This morning, as we recover from the three glasses of wine my friend and I chugged after a hard day’s work yesterday, I have to deal with a voracious hangover appetite and an unquenchable thirst, but my friend has to deal with something much worse. Last night, a man pulled at the threads of her sanity in a calculated, cruel and all too familiar attack on her self esteem. He ‘gaslighted’ her.
Gaslighting, the act of manipulating someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity, was named after a play and subsequent movie where a husband convinces his wife she is going mad by gradually dimming the lights, whilst telling her it is only her who thinks the lights are flickering. The term has come to the fore recently because Donald Trump has frequently been accused of using gaslighting to undermine his opponents, or challenge the facts laid before him.
Paula Hawkins’s recent hit novel The Girl on the Train depicts gaslighting perfectly as the main character, played in the film adaptation by Emily Blunt, is convinced by her ex-husband that she is a volatile alcoholic. She spends the entire plot trying to claw back her grip on the truth and reassemble her self esteem, and at the end of the novel, finds she was not the violent one in the relationship, it was in fact him. Her ex had managed to change her own perception of events and perhaps worst of all, alter her view of her own character.
Since gaslighting has been more widely recognised and discussed, the relief at finally having an actual name for this sort of mental abuse is palpable amongst women I know. So many women have said that they recognise this behaviour in ex-boyfriends, male co-workers or even random strangers, who have manipulated the truth to make them feel to blame. I am aware that I am in danger of provoking the ‘not all men’ response here, but it does seem to be overwhelmingly something committed by men, and overwhelmingly something they use against women.
The reason gaslighting is so effective on women I think is because most women I know have a very weak grip on their sense of self worth. In a way we are all secretly wondering if everyone thinks we are awful, emotional dick-heads, and so all the perpetrator has to do is plant the tiniest of seeds, and we do the rest.
I watched last night, as a barman did this exact thing to my friend. It was almost impressive in its calculation; clearly a seasoned pro, he walked up to her and in front of a crowd said she had ‘better check her attitude’ and that if she didn’t think she’d done anything wrong she should ‘perhaps think about how many white wines she had had’. Boom. In one fell swoop he undermined her complaint about him that she had lodged at the bar, and then in case she were to call foul, challenged her perception of events to render her an unreliable witness, not only in the eyes of the onlooking table, but also to herself.
The clever thing about gaslighting, and probably the thing that makes it so fun for the perpetrators, is that the more the victim protests, the more their reactions tie in with the their depiction of you as overly emotional, unstable, or drunk. You can’t fight back, you can’t protest, lest you back up their version of the truth. They get unchallenged power, and it’s the thing closest to being a villainous mastermind that I have seen.
As my friend struggles this morning with the idea that she was rude to someone (she definitely wasn’t), that she wasn’t in control of her behaviour (she was), I am struggling for anything to say to make her believe me. Gaslighting thrives on the fact that we are so worried about other people’s perceptions of us that we would rather take the unkind and unsolicited views of a stranger than accept the complementary words of a friend. This is perhaps what is at the heart of gaslighting. The idea is not to present a complete untruth, because that could be easily refuted. The real skill comes in highlighting something that very easily could be true, and sewing the seeds of doubt in the victim’s mind.
The intent is to neutralise us, it is a trick used by bullying men to quiet a woman’s complaint, to make a girlfriend more subservient or to undermine a colleague. They want to make us too ashamed to talk back, so it is important that we do the opposite. Gaslighting is a toxic weapon used all too often to silence women, we must snuff it out.