Gaslighting: The Hidden Abuser

 

By Amasil Fahim

In the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, Boyer’s character, Gregory, would manipulate a gas light, lowering it at various times without notifying his wife Paula, played by Bergman. When Paula commented on the sporadic changes in the lighting, Gregory would confidently tell her that the flickering gaslight was only a figment of her imagination, planting a seed of doubt in her mind about herself. Gregory continues to plant these seeds of self-doubt and confusion in Paula, convincing her she is losing her mind, which enables him to control her without her realizing it.

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The trailer for Gaslight (1944).
 
This scenario occurs every day in abusive relationships. Due to its depiction in this film, it has taken on the moniker “gaslighting.” Gaslighting a particular type of mental abuse where information is manipulated in order to benefit the abuser, and false information is presented with the intent of causing self-doubt in the victims—who begin to second-guess their own memories, viewpoints, and stability. Loveisrespect, a subsidiary of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, describes how abusers utilize gaslighting as a form of manipulation: they withhold information, present counterfactual information as believable, block or divert their partners’ lines of questioning, trivialize their partners, and conveniently forget or deny that certain events have happened.
When an abuser “withholds,” the aggressor feigns a sense of confusion, refuses to listen to the victim, and declines to share their emotions. The abuser may say something like, “I’m not going to listen to you confuse me with that crap tonight.”
When an abuser “counters,” the aggressor will continuously question the validity of a victim’s memory, even if it is correct.  The abuser may say something like, “Last time you thought the same thing and you were wrong.”
When an abuser “blocks” or “diverts,” the aggressor decides to change the conversation from the current subject or topic to questioning the victim’s thoughts and manipulating the conversation. The abuser may say something like, “You are trying to hurt me on purpose.”
When an abuser “trivializes,” the aggressor causes the the victim to believe that their thoughts and needs are not as important. The abuser may say something like, “You’re seriously going to let this cause a rift between us?”
When an abuser “forgets” or “denies,” the aggressor pretends to forget things that have happened in the past or denies things that have previously happened. The abuser may say something like, “What are you even talking about? That never happened.”
 
The continuous use of these techniques can cause the victim to cultivate self-doubt, up to the point where they will become too scared or anxious to even question anything the aggressor talks about, since now they fear that they cannot even trust their own memories.
Abusers utilize gaslighting because it is a gradual way to cause a victim to become more anxious, isolated, and depressed—so much that they can even lose their sense of reality. This causes the victim to start depending on the aggressor to interpret the world for them, which is a dependency very difficult to escape. The worst part about gaslighting is just how gradual it is; most of the time people don’t realize it’s happening before it is too late. As a result, the best way to avoid it is to know the signs and be able to recognize and identify it.

Amasil Fahim is a first-year student at Saint Louis University; she is originally from Plainfield, Illinois.

 

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