Gaslighting, a Not Uncommon Dynamic

When I was a kid, I saw a black-and-white psychological drama filmed in 1944. Gaslight was creepy, powerfully frightening to a teenager, and, although I have a reputation in my family for forgetting the details of a movie (and therefore being able to rewatch it with nearly original joy), I’ve never forgotten what happened in Gaslight.

Ingrid Bergman stars in this classic thriller as a devoted bride whose new husband, Charles Boyer, convinces her to move into the home in which her aunt was murdered as part of his plot to drive her mad. At the time, the story of Gaslight spawned a new expression which has recently become popular again.

What is Gaslighting?

“Gaslighting” is defined as manipulating someone, almost always someone very close, i.e., one’s spouse, to make him or her question his own reality. In the movie, among other things, Boyer reduced the gas (this was before electric lights), and thereby lowered the lights. When Bergman complained, he denied any difference in the lighting. Hence the colloquialism.

In the 43 years that I’ve practiced law, I’ve seen many instances in real life of this controlling technique, although never in a situation so dramatic as the movie. How?

The “gaslighter” lies or otherwise distorts the truth to his target, eventually convincing her to doubt herself for his own benefit. (Of course, the gaslighter may be female, as well.) As a result, the victim becomes disoriented or distressed. Normally, this dynamic only works when she is already vulnerable, such as in an unequal power relationship, or when she fears challenging the false narrative because to do so would be to challenge the gaslighter’s honesty.

This modus_operandi is illustrated excruciatingly well in the movie.

Examples of Gaslighting

So how does gaslighting present? There are a variety of situations that you may well recognize, either because you’ve been there, or because someone you know has described them to you. Or you’ve watched Gaslight, in which each of them is demonstrated.

  1. Denying. When you mention a specific event or something someone said, he claims he doesn’t remember it or might even tell you it never happened. “You must be going crazy. That’s not what happened.”
  2. Trivializing. He minimizes your feelings or accuses you of exaggerating or overreacting. “Oh, for heaven’s sake! You’re imagining things.”
  3. Countering. He questions your memory or invents new details that never occurred. If you try to hold him responsible, he might blame you for the situation instead. “I didn’t say that; you’re the one who said it.”
  4. Distracting. He brushes you off or changes the subject when you want to discuss something he wants to avoid. “Hey, let’s go to dinner at that restaurant you really liked. Don’t you want to go back there?”
  5. Projecting. He accuses you of trying to manipulate or confuse him.
  6. Diverting. When you raise a concern about his behavior, he changes the subject or turns it back on you by suggesting you’re making it up. “I never took your money. I don’t think you went to the bank at all. You forgot to go and now you want to blame me for not having cash when you needed it.”
  7. Discrediting. He suggests to others that you can’t remember things correctly, get confused easily, or make things up. “She really hasn’t been herself lately.”
  8. Isolating. He separates you from your support network so that you become even more dependent on him, and therefore more vulnerable to his manipulation. He may do this by telling you he doesn’t like your family or friends, or by pitting you against them.

Why Gaslight?

The net result is that the gaslighter turns the tables on his victim, blaming her for his poor behavior and making it appear that she is the one mistreating him. Some people gaslight to avoid conflict. Some use it to deflect personal responsibility. Some use it to hide bad behavior. And some use it, as Boyer did, to gain power and control or to get revenge.

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About this week’s author, Joryn Jenkins.

Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law, two of which she served as a professor of law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen Award, an honor bestowed in the United States Supreme Court upon those who have provided exceptional leadership in the American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.

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