Culture Writer Megan Hughes reviews On Gaslighting by Kate Abramson, praising the author’s complex, philosophical exploration of the phenomenon

Written by Megan Hughes

Whilst Kate Abramson’s On Gaslighting is written primarily from a philosophical perspective, with Abramson herself being a philosophy professor, the content covered within her non-fiction book covers a broad range of other subject areas. This book has the potential to be of interest to film studies students as well as those who study sociology, media or psychology. 

The reason why On Gaslighting might appeal to a range of academic disciplines is because Abramson’s extended essay provides a comprehensive guide to the phenomenon, rather than just an overview. For me, this is where her book particularly stands out amongst other philosophical offerings on the same topic. Abramson does not simply explain what gaslighting means, because anyone with an online presence within the past few years will have at least a vague comprehension of the phenomenon. Abramson goes beyond definition; particularly interesting for me (as a philosophy student) is how she builds on existing scholarship to suggest that the phenomenon is not predominantly an epistemic wrong (a wrong to do with knowledge) as suggested by her academic peers, but rather equally – if not more so – a moral wrong. Abramson claims that  ‘…he [the perpetrator] gaslights…by so radically undermining another person that she has nowhere left to stand’ (p. 56). In this way, she informs readers that gaslighting does not just impact a victim’s sense of knowledge, but also isolates them from their peers and, ultimately, their sense of self.

Abramson’s extended essay provides a comprehensive guide to the phenomenon, rather than just an overview

Despite praising why On Gaslighting is of academic note, I would clarify that Abramson’s writing is not purely for the scholar. Whilst the author does use terms that those outside of certain disciplines may be unaware of, the tone of the book is instructive rather than imperious, with important phrases explained in detail using practical examples from reality. Indeed, Abramson is not stingy with her use of examples, resolving to show how gaslighting can affect multiple social minorities. An important message of the book is that, although the phenomenon is conducted between individuals (and so is interpersonal), it relies heavily upon larger systems of prejudice within society due to its dependency on power imbalances within relationships and its use of bigoted stereotypes. Abramson’s exposition highlights gaslighting as a form of abuse and manipulation by using a diverse range of examples to show how it can manifest itself within the mundane. Whilst gaslighting is particularly rife in cases of domestic abuse, it also occurs within the classroom through racist microaggressions towards students of colour. 

The tone of the book is instructive rather than imperious, with important phrases explained in detail using practical examples from reality

Another reason to read On Gaslighting is the thought-provoking nature of its contents. Abramson breaks down the multiplicity of gaslighting, showing how it does not always occur explicitly. The typical perception of gaslighting comes in phrases such as ‘you’re overreacting’ or the more common ‘you’re crazy.’ Whilst these are still common within the vocabulary of the gaslighter, Abramson points out how gaslighting can work just as effectively by weaponising the target’s own sense of empathy and morality against them. This is just one of the ways in which Abramson attempts to widen the common perception of what gaslighting looks like within the public domain. 

A guidebook on how to identify gaslighting in action

On Gaslighting is not for those seeking a light read, due to the heavy use of jargon required by the nature of Abramson’s book. However, this does not mean that her work should be considered purely of value for the academic. Indeed, one could approach this seminar as a guidebook on how to identify gaslighting in action, as well as how to protect oneself against those wishing to employ it by detailing the gaslighter’s motives and means of manipulation. Furthermore, Abramson’s employment of subsections and explanations through indices means that the book can easily be consumed in small chunks in order to make the content more digestible. 

(On Gaslighting by Kate Abramson is available now from Princeton University Press.)

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