REVIEW: The Great Pretender

Having previously read Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, Brain on Fire, I was so excited to hear that she was writing a new book about the mental health system in America.

The Great Pretender is the unravelling of the paper written by David Rosenhan titled “On Being Sane in Insane Places” and examining how it was influenced by as well as influencing in regards to the treatment of people living with mental illness. It examined the case of people posing as patients to “infiltrate” the broken system and prove the point of misdiagnosis as well as the dismissal of those who receive those diagnoses. Winding through history and even looking at the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the modern method of Structured Clinical Interview for DSM (SCID) diagnosis.

Reading Cahalan’s previous book, I was familiar with her own experiences with misdiagnosis which I do feel was a key element in her ability to capture all of the elements of this narrative. My own experiences also gave me intense respect for those involved in the study and even for people that continue to speak out on behalf of those who are victims of the broken system that passes itself off as health care for the mentally ill.

I also found the final few chapters regarding fraudulent research and results in scientific papers to be fascinating. Tackling the disproven research from Freud all the way to the Standford Prison Experiment (which was a weird obsession I had in high school and will always find fascinating), it talked about not only creating fictitious results for the sake of being published but also how papers should really be taken with a grain of salt because not many of them age and achieve the same results when replicated.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in psychology, psychiatry, history, or even mental health in general. Whether it’s your major or you’re simply curious, Cahalan’s writing style is very accessible and attention-grabbing. Once again, Susannah Cahalan has knocked this one out of the park and I look forward to any and all future books she comes out with.

REVIEW: Brain on Fire

I don’t normally read biographies of any kind (with the incredibly rare exception of Carrie Fisher’s books), but I especially don’t ever read autobiographies about illness. Given my own various mental illness diagnoses, non-fiction books about illnesses tend to trigger a certain kind of anxious paranoia in me that I just can’t shake.

However, if you know anything about me, it’s that for a very long time the Hannibal films have been an obsession of mine, and for a shorter length of time, the television series as well. Through my enjoyment of the show, I have a curiosity about the real-life effects of encephalitis based on Will Graham’s experiences in Bryan Fuller’s adaptation. That curiosity placed this book on my TBR but never pushed me far enough to read it. With the release of the movie adaptation on Netflix (starring Chloe Grace Moretz), I figured it was time to dive in.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan is a more detailed look at an article she wrote for the New York Post and gives a true idea of just how horrifying it can be to lose control of yourself without reason. Very quickly this book terrified me. The initial symptoms Susannah encounters are things that I, myself, and friends of mine as well, have dealt with as – as I mentioned before – I did find myself getting paranoid despite the rational part of my brain knowing full well that I did not have nor probably will ever develop encephalitis.

I won’t get into the details of the symptoms or even Susannah’s patch-work of what she endured while in the hospital, but I do want to talk about the structure and the writing.

Clearly, Susannah Cahalan is okay. Otherwise we wouldn’t have this book. Her writing style is tight and she doesn’t ramble to fill the page. Her narrative has been put together by the vague memories she has, anecdotes from those who were with her, and video footage from the hospital. Given the extensive medical terminology used, Cahalan never ones writes to look down on people. She gives explanations for everything while still not getting overly descriptive and therefore boring the story. You can feel the fear that comes out of early chapters, and the helpless yearning of those close to her in later ones. Even with every diagnosis or misdiagnosis, the hope that the suffering will be over radiates off the page, even more so when it is at last discovered what Cahalan is truly dealing with.

Those who have seen the Hannibal tv show may believe that they have a basic understanding of encephalitis – as I did myself. But the reality is far more terrifying than black outs and spatial neglect.

I learned a lot from this book and am truly pleased to have read it. As a narrative, it is compelling and suspenseful even with the lack of a “countdown” shall we say as is with cancer or other fatal illnesses. As a book about the connection between physical and mental illnesses, it was as fascinating as it was tragic given that, more often than not, patients with encephalitis of any kind can go undiagnosed.

Definitely worth the read.


Author: Susannah Cahalan
Published: November 13, 2012
Pages: 266
Publisher: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks
ISBN: 9781451621389

Synopsis: When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Cahalan tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.


I’m going to start off this review by saying I have turned the comments off. Everything I am about to say regarding Rose Mcgowan’s book, BRAVE, is incredibly personal and given the immensely triggering content, consider this also a trigger warning for abuse (mental, physical, and sexual), eating disorders, self-harm, and general upsetting nastiness.

So here we go.

Continue reading “REVIEW: BRAVE”

REVIEW: The Manson Women & Me

I received a free copy of the e-book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I finished this book a few days ago but it has taken me since then to really think about how to go about this review. It’s a bit of a sensitive topic, even now so just bear with me on this one. Also please note that while my review is free of triggers, links to various examples listed in this review may contain graphic and potentially triggering content. I would also warn that the book also contains unsettling content, so please be aware of the crime it is discussing before reading should that sort of thing be triggering to you.

Nikki Meredith’s book, The Manson Women & Me: Monsters, Morality, and Murder is as much an autobiography on the author as it is a true-crime depiction of the very real lives of Pat Krenwinckle and Leslie Van Houten while they were with Charles Manson as well as their lives in prison. Woven into the lives of these young women is the life story of Nikki Meredith, herself, as she faces a different kind of struggle between her own morality and finding herself in her Jewish heritage. It a true crime book while also given great insight into the psychology behind wanting to be loved and the psychology that goes into ignorance and racism (from ethnicity to religion).

When I saw this book on NetGalley, I was excited. Even more so when I was approved for it. Since high school I have been somewhat “obsessed” – for lack of a better word – with the psychology of the Manson family and Charles Manson himself. Susan Atkins was the only of the women who I really knew about so the chance to learn more about the other women involved intrigued me. However, this book was not at all what I was expecting.

I’m going to take a moment here and make a statement: I am not condoning nor will I ever condone the actions of the Manson family, especially in regards to the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969.

With that said, I was not expecting this novel to make me cry over Leslie and Pat. I was not expecting to feel their pain and grow physically sick at the though that these women are still in prison for a crime committed after months of manipulation when they were 19 and 23 respectively. The year is 2018 at the point and both of them are still behind bars.

Want to know who isn’t behind bars? OJ Simpson. Karla Homolka. The entirety of the Children of God cult (who openly bragged about years of child abuse, molestation, and full-out rape). Want to know who is allowed to go up for parole but isn’t even in the general population for fear he’ll be murdered? Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo.

Through Nikki’s retellings of conversations she has had with these two very intelligent women over the course of over 20 years, she shows just how well the confused and brainwashed girls have grown into responsible adults (Leslie even has her Masters Degree and certifications in counselling). Leslie and Pat are in the general population of the prison and are fully functional in their everyday lives. There is no reason for either of them to still be condemned to rot behind bars for following orders they were brainwashed into believing were gospel.

To me their lives were no different then than any “normal” women to “in love” to see that she is being abused by a manipulative partner. It is truly heartbreaking.

Aside from that, I found the anecdotes of Nikki’s personal life to be humanizing in the way they connected to the lives of the women she has befriended. I found her pulls from other horrific crimes – from Abu Ghraib to the Moonie cult – to also be fascinating in determining how people react to different levels of crime. I have known who Charles Manson was for the majority of my life (as of this writing I am 23) but barely knew about Abu Ghraib or Jonestown in a real world context (everyone has seen parodies of the tortured prisoner photos or the phrase “Well so-and-so has drunk the Kool-Aid”). People are still furious about what happened to the Tate and LaBianca families, yet very few people even talk about the other aforementioned atrocities.

To cut myself off I will wrap up this review saying that this book is a very insightful and tastefully written profile on two women involved in one of the most famous crimes of the 20th century. Nikki Meredith is incredibly detailed in her research and her prose without being exploitative in any way or excusing the crimes of Leslie, Pat, Susan, Linda Tex, and Charlie. It is a modern day look at the crimes as written by someone with a clearly level head and as little bias as anyone who grew up in those days can have.

Nikki Meredith’s first complete book gets 5 / 5 stars for me.

Author: Nikki Meredith
Published:  March 27th 2018
Pages: 368
Publisher: Citadel Press
ISBN: 9780806538587

Synopsis: In the summer of 1969, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel carried out horrific acts of butchery on the orders of the charismatic cult leader Charles Manson. At their murder trial the following year, lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi described the two so-called Manson Women as “human monsters.” But to anyone who knew them growing up, they were bright, promising girls, seemingly incapable of such an unfathomable crime.

Award-winning journalist Nikki Meredith began visiting Van Houten and Krenwinkel in prison to discover how they had changed during their incarceration. The more Meredith got to know them, the more she was lured into a deeper dilemma: What compels “normal” people to do unspeakable things?

The author’s relationship with her subjects provides a chilling lens through which we gain insight into a particular kind of woman capable of a particular kind of brutality. Through their stories, Nikki Meredith takes readers on a dark journey into the very heart of evil.

REVIEW: Dead Serious: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Suicide

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Dead Serious: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Suicide (2nd Edition) is a collection of tips on how to deal with those suffering from suicidal thoughts and depression mingled in with real stories of people’s experiences with losing the people in their lives to suicide.

Being non-fiction, the format of this review will be a little different from my usual, but the point will stay the same.

Right off the bat, author Jane Leder mentions losing her brother and several other people to suicide and how it effected her. She then goes on to describe the ever-changing and increasingly more horrible statistics of teen suicide, breaking it down by age group and minority. These statistics are incredibly sad to read, but important to know, and I for one respected how Leder separately divided the stat numbers for those with differing sexual orientation from those who identify as transgender – especially since the stats greatly differ to a heartbreaking extent.

When it came to the retellings of the experiences of others, it was difficult to get through them. I also made the mistake of reading the entire book within a night and as someone who does not shy away from the fact that I, too, have attempted suicide in my past, it was rough to hear about so many who didn’t make it past their hardships. That being said, I think that if you are a person of any age struggling with suicidal ideation or urges, this book may help you find that little light in the dark that proves you’re not alone with these feelings. If anything, this is the first book I’ve come across that doesn’t try and shame anyone. This is a book that wants to help people without pitying them and to educate those who want to help but don’t know how to start.

Talking about suicide is hard. Dealing with suicide is hard. But we need to stick together, help those who may not know how to help themselves, and make sure that we can get through things together. This is an excellent learning tool that tells the truth and doesn’t beat around the bush.

Final Rating: ★★★★½

36239713Published: January 23rd 2018

Summary: Are you under a lot of stress? Feeling too much pressure to get good grades? Trying to avoid social media because you’re being bullied? Grappling with your sexual/gender identity? Feeling depressed—even suicidal?

What are the reasons why teens decide to take their own lives? What can be done to stop them? Through stories, studies and strategies, Dead Serious helps teens, parents and educators navigate the choppy waters of adolescence and provides tools that can help break the cycle of teen suicide.