Sunday, April 28, 2019

REVIEW: Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People - and Break Free (nonfiction book) by Stephanie Moulton Sarkis

Gaslighting is a psychology/self-help book.


I read this hoping for some decent "dealing with gaslighters" tips. I requested it via interlibrary loan after one particular incident with my own personal gaslighter. I hadn't previously realized that the word "gaslighting" applied to that person's actions, but for some reason it suddenly clicked.

In her introduction, Sarkis asks that readers not succumb to the temptation to skip directly to whichever chapter seems most appropriate to their situation, and I'd have to agree. While Sarkis organizes the book into chapters that, for the most part, each deal with a particular situation (you're in an intimate relationship with the gaslighter, the gaslighter is in your workplace, the gaslighter is a politician, you're in a cult and being gaslit by everyone close to you, etc.), and those chapters often have advice that's only applicable in those situations, there are tidbits of advice throughout the entire book that could be more broadly useful.

I also want to mention that much of the advice specific to certain situations is also specific to US residents. Sarkis definitely wrote this book with US readers in mind. The laws and legal protections she mentions might have equivalents in other countries, but it's up to readers to look those up. That said, there's lots of other advice that would likely be helpful no matter where you live: creating physical and/or emotional distance between yourself and your gaslighter, documenting everything, suggested ways of responding to particular conversational traps and attempts to reel you in, etc.

Oddly, there was one chapter that I expected would be particularly US-centric that wasn't: the chapter on gaslighters in politics. Although Sarkis noted that there were "examples [of gaslighters] in our own country" (96), the only specific examples she mentioned were those in other countries, people like Nicolás Maduro and Kim Jong-un. Sarkis's introduction brought up the 2016 election and "fake news" but never actually named Trump or any of the politicians and White House staff members who made/continue to make his presidency possible. Perhaps this was a Da Capo Press editorial decision (fear of being sued?), or perhaps Sarkis decided to be vague on purpose.

At any rate, I could imagine the legal info included in the gaslighting spouse, gaslighting employer or coworker, and "divorcing a gaslighter, especially when there are children involved" sections to be particularly helpful to some people. They weren't very helpful to me, mostly because (thankfully) my own personal gaslighter isn't at a level where legal intervention is necessary. I have a feeling that, were Sarkis to categorize my gaslighter, she would say that person "exhibits gaslighting behaviors" (particularly when under stress) and is not a "true gaslighter."

One thing that really bugged me about the book is Sarkis's distinction between "true gaslighters" and those who exhibit gaslighting behavior. From Sarkis's perspective, true gaslighters are those who are incapable of experiencing real empathy. They either don't recognize what they're doing to those around them, or don't care. People who exhibit gaslighting behaviors may have been victims of gaslighters themselves, who picked up gaslighting behaviors as a form of self-defense. On the one hand, I could understand the need to distinguish between the two somehow. On the other hand, as someone who has struggled with my feelings about my own gaslighter, who I would generally describe as a nice person (no, really), the way Sarkis made "true gaslighters" a separate category was painful.

Whether someone is a "true gaslighter" or just someone "exhibiting gaslighting behavior" doesn't really matter to the person who is in the process of being gaslit. I don't know enough about my gaslighter's life to know if there are reasons why they do what they do, but even if there are, that doesn't excuse the harm that person does. The same goes for the moments when that person clearly feels bad about what they've done - those moments only matter if they lead to an effort at change and self-improvement.

Anyway, moving on. Sarkis's top piece of advice to all victims of gaslighters was to leave if possible. Unfortunately, that isn't always possible. In my case, it could be, but it would involve huge and expensive changes that currently seem out of proportion to the occasional gaslighting I deal with. Thankfully, Sarkis included lots of other useful advice that would work for those who can't or won't leave: keeping documentation (which I do, although not always as religiously as I should), avoiding being alone with your gaslighter, sticking to written communication when possible, creating emotional distance by mentally reframing your gaslighter as a particularly interesting specimen of gaslighter that you are studying, acting bored, blank, or confused when they try to stir up trouble, etc.

I also liked Sarkis's communication tips in her "What if I'm the gaslighter?" chapter, which I thought sounded like they'd be helpful in broader contexts, any situation where one might want to communicate with greater clarity and respect. In the final chapter, Sarkis went into detail on how to find a mental health professional, explanations of different counseling theories and forms of counseling (making sure to emphasize that there is no one "right" way - it all depends on what works for you), and a few things you can do on your own to improve your emotional health. I haven't looked into getting counseling before, so I appreciated her explanations.

The focus of this book was, at times, almost too broad. The chapters on gaslighting politicians and gaslighting cultists felt a bit out of place in what was largely a book about recognizing and dealing with gaslighters in one's day-to-day life. (Gaslighting cultists would be a daily problem for those trapped in cults, yes, but even Sarkis recognized that it would be an extraordinary achievement for someone trapped in a cult to somehow get hold of a copy of this book and not get caught reading it. I could see the book being therapeutic for someone after they'd gotten out, though.) And, like I said, I was unhappy with the way Sarkis distinguished between "true gaslighters" and people who practice gaslighting behaviors.

That said, there was a good deal of useful information here. I do wish it had been a bit less scattered, though. It'd be tough to track down a specific piece of advice unless it was directly related to a particular situation, like divorcing a gaslighter. There's an index, but that can only accomplish so much.


The book includes a "Resources" section with lists of potentially useful URLs. They're separated out into categories, like "Employee and Employer Rights," "How Congress Voted," "Legal Services," etc. Unfortunately, none of the resources are annotated.

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