Shortlisted for the 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.
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.But what, exactly, does it mean? Where did it come from? And why is it experiencing a resurgence today?
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”).