This piece from last week, by Sirena Bergman in The Independent, begins, “Ten years ago I’d never heard the term ‘gaslighting’.” She discusses it in the context of a recent news story regarding two contestants on the most-watched show on UK television, “Strictly Come Dancing”, as you can see by following the link above. The term was new to me until ten days ago, but she explains, for the benefit of people like me:
“Gaslighting is often misunderstood as simply trying to make someone believe something isn’t true. What it really entails is breaking down a person’s trust in their own mind – something so damaging it can take years to recover from. It’s a daily form of coercive manipulation designed to make someone so vulnerable and confused that they rely more on their abuser than on themselves.”
The derivation of the word “gaslighting” is fairly obscure, a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton (who also wrote “Hangover Square”), which was made into a film in 1944. The film, usually called “Gaslight” (although the play was titled “Gas Light”), starred Ingrid Bergman in an Oscar-winning role as a woman whose husband is trying to make her believe that she is going insane. My interest in watching Oscar-winning performances means that I have seen it, but the film can hardly be considered as general knowledge, never mind Universal Knowledge. My dad has certainly seen it – we watched it on TV together in the 1980s – but I wouldn’t presume that anyone else in my family, or any of my friends, has ever seen it.
This article by Rafael Behr in the Guardian, from earlier in the month, also uses the term, in a different context. The headline is, “On Brexit, the Tories are gaslighting half the country”. He explains it as part of “a project to pretend that Britain never had pro-EU Conservatives or a pro-European political tradition”, as follows:
“The past two years have felt like a vast exercise in gaslighting – the method of psychological coercion that involves subtly undermining people’s confidence in what is real until they begin to question their own judgment.”
Just like “egregious”, a previous “Word of the Week”, gaslighting has caught my eye in a number of different places in a short space of time. I am unlikely to add it to my day-to-day speech and will certainly continue to avoid any gaslighting behaviour. Sirena Bergman’s piece quotes a Twitter statement by the ex-girlfriend of the male “Strictly Come Dancing” contestant:
“He aggressively, and repeatedly, called me psycho / nuts / mental. As he has done countless times in our relationship when I’ve questioned his inappropriate, hurtful behaviour.”
Bergman suggests that if this is accurate the ex-boyfriend was gaslighting her. If you think that I’m going to adopt such language, or such behaviour, you are (how can I put this?) … somewhat misguided.