On Gaslighting

One of the things I’ve learned this week is the following, “The term “gaslighting” actually comes from a 1938 play, “Gas Light” (which was turned into a more widely known movie in 1944, “Gaslight”), where a husband manipulates his wife to make her think she’s actually losing her sense of reality so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance.” (from NBC)


So, my post really took the book world by storm, didn’t it? 

I’ve had… a lot of responses. Some good, some predictably bad. 

Some that broke my heart. 

I want to address a few things right away. 

I have had a lot of pressure to name this person. I’ve thought long and hard about it and I decided I will not name him, or publicly post what he sent me, unless he forces my hand. There are a few reasons for this. One, I just want to move past this and giving this one person that much limelight is not allowing me to do that, and honestly, it is more than he deserves. Secondly, this person is small, and I don’t like punching down. 

Mostly, after a few days of wading through responses from people, I’ve realized that this entire issue is bigger than one man, and I don’t want to narrow the wider conversation down to one person, when it’s absolutely clear to me that this happens far more than I, at least, ever realized. 

I feel like maybe I should introduce myself to all of you. I started Bookworm Blues as a book review website for SFF genre books about eleven years ago. I quickly became one of the better known reviewers out there. After about six years of reviewing books, I began editing (which has subsequently decreased the amount of reviews I post). Now, the list of bestselling books and authors I’ve edited for never ceases to amaze me. My authors are amazing. In 2019, I put all of this together and released my first book. 

Criticism, as you can see, has been a part of my life for eleven years now. Currently, constructive criticism via editing is literally what puts food on my table. So, for those of you who have alleged that I don’t “understand criticism” please, sit down. 

Since Monday, I have had a shocking number of women reach out to me about gaslighting and I realized that this is both something a lot of people are afraid to talk about, and something there isn’t much information on. There’s a lot of information about what if someone you love gaslights you, but not much about the kind of thing that happened to me. This afternoon, a woman reached out to me and said, “Sarah, I read your blog post and I think this is happening to me but I don’t know for sure” and it broke my heart. 

You just don’t know. And you’re afraid to say anything because it’s just so cerebral. It’s hard to believe it happened. By the time it’s been done, you’re already doubting yourself so much, what’s real? 

The thing is, gaslighters make you question yourself to the point where you have no idea if this is a thing that’s really happening. I’ve said, no fewer than a thousand times since Monday, “I still am having a hard time believing any of this actually happened.” I am constantly seeking validation from trusted sources. This really was gaslighting, wasn’t it? I had a woman reach out to me last night about her experience with my specific gaslighter. She said, “It wasn’t until I read your blog that I realized I was being gaslighted, and I bought it, hook, line, and sinker.” 

Then, when I did say something, the outpouring of support was amazing, but there have also been a bunch of very loud voices (all dudes so far, so bravo, men) speaking loud and proud about how I do not know art, and I obviously can’t take criticism (see above bio about criticism). This backlash from dudebros makes this a very hard thing to talk about. There is a certain vulnerability in discussing this sort of thing, since so much of it is based on feelings, manipulation, and power dynamics, you don’t even know if it’s happening half the time. Add in all these loud voices that somehow equate feelings to weakness and everything just sort of spirals. It seems to be something a lot of people experience, yet no one is comfortable talking about.

I get it. Trust me. At this point in my evolution, I totally get it.

“I didn’t even realize I was being gaslighted” or “I think I’m being gaslighted” or “this happens to women in the industry a lot more than anyone acknowledges” have been the three themes of my days since my post went public on Monday, and it really, really bothers me.

I will say this, and if you do not take anything else away from this post, please take this: Having feelings does not make you weak and being “soft” is not a bad thing. Period, end of discussion.

I’m going to talk a bit about what happened to me, and what I should have been aware of. I will use myself as the primary example, but I will also tell you what other women have told me as well. I will not reveal any names or identifying information. Your mileage may vary. I am also not a psychologist, nor any sort of mental health professional. If any of this feels true to you, please speak to a trusted friend, or reach out to me if you’d like. Scroll to the end of this post for further resources. 

Beneath everything else, understand that gaslighting is a subtle manipulation tactic people use to get you to doubt yourself, your confidence, what you believe, or sometimes the world and your place in it. Gaslighters can use any number of tactics to get this done, some overt and some not. 

I can only speak for myself and from examples given to me by others. Understand, if someone is interacting with you in a way that is making you question any of the things I’ve listed, you may need to examine your relationship with this person.

And, know, YOU ARE NOT WRONG FOR FEELING LIKE SOMETHING IS WRONG. 


The first sign I should have been aware of is what I’m currently calling the “Oh, him” factor. 

While this person is small, if I say his name, those who know who he is inevitably reply with, “Oh, him” (insert eyeroll here). No one can quite figure out why I was friends with him in the first place, and I will tell you why. Because the face he shows the world is very different than the one he shows through private messages and personal conversations. He was never once mean, or unkind (the way he is in public). He was understanding. He listened. He said all the right things at the right time. I got so convinced that the “private” person was the real one, and the “public” face was all some game or show. 

This seems to be common with gaslighters. They have two faces. One they show the world and one they show you, and you get so convinced that one face is their true one, and the other is the “fake” one, so you ignore all the signs. “Oh, that abrasive stuff is just a game/show.” or, as a few other people have told me, “That’s just (name) being (name)” *shrug and chuckle here*. All the stuff that puts everyone else off doesn’t matter because YOU know the real man behind the mask.

Already, you’re off balance and you don’t even know it.

The second sign I should have been aware of is the good ol’ emotional switcheroo.

You’ve got this friend, and you’ve confided in them. They are SO NICE and understanding in private, and who cares what they show to the public because it doesn’t really matter. You know the real person, right? And then, they start saying things. It’s really subtle at first. Just a comment here or there. Just enough to throw you off.

For me, and, it seems, for others he has preyed on, it’s usually comments about other books that, in one way or another, compare to their own, and how said books fall below the mark. Or “bad writers” who have essentially duped the populous into think they’re good. All of said authors will be more known than you are, and write in the genre you write in. These books, as it happens, will always have similarities with yours. Somewhere around this point, he’ll say something like, “by the way, I’m reading your book.” 

Now, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it has the effect of being both subtle and of setting you on edge. Oh, here are a bunch of books he hates that share a commonality with mine. He’s reading my book.

Conclusions: He’s noticed things. 

This makes you a bit anxious. Inevitably, your gaslighter will make you wait for the rest of whatever he’s going to say. You’ll wait, and you’ll stew. You’ll start feeling nervous. He’ll keep dropping cues. You’ll start looking at these books and authors differently. You’ll start questioning, and that’s the point. You’re vulnerable. You’ve made a friend. Now, he’s starting to say things that make you question your own skills. These other books are all much bigger than yours, as are the authors, and they all have these flaws, and you know yours does too. You’re so small… so what does this mean for you? 

Nothing good. 

The stage is set. 

The third sign involves sensitivity. 

Your gaslighter is already making you question your own abilities. Subtle comments here and there can do a lot of damage. Now, he starts making jabs. For me, and others, this involves, usually, a conversation about how people are too sensitive. “Harsh criticism” is necessary, and if people can’t take it, the problem is them, not the person dishing it out. (I will talk a bit about criticism a little further down.)

He will never tell you HOW harsh the criticism is, but he does make it perfectly clear that some people are just too sensitive. Are you too sensitive? Can you take criticism, or are you going to be like all those other weak-spined people? 

Well, this is your trusted friend who would never be too harsh, because that’s not what friends do. Also, he’s an author, right? So he has to know how to be constructive. He knows things. Has insights. You can trust him. He’ll steer you right.

The problem is the other people, not you. You aren’t sensitive… Being sensitive, by the way, is just a massive flaw. This, by this point, has been perfectly established.

And while you think all this, some voice in the back of your mind will probably start questioning if you really are too sensitive. You’ll start feeling nervous. You’ll start wondering how bad this is going to be, but it’s all in place. Your FRIEND will never lead you wrong. You’re made of tougher stuff. You aren’t “sensitive” like all those other people. It’s “us” versus “them”, and you’re not weak. Not you. Never you.

But, your book is similar to those others he listed… 

You’ll brace. You’ll tell yourself you can handle it. You aren’t sensitive. You will prove yourself to be of tougher stuff.

But… are you?

He’s your friend. Right? 

He’ll drop a comment that will have you questioning everything. 

For me, I remember he said something about how he stopped reading an author’s books once because a character said “okay” and that’s just lazy writing. Then he quickly said, “but you know what I’m talking about” and changed the topic before I could say, “Actually, I have no idea what you’re talking about”. But I remember that one comment because it really, really planted seeds. I remember sitting there thinking, “… but characters in MY book say ‘okay’. Does that mean I am also a lazy writer?” It seems like mileage may vary on this one, but most female authors who have contacted me seem to have a moment like this in common. They drop a comment. You know it applies to you though it’s directed at everyone else, and then the person moves along before you can say anything about it.

There it is, planted deep and growing roots. This seems to just underscore everything else. I know for me, this was the point where I really, really started questioning my book. I remember I almost told him to stop reading it a few times at this point, but I never did. 

Why? Because he’s my friend. 

Feeling like something’s wrong, but not knowing what it is AKA, the “What the Fuck” stage. 

At this point, I started questioning myself. I have all these good 4 and 5 star reviews, but I… I just feel like something is really wrong. Is it the book? Is it me? Are all these people being too nice to me? Am I overreacting? He hasn’t even told me anything yet, but I just FEEL like something is off. I think I’m going nuts. I think I’ve been too lost in my own head for too long and I just don’t know anything anymore. Just calm down, self. Calm down. It’ll be okay. You’ve got all these good reviews, and all these good vibes from the community…

So why do I feel like my gut is in knots and I’m just waiting for a storm to break? What is WRONG with me? With this? With… whatever? 

Making excuses

He pokes holes in your confidence, and you make excuses for either him doing that (which justify his behavior), or for you having these flaws. 

Yep. You won’t be proud about it, but it will happen. 

The setup.

You get far enough along in this, and at some point, your gaslighter will do you a huge favor. For me, it was a public five-star review. Man, that was amazing. I was over the moon. Five stars. Unbelievable. My trusted friend really loved this thing. All my anxiety and bad feelings were for absolutely nothing. What a joke. 

Insert sigh of relief here.

The fall. 

Then he’ll rip the rug out from under you. It was a two page letter for me, wherein he detailed everything that was wrong with my book. These were not small things. Fundamentally, this would require me to un-publish my book, and rewrite the entire thing in a completely different way. The resulting book would not be the book I wrote.

But he’s there with all these great ideas, right? Positioned in just the spot to help lift you up, and then break your wings as you fall. This, also happened at the wrong time. If I had asked for criticism like this, it would have been a specific request to him before the book published, during the beta phase where substantial rewrites were even possible. However, I neither asked for this sort of really abrasive editorial commentary from him, nor was I at the stage where substantial rewrites were a possibility.

But this, after some thought, seems to be part of the game. Not only the setup and the fall, but the abrasive nature of the comments, and the fact that he insinuated I had to pull the book and re-write it (there would be literally no other way to execute his feedback). And, wow, look at all his fancy ideas for improvement. I’m not the only person he has done this to. It’s all part of the unbalancing game. It goes back to the idea of, let me break you, and then position myself in the exact right spot so I can help rebuild you in my image. 

But thank god, he’s around with all his ideas to help you pick up the pieces. Where would you be without him? 

Before you say, “No way, I wouldn’t buy this.” I have had FIVE people, since Monday, tell me, in confidence, that they have rewritten entire books due to gaslighters making them question their work that substantially. My guess is there are a whole lot more out there.

I see you.

You don’t know what it’s like. YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS LIKE UNTIL YOU ARE THERE. 

The result. 

He’s come in, established a relationship, and also established himself as some sort of bastion of enlightenment in your field, while you are a fledgling. He may or may not have asked you if it was okay to send you a private review. My guy seems to be 50/50 on this point, and I will explain why it honestly doesn’t matter in a moment. However, he’s established himself as your friend, an enlightened guy with all this experience and insight, and he’s here to help you. He builds you up, and subtly chips away at your armor with well-placed comments. He gets you doubting yourself and your reality so much you don’t even realize you’re doing it. He does a big favor for you, and then after that, at some point, he’ll crush you.

And you’ll be left isolated, doubting yourself, doubting others, doubting your place in the world. Just doubting. 

I honestly felt like everybody was lying to me about my book, and this guy was the only person brave enough to be honest. I felt like my career was over. I spent a month or two, mourning the fact I’d even tried to write a book. My husband would ask me why I was crying, and it was sometime in January I realized I was mourning the death of a dream.

It’s powerful stuff.

And it wasn’t until he did all of this a second time, with my second book, that I realized what was going on (Thank God I had friends who knew what was going on and could walk me through it.)

The hard thing is, it’s so insidious and subtle, you don’t even realize it’s happening until it’s too late. You just DON’T KNOW. 

And at this point, I really feel like I need to address the difference between constructive criticism and being a dick.

CONSTRUCTIVE criticism is: 

  1. Asked for, or offered, where the yes/no response to the offer is respected. 
  2. CONSTRUCTIVE. You do not say, “this was pointless” rather you say, “I had an issue with this point, here are the reasons, and maybe this is a way around that.” 
  3. You do not invalidate the author. Let me repeat this for the people in the back: CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM DOES NOT INVALIDATE THE ARTIST.
  4. “I” language, meaning, I felt/I understood/I thought. Rarely, “you” which can be far more accusatory.
  5. Gives actionable feedback. Again, never, “This character was pointless” rather, “I found this character to be unbelievable, here are some reasons why, and maybe here are some tweaks to fix it and make him/her more dynamic and believable.” 
  6. Given at the appropriate time. For example, if the book is going to potentially require substantial rewrites, said criticism will be given at a point where substantial rewrites are possible, if the author so chooses, rather than after the book publishes when it’s far too late. Furthermore, said criticism will apply all the aforementioned qualities.

Being a dick: 

  1. Not doing literally any of the things above.
  2. Taking advantage of a relationship to offer feedback that you know will impact someone’s psychological state. This INCLUDES, asking if you are willing to receive private feedback/review, and then sending private feedback/review that is either abusive or rude, with language that is abrasive, abusive, belittling, or rude, or any combination of the aforementioned things. Criticism should never demean.
  3. Offering unsolicited editorial comments, or critique, period, end of discussion.
  4. Tagging authors in 1* or unfavorable reviews, and ceaselessly prodding them with it.
  5. Please understand this: If you say, “Can I touch you” and I say, “Yes” and you punch me in the face, and I get mad because you punched me in the face and you say, “But you said I could touch you” that does not negate the fact that you punched me in the face.

    If someone asks you if you’re open to a review, likely you will think that since they’re a HUMAN BEING with a BEATING HEART and experience in your field, they will offer the CONSTRUCTIVE kind. If you say “yes” and they end up EVISCERATING you, undermining you, belittling you… basically punching you in the face, that “yes, I can take your thoughts” does not automatically give this other person the right to punch you in the face. “Yes, you can touch me” does not mean, “Yes, you can punch me” anymore than “yes, you can review my book” means “yes, you can demean me.”

    NOBODY IS EVER GIVEN THE RIGHT TO ABUSE ANOTHER PERSON.

Please also be aware, if you are ever in a relationship, personal or professional, where someone says something to you like, “If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t tell you these things.” Basically, “I’m telling you all the ways you fail/suck/lack talent because I care” then get out. Go somewhere else. Break ties. This person is not your friend. One of the main things a gaslighter will want to do is not only make you doubt yourself, but make you rely upon them, and “I’m telling you all the ways you fail because I care” is the calling card for that. 

People who care are constructive. They are not destructive. 

Also, two other signs of a gaslighter are: 

  1. If someone tells you you’re being too sensitive. 
  2. If someone tells you you’re overthinking something, particularly if it’s something they are trying to talk you into and you’re hesitant. Basically, they’re steamrolling you to get you to do what you want.

If you are somewhere, like a con or other public place, and you feel like someone is acting harmfully toward you, please find somewhere/someone safe. 

If ANY of this sounds familiar to you, or if you think you may be in a relationship (intimate or professional) like this, whether personally or professionally, please seek help. 

(This post was reviewed by numerous people in publishing who have personal experience being gaslighted before it published.)

Here are some resources. 

12 Warning Signs You’re Being Manipulated by a Narcissist
How Society Gaslights Survivors of Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths
How to Spot a Sociopath in 3 Steps
Gaslighting: Examples, Effects and How to Confront the Abuse