Gaslighting. We have all heard of it. Some are tired of suffering from it, others take advantage of this unbearable practice. In case you have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, which I highly doubt, gaslighting in short is a type of psychological abuse, where the victim is manipulated to the point where they start to doubt their own sanity and mental health through the abuser’s repeated lies. Although the term has gained popularity and started being discussed not that long ago, this has existed for over 50 years.
The idea of gaslighting stems from the 1944 thriller directed by George Cukor and based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, named Gaslight. The Oscar-winning production tells the story of a young opera singer, Paula, who is traumatized by the death of the aunt who raised her and ends up marrying a charming, yet troubled, musician named Gregory. Throughout the movie, we watch Gregory manipulate his wife to the point where she is completely isolated from everyone she knows, believing she has gone mad and lost all sense of reality. The storytelling portrays domestic abuse and is extremely relevant nowadays as a starting point to raise awareness to a common type of abuse experienced by numerous people.
According to the Harvard scholar, Paige L. Sweet, gaslighting is fundamentally a sociological phenomenon and is mostly effective when it is rooted in social inequalities, especially gender and sexuality, being usually executed in power-laden intimate relationships. Even though there is no gender discrepancy while defining the meaning of the term, gaslighting victims (as well as general mental abuse victims) are women. It is well known that there is still a lot of patriarchal oppression against women in today’s world, and therefore, it is no surprise that in one of the first psychological research papers on gaslighting nearly all study cases involve women in heterosexual relationships being the gaslightee (someone who is a victim of gaslight). The point here is that although men can be gaslighted as well, women are still the main victims of this abuse, and therefore, this article will focus on the feminine side of the narrative.
I firmly believe all women reading this have at least once in their lives either been called insane or heard men describing other women as insane. If there is some crazy exception to this statement, I hope you know how privileged you are. I truly cannot remember how many times I have been portrayed as crazy or hysterical by men in my surroundings. It is important to keep in mind that gaslighters will not always say the adjectives per se, simply because they are aware that using the word straightforward can be too much in certain scenarios. In opposition to that, a common practice is distorting reality to the point the victim convinces themselves that they have gone mad.
This situation is portrayed in several modern productions, one of the most recent being the short movie of the hit “All Too Well” directed by the pop singer, Taylor Swift. The whole relationship presented in the material is abusive, however, there is one specific scene where the couple finds themselves arguing about a situation that clearly happened but keeps being denied by the man. The woman states that her partner is making herself feel stupid to what he replies, “I don’t think I’m making you feel that way. I think you’re making yourself feel that way”. This is a soft, but at the same time crystal clear example of gaslighting.
Another important and certainly more explicit representation of gaslighting in the media is the movie “The girl on the Train” (2016), based on the novel written by Paula Hawkins and published in 2015. This production tells the story of Rachel Watson’s life after her troubled divorce and narrates how she gets involved in her ex-husband’s new marriage. The big plot twist of the movie (heads up for a big spoiler ahead) is that everything the viewers thought they knew about the main character was in fact a distortion of herself created by her manipulative ex-partner. Even though it is possible to notice since the beginning of the movie moments when Rachel feels confused about whether something happened or not, it is not until the big reveal that it is possible to be sure that the ex-husband tricked his ex-wife into believing she was maniac and suffered from severe alcoholism.
Blockbuster plots featuring explosive physical violence sparked public debate, but they also created an odd disconnect, leading viewers to believe that domestic abuse was something that only happened to other people. Diane Shoos, a humanities scholar states in her book “Domestic Violence in Hollywood Film: A History”, that “Despite the fact that these narratives seem to sympathize with their protagonists and challenge myths about domestic violence, most offer all-too-comfortable positions from which we can ‘see’ what we already assume about men as abusers, women as victims, and the racial and class politics of violence…. These films deny in turn the many complexities and contradictions of abuse, to which there are no easy Hollywood solutions. Most seriously, they propose that abused women can and must singlehandedly solve ‘their’ problem.”
“Popular culture can be a really great way of educating mass audiences. But dramas in the 1990s reinforced the limited views and myths around domestic abuse: that it only happens to a certain kind of person; that ‘he only did it because he was drunk’,” says Lisa King, Refuge’s Director of Communications and Campaigns. “The conversation has actively evolved.”
As stated above, the conversation of gaslighting has been introduced and over the years actively portrayed also in online environments. Even though gaslighting is often associated with romantic relationships, it can easily take place in several different environments. Just to number a few examples, it can happen within family relations, in the workplace and even in your friends circle and those types of gaslight are even less portrayed and talked about. Moreover, when we see it in communities, institutions, and media portrayals, we don’t always manage to recognize it as gaslighting.
Therefore, it is important to take a deeper look at several toxic relationships in order to acknowledge ways in which it is possible to process the experience of possibly being gaslit and have discussions on how we can fight against the widespread of gaslighting.
The first step toward healing is to become aware of the problem. We can find language to describe our experiences by becoming familiar with gaslighting warning signs. We begin to see that psychological effects do not define who we are when we recognize gaslighting as someone else’s toxic behavior toward us. “Leaning into uncertainty isn’t easy,” says author and psychotherapist Tracey Emin, “but I think it’s especially helpful in healing from psychological abuse.”
People need to work together in order to end the cycles of silence and confusion by learning to recognize, label, and acknowledge the abuse. Processing our psychological abuse experiences can create space for us to build a strong foundation based on self-awareness, healthy boundaries, and positive choices in the future.
Written by Olivia Lucchesi