Impressed by the female student's assertiveness I found myself intrigued to know what 'gaslighting' meant and looked it up (well you've got to keep up with the lingo when you work with students!). Were these two part of some obscure Victorian re-enactment society or something?
I was astonished to find that 'gaslighting' means psychological abuse and takes its name from a period drama film called Gaslight above (1944) in which a man tries to make his new wife think she is going mad by constantly interfering with the gas lighting, among other devices, and then causing her to question her own sanity by denying he has altered anything.
Which reminds me of how Lord Lucan apparently terrorised Lady Lucan in similar vein, trying to get her to accept that any odd incidents were all in her mind as part of his campaign to get her committed as an alternative to an expensive divorce and her being awarded custody of their children. We know the rest of the story from there when that didn't work.
The Yellow Wallpaper was a famous Victorian short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which illustrated the syndrome long before it had a name and in the novel Jane Eyre, we are surely left with many unanswered questions about the crazy wife locked in the attic and what manner of man Mr Rochester truly is, not least since his wife would have to die before he could marry Jane (divorce being considered scandalous and therefore virtually unheard of in those days). As literary scholar John Sutherland so insightfully poses the question in his famous essay on the novel: 'Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?'
In days of yore, many a man on the make would marry a wealthy widow for her money (both the woman and all her worldly goods becoming his goods and chattels upon marriage) and then seek to have her committed, (divorce being scandalous and ruinously expensive and murder being a capital crime). It was only post-WWII that divorce became possible and available for the majority.
So what exactly IS gaslighting and how does one recognise it? The first thing I read is that it's far more common than we think The second is that you can be gaslighted (or should that be 'gaslit'?) by anyone - a parent, a friend, a boss, a partner, a business associate. It may occasionally be accidental such as a parent snapping 'Now look what you've made me do!' to a child who interrupts them at an inopportune moment, but usually there is an intent to undermine or manipulate someone at the heart of it. It always starts slowly and gently builds up, usually over a long period of time so it will be someone who knows you well and knows what your buttons are.
Signs to look out for:
- A parent promises their child an ice cream if they wash the car and then later that day when the child has washed the car and asks if they can have the ice cream, the parent denies ever promising it.
- A woman kicks or punches her partner in his sleep on a regular basis but claims it is an accident or he imagined it.
- A man has a row with his girlfriend over a trivial matter, but half an hour later denies it ever happened.
- A woman pretends to like her partner's family and then comes up with all manner of trivial excuses for cancelling visits until much time has gone by and the partner suddenly realises they no longer see their birth family.
- A boss promises a promotion and then keeps adding new caveats and conditions which have to be met before the employee gets it.
- A friend does you a favour and then regularly reminds you of the fact indefinitely, conveniently forgetting you have also done plenty for them.
- A parent withholds love and approval and only grants it when a child does their bidding (ie it's conditional love)
- A friend says 'You're so pretty (name). If it weren't for that ski slope nose, you'd be perfect.' (beware the back-handed compliment/the compliment with the sting in the tail.)
Finally serious gaslighting is apparently almost exclusively the preserve of the narcissist, so it is most informative to familiarise oneself with this personality type.
We hear a lot about Health and Safety and its unquestionable importance but in this modern world of skyrocketing mental health issues, I think we need to pay a lot more attention to emotional health and safety, both our own and that of those around us. And we need to do this for 'our own good' as well as theirs. We all know the rudiments of bullying, but seldom the subtleties of this dark art and what motives may lie behind it.