|Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight" (1944) | Public Domain|
So what is gaslighting? Unless you're familiar with 1940s Hollywood movies -- or unless you've been unlucky enough to come into contact with a psychologically unstable individual who wanted to make you crazy -- you may never have heard the term before.
Gaslighting is a technique used by people with certain mental disorders, including Narcissistic Personality Disorder, to control their victims. The perpetrator uses a variety of tactics to isolate his victim, and then repeatedly calls into question facts and events that the victim knows to be true. The perpetrator's aim is to divorce the victim from reality. Eventually, the victim becomes filled with self-doubt and believes she's going crazy -- making her fertile soil for the perp's continued abuse.
The term comes from the 1944 movie "Gaslight." Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her performance as Paula, the niece of a dead opera singer whose murderer was never found. Paula enters a whirlwind courtship with a man named Gregory, played by Charles Boyer. They marry within a few weeks of meeting, and move into the dead woman's London townhouse. Gregory then proceeds to isolate Paula, telling her it's for her own good because she's become a kleptomaniac -- and indeed, it appears she stole his watch and placed it in her handbag without remembering she had done it. She also hears footsteps in the attic where the dead aunt's things have been stored -- but the attic entrance has been sealed up. And she is sure that the gas light fixtures in the house periodically dim, but Gregory tells her it's all in her imagination. (Boys and girls, natural gas was used for home lighting before electricity became popular. My grandmother's house had wall sconces with both a light bulb socket and a gas nozzle.)
Spoiler alert: Paula is not crazy. Gregory is her aunt's murderer, and married her to gain access to the house to search for the dead woman's jewelry. He'd be okay with shipping Paula off to the nuthouse -- it would give him free rein to conduct his search.
As it does in the movie, gaslighting starts gradually. The perpetrator's behavior may seem a little weird to you, but you make excuses for him. Then you begin defending yourself as he criticizes things you do that you thought were normal. Eventually, you doubt your own perceptions and can't tell what's real any more.
So how do you cope with a gaslighter? The best advice I can find on the intarwebz is to get away from him as fast as you can. Unfortunately, the US will be stuck with this Gaslighter-in-Chief for four years. Just remember, folks -- no matter what he says, we're not crazy.
These moments of non-gaslit blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.