Photo by Pablo Varela, CC

The term ‘gaslighting’ earned its name by way of the 1944 film, Gaslight. In the film, an antagonist secretly brightens and dims his home’s lights, making his wife doubt her sanity and sense of reality. Despite the cinematic origins of its label, this form of abuse is experienced by many women. Though psychologists have extensively investigated the subject, little attention has been paid to the role that underlying social characteristics may play. In new research, Paige Sweet fills this void by revealing how social characteristics affect individual experiences of gaslighting within domestic abuse.

Through a series of life course interviews, Sweet finds that abusers mobilize gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes, and victims’ institutional settings in order to manipulate their victims’ sense of reality. Women of different racial and social backgrounds experience gaslighting in different forms; whereas an abuser might prey upon a black woman’s fear of becoming a stereotypical “baby mama,” another might threaten an undocumented Hispanic woman with deportation. Despite differences, abusers in Sweet’s study utilized “crazy-making” tactics for all women — drawing on stereotypes that men are rational, while women are irrational.

Sweet’s argument that “micro tactics of abuse are situated in macro conditions of inequality”  helps us to understand why gaslighting can be so effective at stripping down one’s sense of reality; by drawing attention to existing power structures and inequalities, abusers are able to gain a greater sense of legitimacy and tailor their tactics to a victim’s personal social experiences. It is crucial that we understand the forces that underlie gaslighting in order to more effectively recognize symptoms of abuse, and subsequently support the victims who experience it.