In 1938, British playwright Patrick Hamilton pens down “Gaslight”. Gaslight is a mystery thriller about a couple engaged in a psychological tale of manipulation and gaslighting. Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer pushed the term “Gaslight” into popular culture, in the 1944 movie of the same name. In this story, the husband manipulates his loving and trusting wife into believing she was out of touch with reality so that he could steal from her. The husband’s nefarious goal was to do away with her credibility so that all of her complaints about him could be attributed to her psychosis, rather than his actions.
Gaslighting is a form of brainwashing done through persistent manipulation, The goal of gaslighting is to make the victim unsure of their sanity, identity, self-worth or sense of perception. Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, defines this effect as “what happens when you begin to second-guess yourself because you’ve allowed another person to define your reality and erode your judgment.”
So how does a person start to gaslight another? Shouldn’t it be easy to perceive the gaslighting from the onset? In the movie “Gaslight”, Gregory gives his doting wife Paula his mother’s brooch. At that moment, he lays his first gaslighting brick. He tells her that she should be careful to remember where she places it because she, by nature, is ‘forgetful.’ This naturally catches Paula by surprise, and like many wives in love, she dismisses it as silly and meaningless. But true to Gregory’s words, the brooch goes missing, (Gregory has stolen it) and Paula starts to doubt her self-perception. Gregory then moves on a step further and rigs the gaslights in their home to flicker, yet when Paula raises concern about them, Gregory assures her that the lights are okay, and whatever she’s witnessing is factual.
In real life, Gaslighting happens much in the same insidious manner. Here are some gaslighting steps that an abuser may make, to get you to a point where you doubt your sanity.
Exaggerations and lies
The gaslighter creates a negative narrative to drive the insane angle they’re building about you. This, of course, drives the gaslightee to the defensive, where it’s your word against theirs.
The gaslighter finds numerous occasions to repeat the falsehoods, and enable them to dominate and control the relationship, as well as the narrative.
At some point, the gaslightee will find the criticism and lies too much to accept and will begin to do what feels like a fight for their lives. When the gaslighter is challenged, they may escalate the dispute, and vaporize every defense his victim has through blame, denial and more lies. This, in turn, will leave the victim more befuddled and confused.
Battle fatigue sets in, and the victim capitulates. At this stage, the victim can be seen questioning their sanity, identity or reality. They’re worn out and terrified about the abuse happening, and they become pessimistic, self-doubting, fearful, discouraged and debilitated.
The victim starts to build an emotional and psychological reliance on the gaslighter. The gaslighter fans the flames of anxiety, insecurity, fear and doubt from the victim when it’s profitable to them. The gaslightee here is pulled by the gaslighter’s strings, taking whatever judgment the abuser metes on him or her.
The gaslighter will occasionally be kind, show remorse, and give false hope to their victim. This is just an opportunity for the gaslighter to let the victim put their guard down, so the next wave of gaslighting can destroy the victim even further. This will help reinforce the codependency in their relationship.
The pathological gaslighter has in their mind to completely control, dominate and take advantage of an individual or society. They will maintain the stream of lies and criticism to ensure that the victim is in a continuous line of direct fire. At this point, the abuser can exploit his victim at will.