It almost always starts with small interventions in a dialogue that is, already biased - and poisoned. "That’s not rocket science." or "You are overreacting." Over time, the dissonant tone becomes more pronounced. “Don't you think you are too sensitive?”, to the point that the interlocutor begins to question his reality - and himself. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse so subtle that, most of the time, we don't even notice it. But it is, more and more, among us.
London, 1870. This is where the action of Gaslight, a 1944 film made by George Cukor, takes place and remains, today, as the most faithful adaptation to the play with the same name, by Patrick Hamilton, whose debut took place years before, in 1938. All this is relevant because, almost a century later, it is this film noir that we return to whenever we want to dive into the depths of something as troubled as gaslighting. And because, in fact, the term owes its origin to these productions. It is not a mistake, nor a typo, nor an attempt to catch the reader right in the first paragraph: this form of manipulation, which has psychological implications and is studied by doctors from all over the world, really goes by the name of a product of popular culture. But let's go back to London and the end of the 19th century, more specifically to Thorton Square. It's to this charming little square, and to the townhouse where her aunt was brutally murdered, which Paula (Ingrid Bergman) eventually returns, at the insistence of her husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer). The house has been frozen in time since the tragic event, so to prevent Paula from being confronted with the past, Gregory suggests putting all the old furniture in the attic, remodel the space and start from scratch. And that’s how a strange life as a couple begins. Paula, who once wanted to be an opera singer, rarely leaves the house, does not hang out with the neighbors and barely talks to the maid. Gregory, torn between the role of wonderful husband and his true goals, slowly begins to show himself as someone not so wonderful after all: he suggests that the woman forgets things, accuses her of losing objects, becomes harsh. She tends to doubt herself more and more. Him spending more and more time outside. When Paula, scared, comments that, at night, the lights get darker (at the time, the light was powered by natural gas, hence the title, Gas Light), he insists that she is imagining things. He tells her, over and over again, that she is crazy - subtly, like a good manipulator. As in any drama, the situation reaches a climax, which we leave open for those who have not yet had the opportunity to see this masterpiece. In any case, it is worth noting the notorious transformation of Bergman, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for his superb performance: at the beginning of the film, she emerges as a happy lover and reaches the final minutes as a defeated wife, looking crazy. When she’s about to solve the hell that has become her daily life, the police officer who helps her will end up saying to her: “You’re not going out of your mind, you’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.”
But what, after all, is gaslighting? Anyone curious can find the definition in a quick Google search, which assumes more than 34 thousand results for the term. Wikipedia, for example, presents the following concept: “Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which information is distorted, selectively omitted to favor the abuser or simply invented with the intention of making the victim doubt her own memory, perception and sanity. Gaslighting cases can range from the simple denial by the abuser that previous abusive incidents have already occurred, to the bizarre events being carried out by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.” In other words, it can be something as simple as a comment here and there ("I never said that. You're imagining things.") or a constant attempt to change what the victim believes has seen or done - and which, over time, ends up causing her to doubt her actions, her memory and her self-esteem. It is something that happens mostly in interpersonal relationships, with a particular focus on those of romantic in nature, but it has been flourishing in more unexpected environments, such as the political sphere or workplaces. Robin Stern is a doctor, researcher, and co-founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, an innovative study center dedicated to human emotions at Columbia University, where she takes on the role of Associate Director. She is also the author of the book The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, published in 2007, and considered a milestone in the study of gaslighting. Vogue spoke to her via email to try to find out more about this type of psychological abuse - namely, how does a therapist is faced with this condition in the general picture of her patients. “I have had a private practice in New York for over 30 years, and I have treated many people, mainly women, who were victims of gaslighting. They were successful and ‘in charge’ of their lives, but they were unhappy in their relationships. They couldn’t identify what was wrong [with them] or why they felt ‘crazy’ - and as much as they were professionally successful and/or leaders in their communities, in their most intimate relationships they were constantly doubting themselves. Worse than that, they felt demoted, some of them felt deeply depressed when they gave up fighting for their reality and submitted themselves to the reality that was imposed on them by their partners.” As Robin points out, most gaslighting victims cannot even identify the reason, or the source, for their problems; they know something is wrong, but they don't know what it is. Rarely someone says "I was a victim of gaslighting", in the same way that someone says, for example, "I was a victim of bullying." The term is still unknown to a large part of the population. I wonder why? “It is moderate and subtle - and often difficult to identify. At the moment, the term is quite popular but for many years it was not part of the popular lexicon. When someone screams, it is easy to identify, but when we are in a conversation and someone shifts [their] responsibility, it makes you the problem, and leads you to question what you believe to be your own reality, we usually follow the example of that person in the conversation until we suddenly realize that he never answered our question, or else we start to feel bad about ourselves and enter that path in our mind.” And that, we all know, is called doubting ourselves. There are classic examples of this same subtlety. Robin gives me one. In this imaginary conversation, she is called Erika and he is called Jason. Erika says: “You are late. It's unbelievable. We agreed at 7 and it's 7:45.” To which Jason replies: “I'm 45 minutes late. You are exaggerating." She counters: “It’s disrespectful. I've been here for 45 minutes.” And then he says the final quote: “Wow. You are so sensitive. Don’t you think?" According to Robin, “Jason just conducted the dialogue to a conversation about Erika's sensitivity. She may be sensitive, but that doesn't change the fact that he's late and not taking responsibility, on the contrary, he’s making the conversation about her.” From here, any victim of gaslighting will know, the dialogue will not be about Jason's 45-minute delay, and rather about Erika’s “sensitivity”. If by now the reader is able to identify who the gaslighter (abuser) is, we are on the right track.
It is likely that, in a parallel universe, where this interaction takes place repeatedly, Erika begins to doubt herself and to believe what Jason says. She will become the problem because, and that is rule number one from gaslighting, it makes us believe that the problem is us. What side effects can this type of abuse have for someone who is subject to it indefinitely? There are several, they are documented, Robin points out some. “Not recognizing yourself. Not being able to think clearly and make good decisions. Have tattered self-esteem. Thinking you are crazy. Apologize for the way you think. Feeling unable to connect with your feelings. Depression." And how do you explain the abuser's behavior? There is something that justifies this kind of attitude? “I believe it is social learning. He saw people who were involved in this dynamic. He was subject to gaslighting and learned [how to do it]. Came about it at a time when he didn’t want to take responsibility, or he wanted to deviate the attention on his actions, and it worked - that is, he felt better, got what he wanted, stopped being in the hot seat. And sometimes it's just a practical strategy, to let someone constantly question themselves, knowing that this way we will avoid talking about what we don't want to talk about.” Interestingly, several studies argue that both the role of abuser and victim can oscillate within a given relationship and that, generally, one of the participants is convinced that he is the victim. Does that make any sense? “It is possible that the abuser believes that he is the victim. This is usually the case. The gaslighter is usually defending himself against feeling 'less powerful' compared to the gaslightee [victim] and uses the power to turn the tide against the victim to stabilize. Sometimes the gaslighter feels like he’s the victim of the gaslightee behavior, who decided that it is something like: make him a fool, flirt with a stranger - when, in fact, the gaslightee was not flirting, but just being friendly, which was misinterpreted by the gaslighter.”
The best word to sum it all up? Madness. “It was common for the relationship to end and start over systematically, the reason for these new beginnings was based on lies and stories that were created/invented and that founded the beginnings or the ends of the relationship. For example, to justify the end of the relationship, the discourse was always about possible mistakes that I would have made and that were manipulated to validate the end of the relationship. It could happen that there was an argument because I had received a message from a male or female friend that she understood was not good for our relationship, or from people she justified that were not good for me and that eventually they would just be sending me a message or contacting me because they wanted something from me, they would have some interest. And then I tried to get away from the people who liked me and who were my friends, and if I didn't get away from them, our relationship would be in danger.” António (fictitious name) is 43 years old. For three years he lived a “complicated” relationship, in which constant manipulations in the name of a hypothetical greater love made him coexist in a highly dangerous parallel reality. "Regarding my daughter, the same thing happened. My relationship with my daughter has always been great and luckily I have a family background which is highly favorable for this to happen. I get along very well with my daughter's mother, with her family, and vice versa. I had never had any problems in my relationship with my daughter. I started to have them when the person I was related to interfered in this relationship, creating a perception in others, and me especially, that I might not be a good father and that there was a lot in the relationship with my daughter that would be wrong. This made me question the relationship with my daughter, as I would be behaving wrongly with her and her mother, and if I didn't correct these behaviors, our love relationship would be in danger. She put me in a position where I would have to choose between one reality or another.” How far is it worth to maintain a situation that even those around us begin to doubt our integrity? Until breaking point. It was like that with António. “My relationship with her friends was always on the line, in the sense that there was a gap between our relationship and the perception that her friends had of her. Later, I came to know that almost no one actually had a correct idea about the truth of our relationship. Few people knew that we were together, and when we were, we were clearly far from that universe. Many lies and stories were told to give a framework to our relationship that did not correspond to the truth. With this situation I did not know what people thought of me or the idea they had of us as a couple. This caused a constant feeling that the reality I was living and experiencing was totally different from the reality/truth of the relationship. After all, I was unsure and often did not know how to behave or react when I was in her universe.” The best word to sum it all up? Madness.
António is almost an exception because, even though it is not a specifically sexist type of abuse, women tend to be the most frequent targets for gaslighting. We asked Robin Stern why so. “Traditionally, and from a social perspective, women tend to be more empathetic and see things from the other person’s point of view. They were taught to cooperate with men, and men to compete and be in charge - generally, but truthfully. Often, women spend so much time [concerned] with the perspective of other people that they forget theirs. And women are more likely to be more vulnerable and open up about gaslighting and ask for help. Men are more likely to affirm their desires and affirm their certainties.” What, then, is the solution? In a loving relationship, where these situations happen more often, can you only win by breaking it all off? “Leaving is not the only answer - although sometimes it is the only way to recover your reality. And, even more importantly, you need to be prepared to leave, if you really want to change that dynamic. In other words, when you identify gaslighting and talk to your partner about it, ask them to work on changing his behavior. But if, with time (it often takes time), nothing changes and you still feel the impact of gaslighting, you may need to leave. And recovering your reality requires self-compassion and patience with yourself.” If everything about (un)love stories is more or less talked about, why did we suddenly start hearing about gaslighting on unexpected stages - like the news? “We live in an environment, and in a culture, which are fertile ground for gaslighting, due to various news sources, and the constant change of rules, in the last few months, due to COVID-19: wear masks, you don't need masks, now use masks; the virus is on the surfaces, no, the virus is not on the surfaces; the country is ready to open [its borders], the country is crazy if the government decides to open its borders - and this uncertainty and unpredictability causes greater anxiety in people everywhere. And when we’re forced to rethink our opinion and to doubt ourselves and not trust the news sources we used to trust or the leaders who should have our trust, we become more vulnerable to being victims of gaslighting.” We rightly said that he was among us.
*Originally published on Vogue Portugal's The Madness Issue.