Zeitgeist by Gaslight

How a 1944 George Cukor classic gave us one of 2017’s most misused words

Movies Features Gaslighting
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Zeitgeist by Gaslight

(Note: This piece originally appeared in Paste Quarterly #1, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.)

We’ve always had trendy, zeitgeisty words we overuse into nonmeaning, or that get destroyed by people who throw them around without a clue what they actually signify. That’s not always a bad thing. Language morphs. Sometimes those shifts are timely, clever, reasonable—a sort of lexical Darwinism.

Sometimes words simply undergo a rapid transit from evocative to irritating. “Literally” literally no longer means “literally.” Hack? I was recently asked to try a “wine hack” that involved plunking a tablet made from some African superfruit into bad wine to make it taste “more expensive.”

Sometimes the words are important concepts, and chronic, wanton misuse is a problem because it propagates ignorance. “Democracy” is often used interchangeably with “freedom” when it actually means “control by the majority.” The United States is not a democracy, but a republic. It’s probably a good idea for our kids to know the difference.

And sometimes, words are stretched and misused in ways that can be genuinely harmful. These are often, though not always, pathologizing words. Unless you are a psychiatric diagnostician, pathologizing other people isn’t okay—not even on Facebook. The act is innately harmful. Worse, once a billion people are all accusing each other of, say, “microagression,” it becomes a meaningless cliché, and people who are actually being harmed by “microagression” no longer have a word for what is happening to them.

In the last couple of years and intensifying in the lead-up to—and aftermath of—the 2016 presidential election, three words in particular have become the flaming, oily rags and pitchforks of the social media Salem Witch Trials. One is “privilege,” which I will not be discussing here. The second is “narcissism,” which I will, but only because it dovetails with the third.

Let’s talk about gaslighting.

The Perils of Paula

The play Gas Light, written in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton, was made into a film twice, most famously by George Cukor in 1944. The film is the text that defines the term, so to understand what gaslighting is—and isn’t—ignore social media, ignore pundits, and watch the film.

In Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman plays a young woman named Paula, an orphan raised by a beloved aunt in a lovely home on a cheery London square. The aunt, Alice Alquist, is a world-renowned opera singer. Or was: the film opens on a paralytically traumatized Paula being sent to Italy to get away from the house, where she has recently found her aunt murdered in the parlor. Though it’s decades before the term would be coined, modern viewers will instantly note that Paula is suffering from acute PTSD. Panic, flashbacks, depression, terror at anything that reminds her of the murder. Alice has left Paula the house, but Paula can’t bear to be near it. So she’s surprised that, after several years in Italy, she manages to do something as normal as fall in love—but she does, with a dashing, charismatic and intense man named Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).

For a brief moment, we’re happy for Paula, even though the whirlwind romance is slightly unsettling—she almost feels she’s marrying a stranger. But it seems so right—she feels adored. Safe. Things she never thought she’d feel again. She tells Anton she’s going to Lake Como for a few days to get her breath, and then she’ll come back and they’ll live happily ever after. He gives her his blessing, and she gets on the train.

When she gets off at Como and finds Anton has followed her because he just couldn’t be without her, you might even see that as romantic—Paula does. But viewers will already be starting to detect something unsettling in our good Anton’s demeanor. And when he ever so coincidentally notes that he has always fantasized about living in London in a pretty house on a neighborly little square, we have the chilling realization that Anton hasn’t met Paula—he has stalked her. He hasn’t fallen in love with her, he has seduced her. And though we aren’t sure for what reason, the odds seem kind of good that there’s something in that house he wants, something he might’ve even killed to try and get at some point in the past.

Super evil hijinks ensue. Anton keeps telling Paula she’s “ill,” won’t let neighbors visit, hides things and then claims she lost them, chides and clucks over her deteriorating memory—and always goes out at night to compose music in a private studio, because Paula’s insane neediness makes it impossible to concentrate. The increasingly confused and terrified Paula lies in her bedroom at night, hearing strange footsteps in the attic and watching the gaslights flicker. She’s pretty sure the lights lower themselves when he leaves, and go back to normal right before he returns—but of course she’s imagining that as well, right? Her reality has been completely undermined. It’s orchestrated by Anton brilliantly, systematically—and he almost destroys her.

Almost. Someone at Scotland Yard who’s been keeping an eye on the Alquist cold case finally manages to get into the house while Anton is out. When the lights go down, he asks if it happens every night. Paula is so startled that he can see the light change, that it’s not a delusion, that she almost loses it. But ultimately it breaks the spell, and let’s just say Paula wins.

Cukor’s classic left us with more than just a feeling of relief that Paula survived Anton’s machinations. It also gave us a word that would become a staple of modern pathologizing.

The first home I ever owned was a one-bedroom apartment in a two-unit Edwardian in San Francisco’s North Beach; my brother had bought the upstairs unit. We managed it because the house was the definition of “deferred maintenance.” It would have to be gutted, but before demolition started we were both camping there. One night, my brother came downstairs, paused in the hallway, and said, “Uh … do you smell gas?”

I thought about it. “Are you … not supposed to?”

It turned out there were still pre-electricity gas mains running the length of the place. Never removed, never capped, and live. The vestiges of literal gas-lighting were leaking a noxious substance into my flat. (Happily, neither of us were smokers.) Thing was, sure, I’d smelled it at first. But I’d stopped noticing that anything was wrong, even though somewhere in the recesses of my nervous system a tiny little voice was saying, “I smell danger.”

The Gaslight Lingers

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which the abuser attempts to systematically undermine and destabilize the victim’s reality until they become incapacitated, helpless, terrified and basically batshit crazy. It happens between individuals, it happens behind closed doors, and it requires trust. It can take many forms, but there are plenty of things gaslighting is not.

Gaslighting is not synonymous with “lying.” Donald Trump and Mike Pence have been accused by many well-meaning pundits of gaslighting the nation. Hear me now: Donald Trump is not mentally sophisticated enough to gaslight a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Might our President and Vice President have lied? Oh yeah. And all gaslighters (and most politicians) do. But not all liars are gaslighters. More crucially, gaslighters are not impulsive. They think ahead, choose their words carefully, and take great care to appear reasonable. Anton has exactly one accidental outburst in the film, when Paula finds an artifact in the house that could blow his carefully curated trip to Crazyville. He instantly apologizes for his “violence” and falls all over himself trying to put her at ease.

My bachelorette pad was duly taken down to the studs and rebuilt. It took 18 months. By the time I moved in, I was engaged and pregnant (not necessarily in that order). The gas smell was long gone. Two years later, when I found myself in therapy for panic attacks, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d gotten there, but I knew it was my fault. My “artistic temperament.” My tendency to “live in a fantasy world.” My problem of being hopelessly “needy” and “demanding.” It had to be, because I’d married the most laid-back person on earth, and he was a saint for putting up with someone as inappropriately intense as I was. That was all clear. So I voluntarily endured batteries of psychiatric testing. (All they turned up was PTSD.) But clearly, I was a failure. I’d agreed to pull a June Cleaver and stay home with the baby while everyone I knew went back to work. I took her to the park but had nothing in common with the 22-year-old au pairs from Poland and Brazil. Everyone was busy. My parents were getting tired of me “acting helpless,” considering there was nothing wrong with the baby. (The baby was a genius and robustly healthy, despite a near-death experience in L&D, though I couldn’t say that without being told I was a “drama queen.”) It was all me. Whatever was amiss, I was causing it. The fact that I couldn’t figure out how only made it worse.

“Gaslighter” is not a synonym for “fraud,” “charlatan” or “bullshit artist.” If you commit tax fraud, you are not gaslighting the Internal Revenue Service. If you are PT Barnum, you are not gaslighting the people who have come to see the attractions. David Blaine practices sleight of hand, not gaslighting. Tell your spouse you’re “working late” when you’re actually screwing a co-worker, and you’re not gaslighting your spouse. You’re just a garden-variety liar. Gaslighters are frauds, charlatans and Olympian bullshit artists. But it doesn’t hold true in reverse.

The escalations mounted for almost a decade. Why couldn’t we talk about it? Because I was incapable of anything but “lecturing” or something he called “jibber-jabber.” Panic is incompatible with parenting; I knew I had to do whatever it took to stop it. The first medication elicited the announcement, “I don’t know whether I hate you more when on that stuff or off it.” By the twentieth, I doubt he could have hated me more than I hated myself. Slimy-solicitous concern for my increasingly “erratic” behavior and collapsing memory gave way to rages, assertions that I didn’t even realize I spent 10K a month on shoes, hacking (and I don’t mean making my wine taste more expensive), and covertly recording conversations and sending them to people. Oddly, the panic attacks continued, and were joined by four-day migraines.

Gaslighting does not occur en masse. You cannot be gaslighted by the government, the media, the Koch Brothers or Monsanto. By definition, gaslighting is personal, intimate, and can only be done to you by someone you trust. A gaslighter is a specialty narcissist or sociopath who uses intimacy, personal approval, knowledge of the specific details of your life and personality, and importantly, isolation, to unhinge you. All Bergman’s Paula would have had to do to foil Anton’s gaslighting campaign was go outside and talk to the neighbors; she’d have discovered in short order that she was completely sane. Corporations and governments (and hey, cults!) can (and do) use propaganda. They can employ false advertising. They can tell you that you’ll go to hell if you don’t do as they say. They can promise to erect an impenetrable stretch of masonry from San Diego to Key West. They can lie through their teeth. But that rapidly swelling volume of “fake news” on the internet that people swallow without question? Not gaslighting.

We spent our ninth anniversary in Rome, where I was guest lecturing. He told me everyone could tell I was insane but no one would say it to my face because they were afraid of me. On our tenth, in Mexico, he threw a drink in my face, pinned me to the bed in a purple-faced seethe and told me to go fuck myself because I made a joke he didn’t think was funny. I got so scared I slapped him. Which made him an abused spouse! I lost 25 pounds in a month, went days without sleeping, became so shaky I cut or burned myself almost every time I tried to cook: he told me everyone knew clumsiness was a sign of suicidality and insisted I see a therapist. Not the one I was already seeing: his therapist. They discussed how I was a danger to myself and the kids, incompetent, broken, and almost certainly a drug and alcohol abuser while I sat on the couch and cried. Cleaning up the house later, I found a photocopied inventory from a self-help book that he’d “accidentally” left in the bedroom, along the lines of “How Is your Borderline Personality Disordered Spouse Ruining Your Life?” Every box was checked.

Gaslighting is never accidental. I recently read a self-styled pop-psych expert’s assertion that “gaslighting doesn’t even have to be deliberate.” Actually, one of the defining features of gaslighting is that it is deliberate. That’s a big part of why it’s so hard to get over—having to contend with the fact that someone you trusted deliberately tried to drive you insane. Can you emotionally abuse someone by accident? Ab-so-frickin-lutely. Unintended emotional abuse happens all over the world every hour of every day. I know a mother who got a massive cosmic face-slap when her daughter said, “It really hurts my feelings when you tell me how stupid I am.” Mom had a habit of saying, “Well, if you were smart you’d do X.” To the mother, it was a harmless figure of speech. She had no idea how her child was hearing it. Was the child emotionally abused? Pretty much. But not on purpose. And she certainly wasn’t gaslighted. Anton does not make one single uncalculated move in the film. He painstakingly creates an alternate universe to drive Paula out of her gourd. Gaslighters possess chess-champion strategic minds, serious sadistic tendencies and absolutely no conscience. It’s very much on purpose.

Why was he doing it? I’m not sure, and I still have days where I believe I made the whole thing up. To distract me so he could get away with something? Possibly. He routinely turned off his phone, came home six hours late, and exploded if I asked where he’d been. In the film, Cukor’s Anton is looking for something valuable he knows is in the house. Narcissists don’t have a stable self-image; they must constantly generate one from other people’s’ projections and reactions. For some, this results in a need to gaslight a partner or other intimate relation in order to uphold a self-story in which they are demonstrably the sane one. I don’t know all the reasons why someone might become tempted to gaslight someone else, but it is almost certainly always born of a pathologically intense need for power and control.

Gaslighting does not work on everyone. This is one of the reasons why actual gaslighting is rarer than your Facebook feed would lead you to think. Bergman’s character falls for it is because she has acute PTSD. Gaslighters choose victims who are traumatized, have an unstable sense of reality or an unstable sense of self. Anton knows Paula is terrified of that house and haunted by the murder of her aunt. Had it not been her biggest trauma-trigger, the house would not have had the power to drive her crazy and neither would her sociopath husband. So-called empirical reality (like language) may be startlingly plastic, but we do have certain consensus-perceptions (and lexicons), and people whose realities are relatively immutable are not only unlikely to be successfully unhinged by a gaslighter—they’re unlikely to attract one in the first place. Unfortunately, folks with severe anxiety disorders are tasty-looking targets.

Finally, one night, I asked him—not angrily, just out of curiosity because it was unlike him—why he’d moved that piece of furniture. Concerned frown. “Oh dear. I hate to have to tell you this, but you moved that thing. I watched you do it. It was Tuesday. You don’t even remember that? Hmmm. You’re more unwell than we thought. What medications are you on? Is it okay if I talk to your therapist? Have you been drinking? Is that a new handbag?”

And suddenly I snapped out of it. He’d gone too far.

“I’ve seen that film,” I said. “And Boyer doesn’t come out too well in the end.”

Language is rich and discerning. It is a scalpel. It is a paintbrush. It is a lathe, a loupe, a microscope, a telescope. It can also be a weapon. If you think you’re being gaslighted by the government, the media, Big Pharma, the Pope or that guy on Twitter who said you were wrong and wouldn’t back down? You’re not. Take it from someone who knows.

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