We watched Gaslight the other day; a classic black and white thriller made in 1944 and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and the utterly fabulous 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in an Oscar-nominated screen debut for best supporting actress. It’s a strange film but worth the watch if only for Angela Lansbury’s cameo role, which seems to be from a whole different film.
It’s about a woman named Paula (Ingrid Bergman) whose new husband (Charles Boyer) slowly manipulates her into believing she is going insane in order to distract her from his criminal activities A picture disappears from its place on a wall and he says she took it, along with several other instances of her removing and hiding things. But she has no recollection of having done so, because, of course, she didn’t. Paula also hears footsteps coming from the sealed attic and sees the gaslights dim and brighten for no apparent reason. The flickering gaslights that Boyer claims she has just imagined, are (warning - plot spoiler!) caused by him turning on the lights in the attic where he’s up to NO GOOD.
The film gave rise to the term ‘gaslighting’, also known as coercive control, where someone induces a state of psychological paralysis in the disoriented, anxious victim, to get some sort of malign power over them. The perpetrator is in the wrong, but they make their victim feel like they are. And it can be very nuanced—that’s the skill. Charles Boyer doesn’t go in shouting “YOURE INSANE!” No he chips away speaking softly: “of course you did xyz my dear, you’re tired, you didn’t mean to..” he gets her thinking he is the authority on all things and so she must be in the wrong.
Have you ever been gaslighted? It usually involves malicious put-downs, name-calling, and frequent and unreasonable criticism. It is a form of bullying behaviour but it can be very subtle, insidious and spread out over a long period. I have been gaslighted to a degree at work once or twice and it is not pleasant. It mainly involved me being ‘sent to Coventry’, ‘ghosted’ in the modern parlance. It didn’t get me thinking I was insane, but it did lower my self-esteem. “It’s not about you…” said a wise person “…it’s them”, and so it proved, but it was still a horrible experience.
Then recently I thought, we do this to ourselves. We call ourselves names: “What an idiot!”. We criticise ourselves constantly: “Why am I so stupid!” And it can be just as insidious, starting off fairly harmlessly but building up into a relentless attack. Left unchecked we can do ourselves great harm in this way, leading to serious depression: “I don’t deserve to be happy, alive even. I’m worthless” and so on. And it starts off with our doubting our own abilities and with our inner critic niggling away.
So what can we do about it? It can be extremely hard to combat because it is often a very deep rooted thing that started in childhood with family or teachers. ‘Combat’ is not a good idea anyway, as we know, the mind doesn’t work like that. The problem will always pop back up, working around any defences we might put up. But what we can do is be alert to those tendencies. Tend and befriend the negative thoughts, welcome them in. Would you talk to a friend like that? These criticisms aren’t real. They aren’t facts. They are just thoughts that come and go like flickering gaslight. So notice that, and don’t be hard on yourself.