What Does It Mean To 'Gaslight' Someone?

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Shortlisted for Oxford English Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year, “gaslighting” has well and truly found its way into contemporary thought and vernacular.

The term has recently been employed to explain the behaviour of contestants on The Bachelor Australia, Monica Lewinksy’s experiences with the media post-Bill Clinton, and the words of US President Donald Trump.

But what, exactly, does it mean? Where did it come from? And why is it experiencing a resurgence today?

Gaslighting takes its name from the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (itself based on the 1938 play Gas Light). In the film, Paula (Bergman) is deliberately and gradually manipulated by her husband, Gregory (Boyer), into believing she is insane. Paula’s late aunt’s priceless jewels are hidden in their house: if Paula is declared insane and committed to an asylum, Gregory can search for the jewels in peace.

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944), the film that inspired the now widely used term. Image: Metro Goldwyn-Mayer

One of his main tactics in convincing Paula she is losing her mind is his manipulation of the gaslights in their home. Whenever he sneaks off to the attic to search for the jewels, he switches on the lights in that part of the house: this leads all other lights to flicker and dim. Upon returning to Paula, he denies all knowledge of this, leading her to question her sanity.

In the film’s final scenes, Paula allows a policeman to enter the house while Gregory is preoccupied with his search. The policeman confirms that the lights are flickering, demonstrating that Paula is not insane.

What does gaslighting look like?

Gaslighting is a new term for a relatively old set of behaviours. If you’ve read the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra (about a woman cursed to foresee true prophecies that others disbelieve due to her perceived mental instability), watched The Truman Show, or listened to Shaggy’s hit song, It Wasn’t Me (in which a man tells his girlfriend it wasn’t him she saw having sex with another woman), you’ve seen gaslighting in action.

Although it can cover various behaviours, the central tenet of gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person in order to erode their sense of self and sanity.

The behaviour itself is not always deliberate, in that the perpetrator may not have consciously set out to distort another person’s experience of reality. But gaslighting is often used as a method of power and control.

Common gaslighting tactics can include denial of the gaslightee’s experience (“That wasn’t what happened!”), escalation (“Why would you question this? I wouldn’t lie to you!”), trivialisation (“You’re too sensitive, this is nothing”), and countering (“That wasn’t what happened, this was”).

Why now?

Gaslighting’s re-emergence in our day-to-day vernacular is in part due to a wider societal focus on violence against women. As we move towards a broader understanding of what constitutes abuse, there is growing recognition that psychologically abusive techniques such as gaslighting are often used to unnerve and demoralise others.

Gaslighting is increasingly being recognised as a technique of abuse by groups such as the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria and Safe Steps.

The term also rebuts a common set of stereotypes: the “crazy ex-girlfriend”, the “bitches be crazy” or “psycho bitch” refrain and the “hysterical woman”. Gaslighting reframes these cliches: instead of asking whether women are indeed crazy, it questions the motivations of the accuser.

Unfortunately, gaslighting has also been used to dismiss those who have employed #MeToo to speak out about their abuse. Comments directed to survivors that they must have “misread the situation” or “imagined the abuse” can in turn point to wider questions about a person’s sanity.

Gaslighting’s application in the public lexicon has become quite broad. For instance, many news articles have been written about Donald Trump’s so-called gaslighting behaviour towards the American public, in which he has tried to manipulate people into “doubting their reality”.

Donald Trump: various pundits have described his statements as a form of ‘gaslighting’. Shawn Thew/EPA

In a recent speech, for example, Trump criticised the media for its reaction to his trade tariffs policy, accusing it of broadcasting “fake news” and telling people, “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening”.

But in describing Trump’s behaviour as gaslighting, we lose some of the word’s context: it was developed to describe behaviour altogether more intimate and controlling in nature, and difficult to escape.

Still, aside from the latter example, the growing usage of “gaslighting” as a term is broadly a good thing. It signifies a deeper understanding of what abuse looks like and the many forms it can take.The Conversation

Jessamy Gleeson, Research Officer, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


Comments

    Kind of irrelevant, but as I was reading this, I was half surprised and half not surprised that Trump was an appendix to this article, which makes me wonder:

    Will Godwin's Law soon include Hitler and Trump, or eventually just Trump?

      Mark my words, one days people will be pondering over how on earth Trump managed to even get elected in the first place much like we all wonder how did Hitler manage to get as much power as he did. Not that I'm saying anything Trump has done is comparable to Hitler, but still, a fascist in power is a fascist in power.

        "much like we all wonder how did Hitler manage to get as much power as he did."

        People know exactly how he managed to come to power.

        There have been numerous studies done on it and many documentaries. It's not a mystery at all.

    it's a vicious thing and you often don't realise how insane it's gotten until you are really far down that rabbit hole

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