The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan (Review)

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan

Genre: Nonfiction, Psychology

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: November 5, 2019

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing


From “one of America’s most courageous young journalists” (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.

For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-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, normal, 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, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?


If you’re going into this book expecting an in-depth rehashing of that experiment and its conclusions, you may be disappointed. I hold a BA in psychology, so I was already somewhat familiar with this study going into the book. While I did get some new information from The Great Pretender, it was not nearly as much as I’d hoped. Part of the reason for this is that the focus of the book is not super specific. The synopsis from the publisher gave me an impression of a very different book than I read.

Another reviewer (who enjoyed the book a lot less than I did) made the comment that it felt like Cahalan did a lot of research on peripheral topics for this book and didn’t want it to go to waste. Consequently, it all gets included. While I get where this person is coming from, I disagree. A lot of the history of psychology included in this leads directly into David Rosenhan’s reasoning for conducting his famous experiment. He sent healthy “pseudo-patients” into mental hospitals for two major reasons: to expose the hazy nature of psychological diagnostic criteria as they existed at the time, and to provide witnesses who would be palatable to the general public who could relay the treatment the mentally ill were receiving in these institutions. The historical backdrop did not feel superfluous.

Cahalan also delves into several other famous experiments, again in more detail than I would have expected given the blurb’s focus on Rosenahn. These major experiments are also relevant, albeit in a tangential way, because of the controversy surrounding them. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo) and Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority. These experiments also share some thematic similarities with Rosenhan’s work; all of them explore the darker side of human nature  in varying respects. Zimbardo purported to show that the overwhelming majority of people are capable of horrifically abusive behaviors towards another person in dehumanizing, institutional settings like prisons. Milgram’s experiment had an authority figure in a lab coat asking participants to administer electric shocks to people as part of an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. The “teaching experiment” was actually a smokescreen, and the true purpose was to see how many people would agree to shock someone who was in pain, and to what degree.

All three of these experiments (Rosenhan’s, Zimbardo’s, and Milgram’s) have faced sharp criticism of their methodology, with Zimbardo facing probably the most scrutiny. Issues vary from the potentially inappropriate level of manipulation on the participants from the researcher to outright deceit.

Cahalan’s book explores a variety of issues surrounding psychiatry in a good amount of detail, some only tangentially related to the experiment referenced in the title. If your interest in this book is primarily out of a desire to understand Rosenhan’s research, you may end up feeling like you are wading through a lot of unneeded information in order to get it. However, if you have a more general interest in psychology and psychiatry, this may be an excellent book for you.


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Thank you for reading! What was the last book you read that subverted your expectations in the a big way? How did it impact your reading experience?


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Member of the Family, by Dianne Lake (Review)

Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Mason, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties
by Dianne Lake

Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime, Memoir

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: October 24, 2017

Publisher: William Morrow


In this poignant and disturbing memoir of lost innocence, coercion, survival, and healing, Dianne Lake chronicles her years with Charles Manson, revealing for the first time how she became the youngest member of his Family and offering new insights into one of the twentieth century’s most notorious criminals and life as one of his “girls”

At age fourteen Dianne Lake—with little more than a note in her pocket from her hippie parents granting her permission to leave them—became one of “Charlie’s girls,” a devoted acolyte of cult leader Charles Manson. Over the course of two years, the impressionable teenager endured manipulation, psychological control, and physical abuse as the harsh realities and looming darkness of Charles Manson’s true nature revealed itself. From Spahn ranch and the group acid trips, to the Beatles’ White Album and Manson’s dangerous messiah-complex, Dianne tells the riveting story of the group’s descent into madness as she lived it.

Though she never participated in any of the group’s gruesome crimes and was purposely insulated from them, Dianne was arrested with the rest of the Manson Family, and eventually learned enough to join the prosecution’s case against them. With the help of good Samaritans, including the cop who first arrested her and later adopted her, the courageous young woman eventually found redemption and grew up to lead an ordinary life.

While much has been written about Charles Manson, this riveting account from an actual Family member is a chilling portrait that recreates in vivid detail one of the most horrifying and fascinating chapters in modern American history.

Member of the Family includes 16 pages of photographs.


Member of the Family was not entirely what I expected, and I think in this case that was a good thing. A pretty significant portion of the book takes place before Charles Manson was ever on Dianne Lake’s radar, and this makes for a pretty interesting character study in what made Lake vulnerable to be recruited into a cult. She was just 14 years old and her parents had more or less checked out. Like many who find themselves recruited into cults, Lake was feeling incredibly isolated and desperate for some sense of belonging and stability. Charlie’s “family” seemed like they could provide that for her, and the prospect of being treated as an adult was also enticing to an adolescent.

Lake was not present for any of the infamous murders committed by Manson’s followers, although she was in the cult at the time the crimes occurred. Consequently, the book is devoid of any graphic descriptions of the group’s murder spree (something I think we can all do without.) However, the book should come with a content warning for physical and sexual abuse of a child. Lake suffered what she only later recognized as sexual abuse at the hands of older men starting from a very young age. This left her primed to be subject to Manson’s influence, as that behavior had been normalized for her.

Member of the Family is a difficult read at times, but an excellent first-hand exploration of the before, during, and after of becoming entrenched in a violent cult. Lake seems to have built a normal and healthy life for herself in the aftermath, keeping out of the public eye. I definitely recommend this book to true crime readers or people who are interested in the psychology behind cults.


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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, by Donna Freitas (Review)

Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention
by Donna Freitas

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company


Donna Freitas has lived two lives. In one life, she is a well-published author and respected scholar who has traveled around the country speaking about Title IX, consent, religion, and sex on college campuses. In the other, she is a victim, a woman who suffered and suffers still because she was stalked by her graduate professor for more than two years.

As a doctoral candidate, Freitas loved asking big questions, challenging established theories and sinking her teeth into sacred texts. She felt at home in the library, and safe in the book-lined offices of scholars whom she admired. But during her first year, one particular scholar became obsessed with Freitas’ academic enthusiasm. He filled her student mailbox with letters and articles. He lurked on the sidewalk outside her apartment. He called daily and left nagging voicemails. He befriended her mother, and made himself comfortable in her family’s home. He wouldn’t go away. While his attraction was not overtly sexual, it was undeniably inappropriate, and most importantly–unwanted.

In Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas delivers a forensic examination of the years she spent stalked by her professor, and uses her nightmarish experience to examine the ways in which we stigmatize, debate, and attempt to understand consent today.



My thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Consent was a difficult read in some respects; it was difficult to see the author recount her trauma, but more than that, it was difficult to think about the excuses she internally made for her stalker before things escalated out of control. Most women have been there, with varying degrees of severity. (Maybe he doesn’t realize he’s being inappropriate? Maybe I’m being overly sensitive and he’s not actually being inappropriate at all? Maybe I said/did/wore something that made him think this behavior would be welcome?)

This memoir is a an engrossing exploration of blurry lines of consent and the harassers who rely on plausible deniability to get away with their behavior. Donna Freitas was an enthusiastic student who loved getting to know her professors. This is probably part of why it took her a while to see that her abuser’s intentions were less than innocent. But a large part of this was probably also due to the professor’s intentionally chipping away at boundaries slowly, so as to acclimate his target to his attentions. By the time things escalated to the point that Freitas felt the need to get outside help, she’d already been in over her head for quite some time. The memoir does an excellent job of illuminating the process abusers of all sorts often use on those they target; things start small and often escalate slowly, all while the victim is questioning whether they’re crazy to feel uncomfortable at every step.

While this was at times an emotionally taxing read, I definitely recommend it to fans of memoirs and feminist works. The author’s exploration of consent, gaslighting, trauma, and institutions that shield powerful men from consequences are all important and timely.


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Thank you for reading! Have you read any good memoirs lately? Share in the comments! jennabookish

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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls
by Kate Moore

Genre: Nonfiction, History

Length: 497 Pages

Release date: April 18, 2017


The incredible true story of the women who fought America’s Undark danger

The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.

Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.

But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.

Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives…


The Radium Girls sat unread on my shelf for a ridiculously long time before The Girly Book Club chose it for the June selection and finally gave me an excuse to move it up on my TBR. This was so incredibly difficult to read at times, but I don’t think the importance of this story can be overstated. What really struck me over and over throughout this book was the blatant disregard for (and at times the outright denial of) women’s pain.

A Woman Painting a Clock Face with Radium – 1932 (Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

The ladies employed by Radium Dial suffered, in addition to the physical health issues related to radium poisoning, what I can only characterize as psychological torture. They were mislead about the safety issues  surrounding their work by the grossly negligent management over a long period of time, resulting in the ongoing exposure and subsequent creeping health issues. Radium Dial then denied any wrongdoing, insisting for years on end that there was no such thing as  radium poisoning, despite the existing scientific literature at the time unequivocally stating otherwise. They used every possible tactic to deny any liability, from claiming that their health issues predated their employment to denying  that they had any health issues at all.

Kate Moore’s deep respect for these women truly shines through in her telling of their stories. She notes in the post-script that, in trying to research the Radium Girls, she was able to find existing books, but these tended to focus on the legal elements or the scientific elements of the events. While these are certainly present in Moore’s book and they are necessary and interesting, there is a clear focus on these women as, first and foremost, people who lived, breathed, had hopes and dreams, and were deeply wronged all in the name of profit.

The Radium Girls brings to light an important time in history which helped open the door for sweeping reform in regards to workers’ rights and safety. The book contains endless food for though on topics such as bodily autonomy, workers’ rights, and patients’ rights… and it’s a timely and necessary reminder of the need to value people over profits.


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“And Grace Fryer was never forgotten. She is still remembered now—you are still remembering her now. As a dial-painter, she glowed gloriously from the radium powder; but as a woman, she shines through history with an even brighter glory: stronger than the bones that broke inside her body; more powerful than the radium that killed her or the company that shamelessly lied through its teeth; living longer than she ever did on earth, because she now lives on in the hearts and memories of those who know her only from her story.

Grace Fryer: the girl who fought on when all hope seemed gone; the woman who stood up for what was right, even as her world fell apart. Grace Fryer, who inspired so many to stand up for themselves.”


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Review – American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers
by Nancy Jo Sales

Genre: Nonfiction

Length: 416 Pages

Release date: February 23, 2016


Instagram. Whisper. Yik Yak. Vine. YouTube. Kik. Tinder. The dominant force in the lives of girls coming of age in America today is social media. What it is doing to an entire generation of young women? This the subject of award-winning Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales’s riveting and explosive American Girls.

With extraordinary intimacy and precision, Sales captures what it feels like to be a girl in America today. From Montclair to Manhattan and Los Angeles, from Florida and Arizona to Texas and Kentucky, Sales crisscrossed the country, speaking to more than two hundred girls, ages thirteen to nineteen, and documenting a massive change in the way girls are growing up, a phenomenon that transcends race, geography, and household income. American Girls provides a disturbing portrait of the end of childhood as we know it and of the inexorable and ubiquitous experience of a new kind of adolescence—one dominated by new social and sexual norms, where a girl’s first crushes and experiences of longing and romance occur in an accelerated electronic environment; where issues of identity and self-esteem are magnified and transformed by social platforms that provide instantaneous judgment.

What does it mean to be a girl in America in 2016?

It means coming of age online in a hyper-sexualized culture that has normalized extreme behavior, from pornography to the casual exchange of nude photographs; a culture rife with a virulent new strain of sexism and a sometimes self-undermining notion of feminist empowerment; a culture in which teenagers are spending so much time on technology and social media that they are not developing basic communication skills. From beauty gurus to slut-shaming to a disconcerting trend of exhibitionism, Nancy Jo Sales provides a shocking window into the troubling world of today’s teenage girls.

Provocative and urgent, American Girls is destined to ignite a much-needed conversation about how we can help our daughters and sons negotiate unprecedented new challenges.



American Girls was mentioned in an article I read recently, and I was curious enough to snag a copy from the library. It was not worth the time I invested in it. This is a 416 page book and I can sum it up with one sentence: young people no longer have relationships, and porn and smartphones are the root of all evil.

I’m 28, so I’m a little out of the age range that Sales is talking about in this book, but I know and talk to a lot of younger people, and the culture she is portraying in this book is not one that I recognize at all. While she touches on a lot of very real issues, such as sexual harassment online, an unhealthy amount of time devoted to social media, and lowered self esteem triggered by comparing our real lives to the filtered, unrealistic version that others put online… most of her concerns feel completely overblown.

It also feels like Sales lacks any self-awareness at times. At one point, she remarks that teenage sexual exploration has always made adults uncomfortable, despite it being a normal and natural part of adolescence. This remark is made amidst pages upon pages of hand-wringing over teenage sexuality and how it signals the end of romance as we know it. Hookup culture reigns supreme and relationships are dead to American youth, to hear Sales tell it. This is all purely anecdotal, of course, and it doesn’t remotely match up with the anecdotes from teen girls in my own life. These girls date. They have steady boyfriends.

Sales is also highly critical of sex positive feminism. While I don’t think that movement (or any movement, for that matter) is infallible, Sales’ criticisms simply read as more hysteria over teens being sexually active. All sexual activity and expression is purely for the benefit of the boys, apparently. Sales seems to think that sex positive feminism is simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing dedicated to tricking teen girls into seeking empowerment through fulfilling the needs of teen boys.

Basically, Sales seems to be so hyper-fixated on social media and online pornography that she’s determined to paint a picture that shows how they are responsible for nearly all of the ills in today’s society, even those she has to make up whole cloth (i.e., dating no longer exists). I went into this book expecting to agree with a lot of Sales’ points, so I think it’s telling just how flat it fell for me. Do teens spend too much time on social media? Yes, I’m sure, as do most of the rest of us. Is “hookup culture” a thing? I’m inclined to think not, and studies seem to suggest that hysteria around this issue is overblown. If you’re looking for a thoughtful exploration on teen use of social media and/or modern sexuality, I’m sorry to say that you won’t find it here. Purchase links

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Review – Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, by Roxane Gay

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
by Roxane Gay (Editor)

Genre: Nonfiction, Essays

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: May 1, 2018

Publisher: Harper Perennial


Edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, the New York Times bestselling and deeply beloved author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, this anthology of first-person essays tackles rape, assault, and harassment head-on.

In this valuable and revealing anthology, cultural critic and bestselling author Roxane Gay collects original and previously published pieces that address what it means to live in a world where women have to measure the harassment, violence, and aggression they face, and where they are “routinely second-guessed, blown off, discredited, denigrated, besmirched, belittled, patronized, mocked, shamed, gaslit, insulted, bullied” for speaking out. Contributions include essays from established and up-and-coming writers, performers, and critics, including actors Ally Sheedy and Gabrielle Union and writers Amy Jo Burns, Lyz Lenz, Claire Schwartz, and Bob Shacochis. Covering a wide range of topics and experiences, from an exploration of the rape epidemic embedded in the refugee crisis to first-person accounts of child molestation, this collection is often deeply personal and is always unflinchingly honest. Like Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to MeNot That Bad will resonate with every reader, saying “something in totality that we cannot say alone.”

Searing and heartbreakingly candid, this provocative collection both reflects the world we live in and offers a call to arms insisting that “not that bad” must no longer be good enough.



Anger is the privilege of the truly broken, and yet, I’ve never met a woman who was broken enough that she allowed herself to be angry.
― Lyz Lenz

I don’t think I can overstate how important this collection of essays is. What’s important for people, and particularly men, to understand is that the stories shared in these essays are often not particularly exceptional. While there are some examples of women who suffered extreme abuse (one woman shares the story of how she was raped by her father as a child, and trusted adults asked her to forgive him instead of protecting her) many of these stories are of struggles that are uncomfortably familiar for most women.

The title, Not That Bad feels painfully apt. Too many of us suffer harassment, abuse, even assault, and downplay the significance. The damage. The simmering anger it inspires. We tell ourselves that we have no right to be angry or broken because we survived and there are always other women who have had it worse. Maybe he said something inappropriate but he didn’t touch you. Maybe he grabbed you but he didn’t hurt you. Maybe he hurt you, but hey, you lived! The right to be angry is reserved for hypothetical women who suffered the worse case scenario, women who are no longer around to exercise that right.

An angry man in cinema is Batman. An angry male musician is a member of Metallica. An angry male writer is Chekhov. An angry male politician is passionate, a revolutionary. He is a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders. The anger of men is a powerful enough tide to swing an election. But the anger of women? That has no place in government, so it has to flood the streets.

Roxane Gay has done a phenomenal job of bringing together a variety of voices for this collection; intersectional feminism was clearly a driving motivation here. Gender identity, race, immigration status, and sexual orientation are all addressed. I appreciated hearing the perspectives of people who I could relate to as well as those that were totally foreign to me. This book is an important exercise in empathy.

Obviously, Not That Bad comes with a huge trigger warning for a variety of issues, such as rape, sexual harassment, violence against women, homophobia, and pedophilia. (I truly apologize if I’ve missed anything here.) This is not a book to pick up when you’re feeling delicate, and it will almost certainly leave you feeling emotionally raw. Nonetheless, I think it’s an incredibly important book for everyone to read.

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Thank you for reading. If you have read Not That Bad, please share your thoughts in the comments. If you have other recommendations to feminist reading, I’d love to hear from you in the comments as well!


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