Gaslight and other stories
aslighting’ is a term that is today used to describe coercive control achieved through manipulating somebody so that they doubt themselves to the degree that they question their own judgement and their version of events. It is a term that is now used widely but few people who use it realise or reflect upon the origins of the term or why the word ‘gas’ is in it. But for those of us who are from the twentieth century it will immediately conjure up the images of a young Ingrid Bergman being driven to insanity by Charles Boyer as her sinister and controlling husband in the 1944 film Gaslight.
The film Gaslight was based on the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton and it is the story of a young woman whose confidence and sanity is being destroyed by a manipulative husband. He persuades her she is unreliable and a kleptomaniac as he goes about systematically destroying her self-confidence. He keeps questioning her behaviour and observations to the extent that she begins to doubt her own reality, observations and memory. For example, she is disturbed by the inexplicable dips in the gas jets lighting up the house but when she mentions this, she is told she is imagining things.
The gas lights continue to fluctuate and dim but it seems she is the only one who sees this. And she hears footsteps from above but then she is unsure if perhaps she is imagining this as well. Luckily, she is helped by a Scotland Yard Inspector (Joseph Cotten) who has noticed her due to the striking resemblance she bears to her aunt, a famous opera singer who was murdered many years earlier. We learn at the end of the film that the gas lights were actually flickering and there had actually been footsteps because her husband had been in the attic of the house looking for the jewels of her murdered aunt – he would access the attic from the roof of the uninhabited next-door house and when he lit up the attic lights, the gas flame in the other rooms would be reduced and flicker.
The film, directed by George Cukor, was nominated for a number of academy awards and Ingrid Bergman won the Best Actress award for her performance as Paula Alquist, the young woman whose husband is manipulating her into questioning her own sanity (his aim being to have her certified and then committed to a mental institution). The plot is pinned to a criminal story and a murder but really it is all about control and the systematic destruction of a person’s confidence by making them doubt their own observation and experience. It is a brilliant study of coercive and abusive control within marriages and romantic relationships.
Even though the film was made more than 70 years ago, Gaslight depicts cleverly how this form of coercive control is often used in intimate relationships as it is linked to approval and disapproval and the abused person is often confused by the abuser’s constant reiteration of their ‘love’ even as the whole issue becomes confused by sexual chemistry.
Last year the Meriam Webster dictionary chose gaslighting as ‘word of the year’. Apparently, it had emerged as the most popular word due to a “1740 increase in lookups for gaslighting, with high interest throughout the year.” Decades before the phrase ‘gaslighting’ was ever coined the film was used as a reference in the medical journal The Lancet by Barton and Whitehead when, in 1969, they wrote of what they called “the Gas Light phenomenon” (in the context of the involuntary hospitalisation of psychiatric patients). Then in 2007, Robin Stern’s book helped the term enter the popular lexicon when she wrote of ‘the gaslight effect’ and called the perpetrator/abuser “the gaslighter”. The full title of Stern’s book was The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others use to Control Your Life and this further helped to define what the gaslight process was.
So ‘gaslighting’ is now a commonly understood term for the coercive control exerted by manipulating somebody into doubting themselves and their reality and sanity, it is used casually – and mostly understood – but knowing of its origin adds context and insight to its usage. Once you know the context, ‘gaslighting’ can conjure up the image of the woman in the London house being told the flickering gaslight was ‘all in her mind’, an image of somebody who is being told repeatedly their perceptions and observations are false. (This insidious process is not limited to the workplace or personal relationships – it is also at play when a service provider messes up and in response to a complaint instead of apologising says “we understand you are disappointed but…” thereby transferring the focus from their mistake and lack of service to you, your perceptions and expectations…)
I haven’t read the original play by Patrick Hamilton but Cukor’s film certainly illustrates how coercive control is exerted through mind games – undermining a person’s confidence while assuring them that everything is being done for their own good and because of their own incompetence.
Gaslight is a black and white film but it sheds vivid light on human behaviour. It is a work of fiction that has influenced thinking in psychology and psychiatry and even changed our language. And that’s what literature can do: through observation and experience it can express the realities of human life and human behaviour, it can feed into all the other academic disciplines and be both a starting point and an illustration for debate and reflection.