On Gaslighting

Image of On Gaslighting (Insights: Philosophy in Focus)
Release Date: 
March 19, 2024
Princeton University Press
Reviewed by: 

“a fascinating, esoteric treatise on gaslighting, which includes not only what this psychological tactic involves, but what it doesn’t, on both the micro and macro levels.”

Kate Abramson, associate professor of philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington, has written a fascinating, esoteric treatise on gaslighting, which includes not only what this psychological tactic involves, but what it doesn’t, on both the micro and macro levels. The book was born out of Abramson’s passion to correct the frequent misuse of the term in current culture and distinguish it from other forms of emotional abuse. This is no traditional self-help book, but an academic, in-depth examination of its subject—though it may well be instructive for people who are being gaslit, wonder if others are being manipulated in this way, or want to understand what makes gaslighters seek to destroy others in this particularly underhanded, odious manner.  

The take-away message of On Gaslighting is that it is like no other form of emotional abuse and should be viewed as such. The book begins with a list of common gaslighter admonitions, including, “Don’t be so sensitive, I didn’t say that never happened, don’t be paranoid, and you’re overreacting” used to advance their mission of driving someone crazy by eradicating their sense of agency and self-trust.

In short, gaslighting’s sole intent, by design, is not only to drive someone crazy but to ensure they also believe they are. Abramson shows us how gaslighting is “wrong, immoral, unethical, vicious,” and that “what makes gaslighting so awful is the multidimension nature of its immorality . . . how the gaslighter is both trying to make the target think that she’s crazy and trying to actually drive her crazy.”

Chapters include What is Gaslighting?, What Gaslighting Looks Like, Gaslighters and Their Aims, The Methods and Means of Gaslighting, Social Structures, Subjugation, and Gaslighting, The Multidimensional Moral Horror Show of Gaslighting, and Trust and Gaslighting, Revisited.

Abramson distinguishes between gaslighting and abusive tactics like shaming, manipulation, dismissing, guilt-tripping, lying, brainwashing, and emotional blackmail. She teaches us that gaslighting is never a one-off but always consists of a pattern of using the above strategies to undermine the sanity of its victim in intimate, work, and community settings. At work or in the community it is used to lower the status of a someone in their own mind and in that of their peers. In intimate relationships, its goal is to depower and unmoor the victim through manipulation until they become totally emotionally dependent on the gaslighter.

The author explains why gaslighters feel compelled to diminish and mentally demolish others. She describes how the gaslighter’s anxiety, insecurity about competence, and sense of powerlessness cause them to project these emotions onto others in order to gain a sense of mastery and power over them. There is also discussion of whether gaslighters’ behaviors are conscious or unconscious and how epistemic and testimonial injustice relate to gaslighting.

We also discover the characteristics of gaslighting victims—trauma sufferers and survivors who are insecure, emotionally needy, self-doubting and have low self-regard—which make them perfect targets for gaslighters. Readers might even wish the book delved more deeply into the traits and backgrounds of gaslighting victims, but that is not its focus.

The final chapter, however, explores how the absolute dissolution of trust in the gaslighter generates betrayal and grief in their victims due to a catastrophic loss of reality and sense of self. After having been gaslit, trust is difficult, if not impossible, to regain, and victims often find themselves experiencing knee-jerk fear of trusting others while also desperately yearning to have faith in them. Says Abramson, “There is no away around the long road back to the skill,” but being able to name one’s experience is an “incalculable” necessity in recovery.

On a macro level, although subjugation and gaslighting are done within social structures, Abramson argues it is not the structure itself that engages in evildoing, but the individuals in the structure; we therefore should not use the term structural gaslighting. Racial, ethnic, and sex stereotypes can be used to abet gaslighting as a way to depower targeted groups of people and cause them to question their own competence as can pressuring them to suppress anger and placing them in double binds so they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t (for example, being told to be more/less approachable, assertive or autonomous).

Because the author often debates arguments previously made about gaslighting by others in the fields of psychology or philosophy, the book at times feels as if she is speaking to them and not to a wider audience, such as when she states, “There are three claims some have made about the epistemic wrongs of gaslighting that are to my mind importantly misguided.” While disputing what other academics in the field have said is necessary in order to clarify the nuances and uniqueness of gaslighting, such challenges make the book feel more theoretical than practical.

There are also instances of repetition, as when Abramson states and restates the gaslighter’s targeted intention to drive a victim crazy and annihilate their sense of self. Tighter editing of the book would have made it more readable. Also, it would have benefited from more examples than her use of the films Gaslight and Pat and Mike, excerpts from writings of Simone de Beauvoir about her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, dialogue from the New Girl sitcom, and Dolly Parton’s lyrics from the song “9to5.”

Yet if someone wants to fully comprehend the underlying motivations, manifestations and implications of gaslighting vis à vis other forms of emotional abuse, this would be an excellent book to turn to.