Let's Talk About Gaslighting


Note: For Mental Health Awareness Month, the Eight will discuss their struggles with mental health. In this first piece, one of the Eight anonymously tackles a common but not-always-identified form of psychological abuse: gaslighting. 

“I never said that!” “You’re wrong!” “I’ve always thought this!” “You’ve been brainwashed!” “That’s not true!” “It’s in your head!”

These are all things you frequently hear when being gaslighted. You’re absolutely certain of facts, and then your abuser (yes, your abuser) steps in and denies the truth. It isn’t true. You must be imagining things. But you’re sure? You’re absolutely certain of what you know. You have it written down, and you know your own mind. And yet, they insist and insist that it isn’t true. They’ve never thought what you claim they’ve said. Absolutely never.

Gaslighting is a practice that was named after the 1938 play and the 1944 film, Gas Light, in which a man, Gregory, manipulates his wife, Paula, by moving objects around in their home to alter her environment and make her believe that she is losing her sanity. Gregory’s aim is to have his wife hospitalized for mental insanity in order to gain possession of her jewels. He moves thing, manipulates her and her friends, and stages public events that make it seem like she is in fact slowly losing her mind. Yet, Paula keeps a grip on reality, despite all of her husband’s efforts, by watching as the gas lights dim in the house as Gregory sneaks up to the attic to search for her jewels. This to her is tangible proof and leads to the term we know today.

As Kate Abramson explains in the 2014 article, “Turning Up the Lights on Gaslighting,” gaslighting differs from the scenario in the film in two big ways: “First, those who engage in this form of emotional manipulation are often not consciously trying to drive their targets crazy. Second, they often seem not to have any clear end-in-view; they’re not, that is, trying to drive their targets ‘crazy’ for the sake of something so simply and straightforwardly understood as expensive jewels.” (2).

Gaslighting is very much in our public consciousness these days. With Donald Trump as president, it’s now part of our everyday reality. The president says something outrageous, and then goes on to deny it. He says he would never say a thing like that, and then he claims that the media is out to get him. We all know the truth (after all, whatever he swears he hasn’t said has been broadcasted to the world), but there’s still something destabilizing about the process.

There is also something oddly freeing about it... not in that it’s anyway a good thing, but because it’s as if it’s causing mass consciousness raising.

A practice that came about in the grassroots movements of Second Wave feminism, “consciousness raising” resulted out of circles of women sitting down and talking to one another to discuss experiences of sexism. This would “raise” consciousness and cause women to be aware of the problematic elements of their society, helping to fortify their cause.

While we Millennial feminists don’t consciously do this, we do similar things online through all our different social media platforms. Twitter accounts that decry sexism, private accounts serving to voice mental health concerns, tumblr blogs devoted to pop culture feminism. No longer ashamed and no longer believing that we need to keep up an unaffected façade, we’re quick to discuss sexism and mental health and all that results from them. We are no longer a generation of shame.

We help each other identify problems that we experience but don’t know how to address. We help each other feel supported. We help raise awareness and build resistance. We raise consciousness in our own ways.

It’s therefore no surprise that gaslighting has come to the surface through recent current events. Its presence is well noted, and I’ve noticed it being mentioned with more and more frequency, with friends coming out and talking about their experiences. It’s no longer something hiding in the shadows and is, rather, something we now try to understand.

Though not directly because of Donald Trump, gaslighting has also risen in my consciousness over the last year or so. Watching Trump flat out deny things he’s said, leaving behind a disbelieving and frustrated public, I had an epiphany as memories of childhood trauma floated to the surface, reminding me of all the familiar words of denial that were thrown at me, leaving me feeling isolated, confused, and deeply angry.

Often, I had blatant lies fed to me about my reality; being told that everyone else was brainwashing me; that the women I loved, the women who raised me were evil; that I was wrong; that I didn’t know what I felt or what I said. I knew I knew my own mind. I knew the things I heard. I had a sharp memory, and I had written down all the things I’d experienced, giving me tangible proof of reality. And still I was told I was wrong, that I just didn’t know.

Whenever I pointed out the truth, I was fed those now familiar words, “I never said that!” Whenever I expressed anger, I was dismissed as being silly. (Even now, I’m always dismissed. I can spell out every thing that upsets me and still be dismissed.)

“You were just mad about some silly little thing. It was nothing.”

As Abramson says in her article, gaslighters don’t necessarily know what they’re doing. They don’t always know that they’re abusing their victims. They don’t necessarily have ends that justify their actions, and I have no trouble believing that.

I know now that I spent much of my childhood being gaslighted. Watching the phenomenon come out of the shadows and into public consciousness, I’ve been able to identify those horrible childhood feelings and have been able to understand what was going on. I know now that though I felt alone (and so, so frustrated) as a child, I’m not alone now when I deal with the aftermath of years of what I now know was psychological abuse.

Speaking of this now isn’t easy, but it is important. If other friends hadn’t spoken up, then my consciousness wouldn’t have been raised. If the masses hadn’t picked up on this abusive practice, I would still be grappling with decades of frustration, believing I was alone, wondering if despite all the proof, it was really that bad.

But I’m not alone. You’re not alone.

I know myself. You know yourself. We all know our minds. We know what we’ve lived and what we’ve thought and what we’ve experienced. People can challenge what we know to be the truth, but we’re strong. We can make each other strong by being there, by supporting one another, and by making sure we have safe spaces to talk about abuse.

Gaslighting is a horrible practice. It leaves its victims doubting their reality or feeling completely isolated in believing the truth. It puts its victims in positions of ridicule, and because gaslighters are so often men, it leaves countless women feeling powerless. Feeling like no matter what evidence they have, they won’t be believed.

Writing this, I still feel that I might be told that I’m ridiculous, that I don’t know what I’m saying, that everything is in my mind, even while I have scientific facts printed on a page before me. After all, what is science to men whose only sources of authority are the thoughts in their own heads?

“Don’t be ridiculous.” “You have no idea what you’re saying.” “You’re wrong.”

I’m not, and I know it.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Kate Abramson's “Turning Up the Lights on Gaslighting" can be found here.