It’s amazing how people can have differing opinions of the same book. Last May, the Lovefraud Reader Ox Drover wrote a review of The Gaslight Effect, by Dr. Robin Stern. I am always on the lookout for books that will help readers understand, and recover from, a traumatic entanglement with a sociopath. Because Oxy was so complimentary about The Gaslight Effect, I was anxious to read it, and possibly recommend it to others.
Well, I read the book, but I’m not sure I can recommend it.
Oxy did point out that Dr. Stern never mentions the word, “sociopath,” referring to the perpetrator as the “gaslighter,” and the victim as the “gaslightee.” Although Oxy was willing to look past this omission, I’m not.
First of all, let’s define “gaslighting.” According to Wikipedia:
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory and perception. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.
Gaslighting is nasty behavior. The problem I have with this book is that Dr. Stern never, ever mentions, not once, that a person who is gaslighting someone else may be malicious, controlling, and intent on destroying the soul of the victim. She does not mention that the gaslighter may be mentally and emotionally abusing someone else, simply for his or her amusement. She does not say that the gaslighter may be evil.
Here’s how Dr. Stern defines the gaslighting relationship:
The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people: a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power in the world; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality because she idealizes him and seeks his approval.
This definition makes it seem like the two parties—gaslighter and gaslightee—are equally responsible for the dynamics. I don’t think that’s true. Then, a few pages later, Dr. Stern writes:
Of course, neither of you may be aware of what’s really happening. The gaslighter may genuinely believe every word he tells you or sincerely feel that he’s only saving you from yourself. Remember: He’s being driven by his own needs. Your gaslighter might seem like a strong, powerful man, or he may appear to be an insecure, tantrum-throwing little boy; either way, he feels weak and powerless. To feel powerful and safe, he has to prove that he is right, and he has to get you to agree with him.
Excuse me while I barf. Sociopaths who engage in gaslighting do not feel weak and powerless. They are motivated by dominance and feel totally entitled to do what they want and take what they want, even if it is someone else’s sanity.
Three types of gaslighters
Next, Dr. Stern describes three types of gaslighters—the Glamour Gaslighter, the Good-Guy Gaslighter, and the Intimidator. She spends the most time describing the Glamour Gaslighter:
He lets you know you’re the most wonderful woman in the world, the only one who’s ever understood him, the fairy-tale princess who has magically transformed his life. He’ll transform your life, too, he implies or even promises, he’ll shower you with affection, take you to wonderful places, sweep you off your feet with gifts or intimate confessions or sexual attention of a kind you’ve never known before.
This is a perfect description of a sociopath in full seduction mode. But Dr. Stern doesn’t seem to get it. Instead, she explains that this man is in love with the idea of a relationship. He likes to be a leading man, and is looking for a leading lady to fill her part.
Dr. Stern describes the Good-Guy Gaslighter as someone who needs to appear reasonable and good, but is deeply committed to getting his own way. She spends the least amount of time describing the Intimidator, perhaps because the problems are so obvious—put-downs, yelling, bullying, guilt trips and other types of punishment. In order for a relationship with an Intimidator to be more satisfying, she says, the Intimidator will need to alter his way of relating. Yeah, right.
Much of this book describes sample cases of gaslightees trying to understand and cope with gaslighters. I’m sure this helps people realize and identify what is going on in these relationships.
The book, however, falls down when Dr. Stern explains why this behavior happens. She writes, “Gaslighting is a response to stress; people become either gaslighters or gaslightees when they feel threatened.”
Sociopaths don’t engage in gaslighting because they’re stressed. They engage in it because it’s who they are and what they do. And victims don’t become gaslightees because of stress. They are trapped because of a psychopathic bond created by the predator.
Then, Dr. Stern asks the reader to be honest:
Think about the ways in which you aren’t being your best self. Do you set off your gaslighter by being overly critical or demanding? Do you belittle your gaslighter or play on his vulnerabilities? Do you say or do things that you know will make him crazy?
Gee, the people I hear from are walking on eggshells trying not to set the guy off. Until, of course, it gets so bad that they have not choice but to explode.
What’s your view?
In the last chapter, Dr. Stern offers three courses of action for people in these situations: Changing the gaslighting relationship from within, limiting a gaslighting relationship, or leaving the relationship. Yes, these are the three choices, and the book offers suggestions on how to decide what to do.
When considering whether to stay in the relationship and change it from within, Dr. Stern reminds the reader to be compassionate, both for herself and the gaslighter. She writes:
You don’t have to put up with unlimited bad treatment, but if your gaslighter persists in gaslighting you, you can remind yourself that he is also suffering, perhaps even more than you are. After all, he almost certainly grew up in a home where he was gaslighted by someone and couldn’t make it stop—so now he doesn’t understand why you have the power to say no.
Is this true? I am asking an honest question of Lovefraud readers here, and I would appreciate your feedback. Have any of you ever been subjected to gaslighting by someone who was basically a good person with problems? Can any of you attribute gaslighting behavior to the perpetrator’s stress or internal pain? Or, do you feel that gaslighting behavior is due to sociopathic traits?
Afraid to recommend
Overall, I have mixed feelings about this book, The Gaslight Effect. The author does a good job of explaining what the behavior looks like, and the questions victims should ask themselves to determine what is really going on. She offers strategies for coping with the behavior, including leaving the relationship.
But Dr. Stern seems to come from that school of therapy that believes both parties contribute equally to relationship problems. Throughout the entire book, I kept waiting for the author to warn the reader that some gaslighters have dangerous, pathological personality disorders, and they should run, not walk, for the nearest exit. The warning never came.
Therefore, I’m afraid to recommend the book, because it may encourage people to stay and try to work things out with an abuser. And the longer people stay in a gaslighting relationship, the more power they lose, and the harder it is to finally leave.