Gaslight (1944): How Abusers Destroy You

You apologize for things you didn’t do. You feel a wave of self-doubt whenever anyone points out that maybe you just misunderstood or maybe you didn’t remember right. Maybe it’s true, you tell yourself. You’re always messing up anyway. You look at others and feel inferior—when you can muster the courage to lift your eyes from the floor, that is. You believe that mockery and contemptuous teasing are signs of affection because your abuser told you so. So if anyone asks if you’re all right and whether you’re happy, you say yes, of course. Because if you’re not, it’s your own fault.

Gaslighting is pernicious at any age, but most especially for children and young people locked into relationships with older, more powerful adults. For them, they lack the life experience to be able to compare the abuser’s invented reality to any other existence—one where they are not incompetent and unintelligent and always to blame. And this is precisely the story of Gas Light, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, which was later adapted into two films, the most famous of which is George Cukor’s 1944 Gaslight.

But this wasn’t the first story to address this subset of abusive behavior. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, first published in 1892, directly addressed the misogynistic stereotypes that often underpin men’s gaslighting of women. Believing that women are overly emotional, fragile beings who require constant guidance and care from men, the husband and the doctor in the story both lock the woman into a room where she is forced to do nothing all day. Suffering from postpartum depression and now isolated by men who believe nothing she says, the main character’s mental health deteriorates rapidly. The constant suggestion that she was insane and her faculties unreliable left her so doubting herself that reality itself receded.

Now, you may be wondering do women gaslight men? Of course they do. Women are socialized to resort to emotional rather than physical violence, so while rape and assault are usually (but not always) limited to male assailants, gaslighting is a truly all-gender sport. The only difference is—and it is an important one—that girls are raised to be submissive and pleasant and to second-guess themselves. Boys are not. We are all susceptible to gaslighting, and we are all capable of becoming gaslighters. It’s just that anyone gaslighting a man has more of an uphill battle ahead of them.

But gaslighting a child of any gender is easy pickings. And watching Cukor’s Gaslight this weekend, I remembered more vividly than ever before the many tactics my ex-husband, my father, and eventually my brother used to make me question my own abilities, intellect, and perceptions.

1. The gaslighter is drawn to people who are too trusting and inexperienced to spot their disturbing behavior.

Before Paula (Ingrid Bergman) marries Gregory (Charles Boyer), she is studying under a maestro in Italy and on her way to the top of the music world. She is gifted, brilliant, and perceptive. She is also extremely young and sheltered. Before Gregory, she has never even been in love. So when he resorts to stalking and pressuring her into an intimate, isolating relationship, her alarm bells don’t ring.

Now, of course, in the film Gregory has Hollywood-appropriate motives that include jewels and a heist. But in real life, gaslighters are otherwise normal people who simply do not feel safe in relationships unless they have complete control. Instead of jewels, they want a guarantee that you can never leave them.

Until I moved out, my father laughed every time I threatened to leave, telling me I’d never make it on my own. In my first marriage, when I did try to leave, my ex-husband stalked me. Both of them wanted to ensure continued access to their target: me.

2. The gaslighter is moody and has an explosive temper but, ever eager to avoid accountability, it is their target who is “highly strung.” 

My father had a violent temper. But whenever I pointed this out, I was the one who was overreacting and emotional. I had pushed him into his tantrums. They were my fault. And they were my fault because I was the one who was always losing it. How could anyone keep their temper around me?

I was 12 the first time he told me this. He was a grown man in his forties. For 13 more years, he went on dodging accountability by blaming me for “setting him off” whenever I asserted my right to grow up in a safe home. At 25, I finally cut him off. But by then, it was too late. If you hear something enough, no matter how ridiculous it is, you start to wonder if it might be true.

3. The gaslighter tells not only their target but everyone around them that it’s the target who is “crazy.” Gradually, they build a faction against the target.

It wasn’t enough for my father to torment and humiliate me on a daily basis. He recruited the entire family. By the time I was in high school, my mother and brother were well-trained. “Sit down,” they’d tell me when I challenged my father. “Just do what he wants you to. Why do you have to make such a big deal out of everything?”

This serves three purposes. First, it isolates you, and it is much harder to resist a gaslighter when no one validates your own experience. Second, it normalizes the abuse by minimizing it. The gaslighter’s recruits identify the real problem as not the gaslighting itself but the inconvenience of the target’s struggle against the gaslighting, which then the target is held accountable for. Third, the abuser has created a chorus of gaslighters who are all telling you that only the abuser’s reality is fact.

This pattern was repeated many years later when, after one of his classmates strangled me in front of witnesses, my brother went around campus telling people that I always overreacted to things and they shouldn’t take the assault seriously. “You’ll just encourage her,” he said.

4. Gaslighters are really, really, very nice to their target in capricious and unpredictable ways. This further causes the target to question their own reality.

My father was a master at this. Suddenly, we’d all be in the family van and on our way to one of our favorite restaurants for a special treat. Just two years after he beat me within an inch of my life, he took us all to Disneyland for a whole week, even booking us a room at the Disneyland Hotel and treating my brother and me to daily milkshakes. Sometimes after ballet classes, he drove me to a supermarket where we picked up tiny cartons of chocolate milk and maple bars. Then he’d park the car on the side of the road, and we’d munch on our pastries and slurp our chocolate milk and laugh.

Then, on other days, he’d drive me up to the same store and tell me that if I wanted a maple bar so bad, I’d have to get out and buy it myself. I was only 12 or 13 and painfully shy. I begged him to come in with me. Instead of that, he yelled at me. What a hopeless, useless person I was. How incompetent. How utterly inept. To not even be able to buy something on my own. Wasn’t I ashamed of myself? I didn’t deserve all the things he provided if I couldn’t even bother getting them myself. I was not only incompetent, but lazy and ungrateful. And with that, he started the car and drove us away, giving me the silent treatment for the rest of the night.

I never had the slightest idea which father I would have on any given day. And that alone was enough to make me feel crazy.

5. Gaslighters suspect their targets of being equally manipulative and duplicitous, helping them justify their behavior and further vilify their target.

My father always thought I was up to no good. When I was seven years old, I was blamed for my five-year-old brother breaking his arm by jumping off a bunk bed. The story went that I had manipulated him. I had tricked him into it. When the truth is we were visiting our cousins and having our first encounter with a bunk bed. No adults were in the room supervising as four children treated it like a jungle gym.

When I was 19 and 20, my parents accused me of being the voice of Satan and tempting my brother to iniquity since I had left the Mormon Church first and my brother had followed.

When I was 36 and tried to reschedule a call he had missed, my brother accused me of always trying to control him and having no regard for his schedule. I was a selfish and horrible person. I should not expect him to be available for a call just because it was my birthday and we had scheduled it because, honestly, had we really scheduled it?

Asking you to doubt your own memory is textbook gaslighting, especially when it deflects attention from something the gaslighter messed up. For most of my life, I have been told that I am a calculating villain and the village idiot. That has left me fearful that asking for anything will trigger a cascade of accusations and insults.

6. Years of gaslighting result in a person who looks stupid, indecisive, and weak-willed to outsiders, locking them into a pattern of questioning themselves and relying on others for decisions and validation.

The worst thing about gaslighting, particularly if it begins when you are a child or a spouse in a very young marriage, is that there is no intact “you” to go back to, even if you leave behind the gaslighter. At the end of the film, Paula gives Gregory a taste of his own medicine, then triumphantly calls for the police to take him away.

In my experience, leaving a gaslighter is nothing like that. Very few gaslighters are criminals, and few are violent. If you have been their target for years and have other gaslighters in your life (as I did), there is no scene of cathartic victory. No moment of instantaneous liberation. It takes a long, long time to extricate yourself from the web that they have spun for you.

I am still profoundly suggestible. I tease people all the time that if they tell me a UFO landed on the White House lawn or our neighbor just grew wings, I would probably believe them. It’s taken as a joke, but it is also sadly true. I see other people as authorities and all too easily question myself and my expertise.

I am gradually learning to assert myself. I am gradually learning to express disagreement. I am practicing asking questions if I’m not sure, rather than just taking someone’s word for it. But it’s hard. My heart beats faster every time. The blood rushes to my face. Sometimes, especially if I’m with someone I don’t know well or someone I’ve seen respond poorly to being questioned, my hands shake.

It takes a long time.

But I’ve come very far. The distance I’ve traveled is invisible to most people. But I can see it, and I feel proud of it. I don’t need anyone else to recognize it for me to know it’s there behind me, right over my shoulder. Rivers and mountains I have crossed, even when I was scared or tired or would rather give up. I drew boundaries. I told people no. I asked questions. I walked away. I really did that. And I know that I did.

And for me, that is triumph enough.

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