In his new book ‘Jumping at Shadows,’ Sasha Abramsky explores fear in American life, politics

Author Sasha Abramsky tackles fear and how Trump used it

Author Sasha Abramsky tackles fear and how Donald Trump used it in his 2016 presidential campaign in Abramsky's new book, "Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream."
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Author Sasha Abramsky tackles fear and how Donald Trump used it in his 2016 presidential campaign in Abramsky's new book, "Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream."

Author Sasha Abramsky didn’t have President Donald Trump in mind when he started his latest book, “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.”

“I started this book long before Trump was a candidate,” Abramsky said. “But then he played into the larger picture of our fears and used those fears to his advantage.”

Abramsky’s own health scare got him thinking about fear in general and how it affects people. In reporting his book, he made several nonpolitical case studies of how fear led to irrational actions or reactions. During the Ebola scare, for example, people refused to travel overseas but avoided vaccinations for the flu, an illness that kills thousands of Americans every year.

Fear is all around us, Abramsky explained. We become conditioned by fear, which can control our judgment, thoughts and deeds. What scares us most? Are those fears real or misplaced?

Abramsky, a UC Davis lecturer and occasional Sacramento Bee columnist, will discuss these questions and others when he appears at The Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Sept. 27. Bee editorial page editor Dan Morain will moderate the discussion.

Published earlier this month, “Jumping at Shadows” (Nations Books, 336 pages, $28) has received praise from critics: “A provocative look at the science and psychology behind fear-based politics” (Kirkus Reviews); “a pensive exploration of the American culture of fear ... . Eloquent and devastating” (Publishers Weekly, starred review); “Readers interested in groupthink, sociology, or seeking insight into the current state of American politics will devour this book” (Library Journal).

Part of an accomplished and bookish family, Abramsky spent his youth in London. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford’s Balliol College, then moved to New York City to earn his master’s degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Much of his work has focused on the plight of the poor and criminal justice. His book “The American Way of Poverty” made the New York Times’ list of 100 notable books for 2013.

Abramsky, 45, moved to Sacramento 13 years ago when his wife, Julie Sze, accepted a professorship at UC Davis, where she teaches American studies. She’s also an award-winning author. “UC Davis brought my wife to Sacramento,” he said. “I brought my work with me as a journalist and started teaching there as well.”

Abramsky said he started thinking seriously about fear after he became deathly sick in a remote part of Chile about five years ago. At first he thought he had the flu or food poisoning, but doctors were unable to diagnose exactly what caused him to become nauseous, weak and exhausted, a condition that persisted for months. His blood pressure would fall along with his heart rate, then both would shoot way up. Symptoms still occasionally return without warning.

“When you don’t know what’s going on, you lose your self-confidence,” Abramsky said. “You become very afraid.”

Months of medical tests narrowed down his malady to ciguatoxin (contracted by eating tropical fish) or some other neurotoxin.

“I don’t know for sure if I had ciguatoxin or some other unknown ailment,” he said, “since there’s no way to generate a foolproof diagnosis in cases like this. ... Even though I’m on the mend and feeling healthy, that well-being also seems appallingly fragile. I don’t know if tomorrow will bring another round of sickness and pain.

“I know in a way I never did before – at the most personal level – what fear of particular horrors and anxiety about unknown horrors lurking just out of sight feel like.”

Ahead of his book club appearance, Abramsky discussed his latest tome, as well as his life in the Capitol City, with The Bee.

How do you like living in Sacramento?

It took me awhile to get used to it, just because it wasn’t New York and it wasn’t London. Sacramento is not nearly as fast-paced a city. There are parts of it I love, some of the architecture of the old Victorians. I like the emergence of some very good restaurants. I like the politics, but there are parts of big city metropolis I miss.

What got you interested in writing about fear, poverty, politics and American culture?

I’ve done social justice journalism pretty much my whole career. The big thing about social justice journalism for me (started in) the mid-1990s. (As a nation), we’d embarked on this destructive project of mass incarceration. Hundreds of thousands of people were behind bars. It was done very cavalierly, not knowing what would happen to society. It struck me the consequences were huge but would play out for many many years, maybe decades.

We didn’t know how it would play out economically, because so many poor people get hit, or racially, because so many Latino or African-American people get hit. How do these issues intersect with mental health issues or affordable living? For 10 years, those were the kind of things I kept coming back to. They gave me entry points from many directions. I’d write about prisons, then something else, then prisons again.

After about 10 years, I decided I’d written just about enough on that; I’d said all I want to say. I wrote three books and hundreds of articles. There were other areas of inequality that became increasingly interesting to me.

I started writing a lot more about poverty, hunger, the sort of economic inequality that was driving more and more people into poverty while you have this fabulously wealthy upper class. I’ve approached that from many themes.

The “Fear” book comes out of that, around ways we were reimagining community and in ways we’ve become more distrustful of other people or people we perceive as “the other.”

(The book) is not all about how we deal with politics – a lot of fear has nothing to do with politics. It’s a fact if we see poor people, we tend to be scared because we’re scared of that poverty. If we see a black man in the street, we fear that he’s up to no good. Those are the stereotypes that come from lack of information. Those stereotypes are very destructive. So I started writing about fear.

How did the election play into those fears?

I actually got the book contract in 2014, before the last election. There were already some terrible trends like torture, how we tolerate torture. Or the common issue of police violence, things that were happening that signified something was going wrong.

And when Trump came on the scene, all that sort of became crystallized. What was happening played into the book I was writing. The book is partly about psychology, neuroscience, but also politics of a fearful moment.

Fear can also be rooted in experience. Even something we know is irrational, that fear is deep seated and very real. Why?

Fear is very sticky. It gets edged into the cavities of your brain. It’s very hard to eliminate that fear; you can sort of tamp it down but it’s always going to be there. That’s how our brains have evolved. We’re very good at accumulating fears, less good at shedding fears. A whole generation who saw ‘Jaws’ as a kid, they’re all scared of being in the ocean. In fact, you’re much more likely to get sick from eating seafood than in danger from sharks.

What do you fear?

I fear a society where no one knows history. That terrifies me.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Sacramento Bee Book Club welcomes Sasha Abramsky

Journalist and author Sasha Abramsky will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.

Tickets are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $10 for students and $25 for general admission. Buy tickets at Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream” (Nations Books, 336 pages, $28) for 30 percent off the list price.

Proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, serving more than 20,000 students in the region.

If you mention the Bee Book Club discount, Abramsky’s new book also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through Sept. 27 in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at Broadway Station, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.