What is Gaslighting?

I’ve worked with a number of horror writers, and many of my students’ manuscripts deal with characters who are in emotionally or psychologically abusive situations. It’s critical to portray these situations realistically, and sometimes my students don’t fully understand key concepts related to psychological abuse; gaslighting is one of them.

Gas Light was a 1938 stage play that was adapted into movies in 1940 and 1944; the plot centers on a man who tries to drive his wife insane by changing the environment of their house in small but perceptible ways while insisting to her that everything is the same. Namely, he dims the gas lights of the house; she notices it, but he insists it’s all her imagination.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional abuse. It’s a typical tactic used by sociopaths and people with narcissistic personality disorder. Most times, it doesn’t actually involve the physical environment manipulations portrayed in the play and movies.

Typically, Person A uses various types of emotional manipulation to convince Person B that his or her authentic emotional reactions to an injustice or injury caused or abetted by Person A are crazy or unreasonable, or that the injury never even happened. The result is that Person A doesn’t have to change (or even feel remorseful about) his or her behavior, because a successful gaslighting causes Person B to doubt and second-guess his or her own emotions, perceptions and judgements. Ultimately, Person B will go silent about whatever bad thing that Person A keeps doing.

There are also instances in which one person gaslights another for the sadistic amusement of seeing another person distressed and confused. These situations often do involve physical environment manipulations, which the instigator will trivialize as harmless pranks if he or she is discovered staging them. Imagine, for instance, the wife of an elderly man with mild dementia who repeatedly hides his beloved pocket watch and then tells him he lost it, sending him on frantic, fruitless hunts through their house while his wife quietly plants the watch someplace he already searched thoroughly.

Children suffering from sexual abuse are frequently subjected to gaslighting by their abusers, as are rape victims and domestic violence victims.

Here’s a typical gaslighting exchange:

Amy: “I wish you would stop flirting with other women at parties.”
Joe: “What? What are you even talking about?”
Amy: “Bella. You were flirting with her.”
Joe: “Christ, Amy, no I wasn’t. God. You are so jealous; it’s just ridiculous.”
Amy: “I saw you kiss her!”
Joe: “No you didn’t. All I did was lean in to tell her something about our boss that I didn’t want Judy hearing.”
Amy: “Judy was on the other side of the room –”
Joe: “No she wasn’t. She was right there. You should get your eyes checked. Or maybe it was all that tequila you put away, huh? Christ, you are so unreasonable.”
Amy: “But –”
Joe: “I’m so sick of your jealousy. Can’t you just relax and let me enjoy a party without trying to control every move I make? Jesus. Why do you have to try to ruin everything?”
Amy: “I’m sorry. I just … nevermind.”

Amy starts off very reasonably expressing her desire that Joe stop doing something hurtful to her. Joe comes back at her with a “the best defense is a good offense” style gaslighting, and he is certainly offensive. If Joe were merely trying to cover his ass about the incident, he might go with a standard apologetic lie: “I’m sorry, dear, I didn’t know what I was doing and I’d never intentionally embarrass you like that, honest!” But here he completely denies what he did and abusively pretends it’s all a figment of her crazy, jealous mind. He paints himself as the injured party and browbeats Amy into apologizing to him. Joe doesn’t care if Amy really believes him or not; he’s satisfied thinking he’s punished her so much for bringing up his infidelity that she won’t protest the next time he does something.

Sarah: “I … I need to talk to you about Bob, that new guy in your gaming group.”
Mike: “Sure, what’s up?”
Sarah: “We went to college together, and once we were at a party, and ….”
Mike: “And what?”
Sarah: “And I had too much to drink, and I went to lie down in a back room, and when I woke up Bob was on top of me, and he’d gotten my jeans off –”
Mike: “No way! Bob’s such a nice guy; he’d never do something like that.”
Sarah: “Yes, I know he seems nice, but he did it, and … I’m not comfortable with him in the house.”
Mike: “That’s crazy. Why would Bob need to pull that kind of creeper stuff? He’s good-looking, he’s got a kick-ass job, and the jokes that guy tells are hilarious.”
Sarah: “I know, but –”
Mike: “Come on. You were drunk, right? It probably wasn’t even Bob that did it. And besides, that was what, five years ago? Aren’t you over it yet?”
Sarah: “I ….”
Mike: “Aw, why are you crying? There’s nothing to cry about!”
Sarah: “He tried to rape me. He would have done it if Mark hadn’t come in and interrupted him.”
Mike: “You’re so emotional. Come on. Bob’s not some scary rapist; he’s a good guy. He’s the best GM we’ve ever had! I’m sure that even if all that happened, he’s totally changed.”
Sarah: “But –”
Mike: “But nothing. He’s fine. You’re fine. You just need to get over this weird emotional thing you’ve been harboring against him all these years.”
Sarah: “He –”
Mike: “Enough, already! He’s coming to the house with the guys next Tuesday. Just make us some sandwiches and be cool, okay?”
Sarah: “…”
Mike: “Come on, Sarah. You better not cause a bunch of drama and embarrass me in front of my friends.”
Sarah: “Okay.”

Mike never wants Sarah to suffer emotionally; the problem is that he just doesn’t really care if she suffers as long as he gets what he wants. Defending her right to feel safe in her own home would involve disrupting his own social activities and saying “No” to his buddies, and Mike’s too selfish and cowardly to do the right thing. Mike’s also emotionally invested in the idea of Bob as a Really Cool Guy, because otherwise he’d have to admit he’s been thoroughly tricked by a predator. From his perspective, it’s easier to pretend that his wife is overly emotional and irrational than to address the problem that he’s friends with a rapist. This exchange, unfortunately, is a pretty classic example of how rapists enlist other men in their social circles to help keep their victims quiet.

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