In Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight, adapted to film in 1940 and 1944, the gaslights in a couple’s living area go dim when the husband turns up the gaslights in a sealed-off attic. He does this so he can search for rubies belonging to a woman he murdered.
When his wife notices the dimming lights and discusses the phenomenon with her husband, he tells her she is imagining it. Desperate to get away with his crime, he decides it would be best for his wife to be believed insane. So he goes about convincing her and others that she is crazy, by changing small things in their home and then insisting she’s wrong or delusional when she points them out.
Suddenly, half a century later, the word gaslighting is back in vogue. It’s getting a lot of currency on social media, especially by progressive types, probably because there have been more public conversations about domestic and family violence (DFV), reflecting the escalating murder rates of women who are killed by a current or former intimate partner rising to more than one woman a week .
Registered psychologist and lecturer at St Mark’s Theological Centre, Charles Sturt University, Kylie Maddox Pidgeon works with clients who know the experience of gaslighting only too well – even if they aren’t familiar with the word.
“When someone suffers chronic gaslighting, they lose their sense of self, voice and agency in the world.” – Kylie Maddox Pidgeon
“‘She’s crazy!’ is the most common statement I hear from perpetrators of Domestic and Family Violence,” Maddox Pidgeon says. “Usually it refers to her lack of compliance to his demands and attempts to control.
“‘Am I crazy?’ is the most common question I hear from clients who have suffered emotional abuse. And it’s exactly what the abuser wants her to believe. Gaslighting has the ability to undermine confidence, calmness and sense of safety. It sparks confusion, distrust, and anger, which conveniently only add to the abuser’s case that ‘she’s obviously the problem here, see?’
“When someone suffers chronic gaslighting, they lose their sense of self, voice and agency in the world.”
Maddox Pidgeon also works with victims who have suffered gaslighting by a church leader, which she describes as “a common problem that gets very little discussion in Christian circles.”
“Gaslighting is a confluence of two of the worst methods of abuse.” – Kylie Maddox Pidgeon
Most Christians would be horrified by the idea of gaslighting happening in the homes of our church communities and even more disturbed that Christian leaders are perpetrators. However, Pidgeon says, Christian communities must be “literate and vigilant to gaslighting in order to keep pride in check, and protect the weak and vulnerable.”
“Gaslighting is a confluence of two of the worst methods of abuse. One method is to harm the victim then blame them for it, so they not only have to deal with their injury, but also the accusations that follow. Another method is subtle, insidious, chronic insults, where the relentless discouragement diminishes the person’s sense of self-worth.
“Gaslighting is both, but performed in a sinisterly calm and everyday manner.”
What does ‘gaslighting’ mean?
The Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “gaslighting” as to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.”
Services such as Safer Steps family Violence Response Centre include “gaslighting” in its list of psychological abuses that can occur in a family violence context. Reachout.com’s webpage outlining “Signs of an abusive relationship” lists “some of the key signs to look for,” which include gaslighting: “Abusers often try to influence your sense of what’s real, to make you feel confused or even that you’re going crazy. (This is known as ‘gas-lighting’.)”
“Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realise how much they’ve been brainwashed,” writes Stephanie Sarkis, author of a book on the subject.
Sarkis lists some of the behaviours gaslighting abusers will exhibit: telling blatant lies; denying they ever said something, even if their victim has proof; telling their victim everyone else is a liar; and aligning others against their victim.
Although the term was not used in the Gaslight play or film, it became a colloquial expression: “To gaslight someone is to play tricks on them to make them think they’re crazy. It comes from the movie Gaslight,” according to a New York City woman, in 1956, cited by ‘The Historical Dictionary of American Slang’.
By 1965, the term was known widely enough to be used without explanation in an article in The Reporter: “A look at the October 12 news accounts reveals the dimension of the problem; and it also helps explain why, at first glance, the fault appears to be that of the press – some troubled persons having even gone so far as to charge malicious intent and premeditated ‘gaslighting.’”
“Gaslighting” also came to be discussed in psychotherapy and psychoanalytical literature. “It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness.” (see S.C. Plog’s Changing Perspectives in Mental Illness, 1969).
And in 1979, the concerning self-help book How to Get the Upper Hand: Simple Techniques You Can Use to Win the Battles of Everyday Life (by Ralph Charell) was published. Chapter 9 is about “Gaslighting: The Art of Disorienting Your Antagonist”.
Why is everyone using it now?
Tragic cases of DFV, such as that of Rosie Batty’s son Luke, who was killed by his father – along with Rosie’s advocacy work that intensified during her time as Australian of the Year – have kept the conversation going in Australia about the how and what of DFV.
In the US, however, it is controversial President Donald Trump’s “alternative facts” and brash media style that has led to a public conversation about gaslighting, resulting in swaths of media articles with titles such as Trump Is Gaslighting America Again — Here’s How to Fight It.
Should Christians even care?
With politics involved, it’s clear that the term “gaslighting” is at risk of becoming a culture-war casualty. Perhaps it will suffer the same fate as terms such as “social justice” and “white privilege”, with their usage reduced to something like wearing “gang colours” which signal which “side” someone is on.
But although the word is getting a fresh run at present, Christians know that the practice of gaslighting is almost as old as humanity itself. In fact, we can probably identify the serpent in the garden – old Satan himself – as the original gaslighter, asking Eve “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”