Gaslighting

 

Words are an author’s paint and paintbrush; they’re our marble and chisel. But authors and other artists also create words. Shakespeare is said to have invented over 1700 words. Here’s a sampling of twenty of them, words like:  scuffle, swagger, hot-blooded, eyeball, and bedazzled.

The word “gaslighting,” was given to us by Patrick Hamilton, a British playwright from the 1930s. He invented it not by including the word in one of his plays, but by writing a whole play that illustrated the concept.

Ingrid Bergman

The 1944 American film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, popularized the story. It’s a mystery-thriller that starts with an opera singer being murdered for her jewels. Her young niece, Paula, interrupts the killer who escapes without the jewels.

Years later, Paula (Ingrid Bergman) meets Gregory (Charles Boyer) in Italy and marries him. He takes her back to London to live in her aunt’s townhouse.

Then things turn bizarre. A picture disappears from the wall, and Gregory tells Paula she took it. She hears him walking in the attic where the dead aunt’s belongings are kept. She sees the gas light dim and brighten for no apparent reason. And he tells her she’s seeing and hearing things. He plants his watch in her purse and tells her she took it. She’s on the verge of being convinced she’s a kleptomaniac and going crazy when an inspector from Scotland Yard enters the scene.

In the end it becomes clear that Gregory murdered the aunt and he’s been looking for the jewels in the aunt’s townhouse.

In the parlance of today, Gregory was “gaslighting” Paula.

According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, to gaslight is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.”

Wikipedia has an expanded definition: “Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.”

You may have heard the word used a lot lately. We had an example yesterday when President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer tried to convince us (despite the evidence of our eyes) that more people attended the 2017 inauguration than ever before in history.

At his first official White House briefing, he said: “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.”

Here’s the official trailer for Gaslight. The whole movie is available online.

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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24 comments


  1. Great post, and so very timely. Some of my family members were not thrilled bout the pink hats when we marched in D.C. yesterday, but the benefits to 1 million pink hats?

    Donald Trump’s team cannot use the photo of all those protesters and insist that it was from his inauguration. Because it’s PINK!




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    • I was very disappointed at their response to the march. I was hoping for an acknowledgment or something slightly conciliatory. Instead it was the media to blame. Photos don’t lie and every news agency cannot photoshop! I never thought about that concept of a sea of pink but it’s so true.




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      • I still hear from the occasional Facebook friend who doesn’t believe the turnout for Trump was smaller than for Obama. Of course, there were no pink hats for the Obama inauguration.




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    • A sea of pink is hard to coopt. But then, if you’re Kellyanne Conway, you always have your “alternative facts.”

      My sister took to the idea of the pink pussy hats immediately and rushed down to the yarn store to get to work.




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  2. Great post!!! I never knew the story behind the word gaslight. How sadly appropriate for today.




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    • I’m not old enough to have seen the movie when it came out, but I must have seen it sometime because the story sounded familiar to me.

      It sounds like the psychiatric profession has been familiar with gaslighting for a long time. Here’s another quote from the Wikipedia article cited in the post: “Sociopaths and narcissists frequently use gaslighting tactics. Sociopaths consistently transgress social mores, break laws, and exploit others, but typically are also convincing liars, sometimes charming ones, who consistently deny wrongdoing. Thus, some who have been victimized by sociopaths may doubt their own perceptions.[7]”




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  3. As I started to read this I immediately went to our current political situation. Then I saw that you did too. Only problem is that there are too many of us to “gaslight.” When I start doubting myself (because it’s so outlandish) I ask a friend who quickly reassures me I am not going insane. Loved the pictures you posted on FB of your sister marching yesterday.




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    • Thanks, Kate. I told my sister to send me pictures so I could post them. I thought people who stayed home would want to share in the fun.

      As long as we continue to have a free press, it won’t be easy to gaslight the whole country.




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  4. I loved reading your post this morning. There was a candlelight march/vigil of over 1200
    in Anacortes on Friday night and another march in Mount Vernon of at least that many
    yesterday. The Pink Hats are everywhere. Thanks, Nicki




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  5. We, the people, can expect a great deal of gaslighting. You can bet your boots that we are all going to be “gassed.” It was evident during T’s campaign and what gets me the most is the constant lying and bragging. And all his assistants and cabinets appointees are all his ball boys or ball girls. Maybe patsy is a better word.




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    • I believe that lying and bragging are lifelong habits for Trump. He couldn’t stop if he wanted to. I guess that doesn’t matter too much as long as the press checks to see if he’s telling the truth and people listen to the fact checkers. I only hope the right to free speech and freedom of the press survives. I’m sure he would like to get rid of them, or at least curtail their work.




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      • It appears that Trump would clearly like to censor the press. He has already shown all the hallmarks of press censoring- constant complaining that the media is making up lies. Went to CIA headquarters and instead of complementing the agency he began to complain about all the most “recent lies” by the press. Gee, the man is a narcissist, pathological liar and, extremely petty. How can he run a country while seeking revenge on the media and anyone that criticizes him?




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  6. Perfect post, Nicki! You nailed it.




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  7. Judy

    Great post. It certainly rings a bell for me.




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    • Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer gave gaslighting their best shot yesterday. I don’t think it worked. But Trump will be employing the tactic every day. And he’s an expert.




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  8. That sounds like one intriguing movie with a plot twist. Have to check it out sometime. Heard about the march from the news over the weekend. What a turnout and sadly those in charge don’t want to admit what actually is. The sheet magnitude of it is amazing and to have everyone march peacefully and be safe is amazing.The public have spoken, and it will be interesting to see if marches of a similar magnitude will take place in the future. It will be an interesting next four years for the States.




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    • On the day of the march, I was think mostly of the size of the crowds. I guess I assumed that the march would be peaceful. But you’re right, it was definitely noteworthy that the march was so peaceful. It showed that the opposition exists, but there’s a lot more work to be done, and it will be tricky. Things move fast.




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  9. I had seen this word around but didn’t know what it meant. Thanks for the etymology lesson, Nicki.




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  10. What a timely post. As an aside, I’ve always wanted to watch Gaslight but never followed through.




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    • I try not to write too many political posts. But on the day after the Women’s March, nothing else seemed to fit.

      My sister likes old movies. I seldom watch them because I’m used to current movies, which move so much faster.




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  11. What an interesting post. I love words and had no idea that Shakespeare was responsible for so many. I also somehow, missed that movie but definitely will look into it. Love old movies. They just don’t make them like that anymore!




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    • Words are fun, some more than others. Some of Shakespeare’s inventions were simple. For example, assassin already existed, he was the first to use assassination. But eyeball is interesting since we only see a part of the eye not the whole sphere. According to the article I linked to, many of the words first seen in Shakespeare’s play could have already existed in the oral tradition. So, even if he didn’t invent them, he at least saved them for the reading public.




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