Turn Off the Gaslight

January 16, 2021

The skilful manipulator casts a shadow of doubt over everything that you feel or think. 

‘He didn’t mean anything by it, stop making such a big deal out of it.’

‘Here, let me take care of it, you don’t know what you are doing.’

‘You’re too sensitive.’

‘Stop overreacting.’

‘You keep imagining things.’

‘That’s not how it happened.’

‘Your memory seems to be slipping.’

Such comments undermine our trust in ourselves and our belief in what we know. More than that, they trespass on our sense of identity. The more we hear such phrases, the more we stop trusting ourselves. When another person becomes a gatekeeper to our reality, then we’re in a precarious spot – vulnerable to further manipulation and control. This reality-doubting is called ‘gaslighting’.

As a psychologist in practice, I often see my role as the person who turns off the gaslights. I work with survivors of relationships with high-conflict, antagonistic, rigid, entitled, dysregulated people. These might be their partners, parents, adult children, siblings or colleagues. Once we remove the gaslight, and the house lights come on, my clients recognise that this one difficult person in their lives was the tip of a dysfunctional iceberg.

The term gaslighting derives from theatre and film. Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light (1938) was adapted as the British film Gaslight in 1940 and the American classic of the same name in 1944. To this day, Gaslight, a reference to the flickering gaslights featured in the drama, remains a masterclass on how one predatory partner captivates and then slowly undermines the other.

The play and films introduced the term ‘gaslighting’ into our vernacular to refer to a specific type of manipulation – one in which a person’s reality itself is hijacked by another. This can also be manifested by minimisation, deflection, denial and coercive control. The term is now ubiquitous, and we apply it not just to close relationships but also to any reality-bending that is generated by institutions, media and leaders.

The genius of the films was to remind us that gaslighting is actually a grooming process, not just a singular event. It’s a process of establishing and then exploiting trust and authority to achieve an endgame of control and dominance.

The backstory (spoiler alert) is the murder of a famed London opera singer. The murderer fails to leave with the jewels he’s come for because he’s interrupted by the victim’s niece, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman). Years pass, and Paula meets Gregory (Charles Boyer), who unbeknown to her is the murderer. They marry after a quick courtship, and he insists on moving back to the house where the murder occurred, slowly manipulating her reality, including the flickering lights, all with the intent of retrieving the jewels, at last.

In Gaslight, we witness the architecture of abusive relationships. These are relationships that proceed too quickly, too intensely – ‘she was swept off her feet’. Paula was primed to miss the red flags because she’d endured the traumatic loss of her beloved aunt and, upon returning to London, was living in a space associated with grief.

Gaslight also shows us the danger of romanticising behaviours such as showing up out of nowhere and surprising a new partner, of insisting on spending time with her alone and creating their own little world together, which can be harbingers of more insidious abusive relationship dynamics such as stalking and isolation. The relationship creates a dynamic in which it is simpler and safer for Paula to doubt herself than to question him.

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