses. Throughout the book she refers to psychiatrists as smug and arrogant.

Ms. Cahalan takes on the task of documenting the horrors of psychiatry’s often sordid history, starting with journalist Nellie Bly’s 1887 journey into to a psychiatric facility to expose the abuses there. Certainly, psychiatry’s history is sordid. Ms. Cahalan talks about inhumane conditions in overcrowded psychiatric hospitals, about our sad chapter of lobotomies, about the influence of psychoanalysis on diagnosis and treatment, and about how homosexuality was once an illness and now is not. She includes “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Myth of Mental Illness,” big pharma, and the Goldwater fiasco. In her recounting of the history, it’s all bad. She mentions Benjamin Rush, MD, only once, as the creator of “ ‘... the tranquilizing chair’ (a case of the worst false advertising ever), a terrifying sensory-deprivation apparatus in which patients were strapped down to a chair with a wooden box placed over their heads to block stimulation, restrict movement, and reduce blood to the brain.” Dr. Rush’s role as the father of American psychiatry who challenged the belief that mental illness was the result of demonic possession, gets no mention. Nor does Ms. Cahalan note that he founded Pennsylvania Hospital, where moral and occupational therapy revolutionized the treatment of those with mental illness.

So there’s her story, her rendition of the history of American psychiatry, and through this she weaves in the story of the Rosenhan experiment.

“ ‘It all started out as a dare,’ Dr. Rosenhan told a local newspaper, ‘I was teaching psychology at Swarthmore, and my students were saying that the course was too conceptual and abstract. So I said, ‘Okay, if you really want to know what mental patients are like, become mental patients.’ ”

Really? I read this and wondered how a psychologist could talk about people who had been hospitalized with psychiatric disorders as though they were aliens. Certainly, some of these students, their family members, or their friends must have been hospitalized at some point. Yet all through, there is this sense that the patients are other, and the discovery of the undercover operation is that the patients are actually human beings! Dr. Rosenhan, who was one of the pseudopatients, goes on to conclude that the label is everything, that once labeled they are treated differently by the nurses in “cages” and the doctors who walk by and avert their gaze. A second man Ms. Cahalan named, also one of the pseudopatients, had a similar experience. A third subject she located was not included in the study: His experience was counter to the findings of the study, his time in the hospital was a positive, he found it comforting, and the experiences he had there had a lasting positive influence on his life.

Ms. Cahalan talks about the publication of “On Being Sane in Insane Places” as a study that was finally scientific, one that changed all of psychiatry, and was the driving force for the creation of the DSM-III and the closure of state hospitals. I wondered if it was as influential as Ms. Cahalan claims, and I asked some psychiatrists who were practicing in 1973 when the article was published. I wanted to know if this study rocked their world.

“At first, with the great amount of publicity the study generated, it was added fodder for the antipsychiatrists, including the Scientologists and Szaszians,” Steven Sharfstein, MD, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, told me. “But as young psychiatrists in the trenches, business continued to boom, and we continued to do the best job we could with diagnosis, assessment of risk, involuntary commitment, and treatment. And from what I recall, morale was high in the 1970s. We had some new medications and psychotherapies, and there was community activism. Faking symptoms to gain admission seemed to be a no-brainer, but keeping people for long stays was more problematic.”

E. Fuller Torrey, MD, the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center who worked for many years treating patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, replied: “It is important to remember that this study was published at the height of the deinstitutionalization movement and quite likely accelerated it. As I recall, at the time it seemed odd that all eight patients claimed to have had similar experiences while hospitalized. I think the main effect of the study was to provide ammunition for the antipsychiatrists.”

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

Ms. Cahalan has bought into the antipsychiatry movement full force. It’s not until the very end that there is any acknowledgment that psychiatry ever helped anyone, and even then, it’s a bit begrudging. Worse, she neglects to mention that people with psychiatric disorders suffer because of their psychic pain; one could get through this book and believe that people with mental illness struggle only because they are labeled and then mistreated, and for someone who has suffered herself, she misses the essence of how awful it is to be ill, and that people are often helped by psychiatric treatments. When she finally adds a paragraph talking about the usefulness of psychotropics, it’s with a caveat. “But I’m not here to rail against the drugs. There are plenty of places you can get that perspective. I see that these drugs help many people lead full and meaningful lives. It would be folly to discount their worth. We also can’t deny that the situation is complicated.”

There are moments in the manuscript where I found it difficult to know what were Dr. Rosenhan’s interpretations and what were Ms. Callahan’s interpretations of Dr. Rosenhan’s experiences. A lot of assumptions are made – particularly about the motivations of the hospital staff – and I wasn’t always sure they were correct. For example, on his second day in the hospital, Dr. Rosenhan asked a nurse for the newspaper. When she tells him it hasn’t come yet, he concludes that the staff is keeping the newspapers from the patients. And when a staff member is initially chatty then later shuns Dr. Rosenhan, he concludes that the man initially mistook him for a psychiatrist because he looks professorial. Both Ms. Cahalan and Dr. Rosenhan approach psychiatry with biases, and they don’t always question their assumptions.

Ms. Cahalan treats the fields of psychology and psychiatry as one, never defining how they may differ, and even the book’s cover describes Dr. Rosenhan as “a charismatic doctor,” even though he was a research psychologist, a professor who didn’t treat patients. This intermixing of the two fields felt contrived to me, and gave too much credence to the idea that no one really knows sane from disordered, and everyone was embracing the antipsychiatry dogma. Surely, someone during the those years must have liked their psychiatrist.

That said, Ms. Cahalan does a phenomenal job of infiltrating the world of the late Dr. Rosenhan. She starts out enamored by him and by his finding that psychiatrists can’t tell real illness from faked disorder. She meets with his friends, his son, his colleagues, his students, and she flies all over the country to meet with those who can help her understand him. She gains access to his personal files and to the book he started to write about the experiment, then abandoned, which eventually resulted in a lawsuit by Doubleday to have the book’s advance returned. At one point, she even hires a private detective.

What is Ms. Cahalan looking for so desperately? She’s looking for these anonymous pseudopatients, the people who were admitted to these unnamed state hospitals, who made observations and took notes, who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and then finally released. She’s looking for the truth, and while she identifies Dr. Rosenhan and two other pseudopatients as people who faked their way into the hospital, she finds a mass of contradictions. The one pseudopatient was excluded from the study – he is the one who felt comforted by his time in the hospital. The other six pseudopatients could not be found, despite Ms. Cahalan’s heroic attempts. Furthermore, she found many inconsistencies in what Dr. Rosenhan reported, and his hospital notes revealed more than a presentation for voices saying “empty, hollow, thud.” He reported it had been going on for months, that he had put copper over his ears to block the sound, and that he felt suicidal.

Ultimately, Ms. Cahalan was left to conclude that the Rosenhan experiment was a lie, that the pseudopatients likely never existed and the article was a fabrication. She brings up other studies that have been proven to be fraudulent, and by this point, our faith in all of science is pretty shaken.

Ms. Cahalan took a long journey to get us to this place, one that spent a lot of effort in bashing psychiatry, finally concluding that, as a result of this fraudulent experiment, too many hospitals have been shuttered – leaving our sickest patients to the streets and to the jails – and that there are not enough mental health professionals. As a psychiatrist – one who is often willing to question our practices – I was distracted by the flagrant antipsychiatry sentiments. Reading past that, Ms. Cahalan’s remarkable detective work and creative intermingling of the Rosenhan experiment layered on the history of psychiatry, further layered on her own experience with psychosis, makes for an amazing story. The Rosenhan study may have rocked the world of psychiatry; the fact that it was fabricated should rock us even more.

Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore.

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