Giving her the slow burn

27 November 2014

Written by: Erdem Koc

In the 1944 movie, Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman’s character, Alice, is convinced she’s going mad. She hears footsteps coming from a sealed attic, things keep disappearing from their stored locations, and the gas lights dim and brighten for no apparent reason.

What the audience is aware of (but Alice is not) is that her husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), is doing everything in his power to drive his wife insane so she can be institutionalised – leaving him with unfettered access to her family’s fortune.

It’s not surprising that the psychological term ‘gaslighting’ has its origins in this 1944 movie.

The narrative provides an excellent example of what constitutes gaslighting and it demonstrates that these coercive manipulation tactics were understood, but maybe not discussed, by the intended audience more than half a century ago.

Like many terms that migrate from psychology to the pop culture vernacular, gaslighting means different things to different people. Some of what is written about gaslighting is not actually describing domestic abuse. It’s close but, as always, the devil’s in the detail.

A clinical explanation of gaslighting can be defined as “intimidation or psychological abuse in which false information is deliberately presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory and/or perception of an event or events”.

Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic, sometimes described as covert aggression or ambient abuse, which is introduced gradually into a relationship, when an abusive partner sets out to convince his significant other that she’s losing the plot. This can be achieved in a number of ways:

  • withholding factual information or providing false information;
  • blowing innocent interactions out of proportion while major setbacks are viewed as nothing to be concerned about;
  • constantly accusations of overreaction or paranoia;
  • public shaming and/or blaming for insignificant errors; and
  • using accusatory language like “You’re crazy!”, “You’re being paranoid”, “Why do you always overreact like this?”.

The range of gaslighting techniques available is endless but the outcome is always the same. Falsehoods are asserted with such intense conviction, the person on the receiving end begins to doubt their own perspective. The person being gaslighted is left feeling anxious or confused and less able to trust their own perceptions. Over time, in a domestic setting, a woman’s belief in herself is destabilised.

Nora (not her real name) is a 50-year-old mother of two who has felt the sting of gaslighting. She was 17 when she met her husband and moved from high school to marriage in one fell swoop. After the wedding, Nora found herself living in the isolated bushlands of NSW with very little outside contact.

She says the gaslighting started as soon as they moved into the property. Whenever she offered a suggestion about anything other than cooking, he would laugh at her and call her stupid.

He’d say he was coming home at a particular time and then arrive home hours early and berate her for not having dinner ready. When she tried to explain that the times had been mixed up, she was at fault and was accused of being lazy and forgetful.

The worst thing, she says, is that he would instigate huge arguments when they had both been drinking. Her recollections of what had happened were vague but he seemed to have an impeccable memory and it was always her fault, her hysteria which had created the whole scene.

“I was so young and naïve,” she tells upstart.

“I had no idea what was going on. I was completely in love with my husband and I couldn’t believe he would deliberately do things to upset me. For a while I really thought I was going a bit nutty…I began to doubt everything I was doing…I lived on egg shells.”

Because gaslighting is a means to achieving a particular end – control – it has been identified in mother-daughter conflicts, with cheating spouses, and as an element of workplace bullying.

It’s also been recognised as a way to keep women imbedded in religious life – the cultural conditioning that comes with religious indoctrination fits perfectly into the gaslighting model.

Gaslighting owes some of its ‘success’ to the entrenched stereotypes that surround society’s depiction of women. The idea that women are more emotional or prone to hysteria, an actual medical diagnosis from the recent past, has ably assisted the use of gaslighting as a form of coercive control.

At the heart of any kind of psychological manipulation is deception but the motivation is relevant in intimate partner interactions. Gaslighting is seldom used as the sole tactic of manipulation in cases of intimate partner abuse. Other tactics include isolation, intimidation, financial abuse and public shaming.

On its own, gaslighting is a deceit worthy of sanction. Used in concert with other methods of coercive control, it’s a highly destructive form of emotional abuse. At the heart of gaslighting is the desire to be in control and because it’s introduced over time – by stealth – it’s harder for the target to recognise its influence.

Believe it or not, there is a silver lining. A common experience shared by people who hear about gaslighting for the first time is a feeling of epiphany, an unsolicited a-ha moment that finally puts a name to something they’ve witnessed or experienced before. Once a victim is aware of the gaslighting, the power it has as a tactic of control is removed.

If you or someone you know is experiencing intimate partner violence, you can ring the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence Counselling Service on 1800 737 732, which is available 24/7.

Ingrid Vaughan is a graduating Bachelor of Media Studies student from La Trobe University, and is a former editor of upstart. You can follow her on Twitter: @IngridVaughan