In the year 2000, Steely Dan released their eighth album, Two Against Nature. On this album was a song detailing a sordid behavior displayed by many abusers. The song? “Gaslighting Abbie.” The song relays haughty arrogance from the point of view of a man cheating on his partner. Not just your typical garden-type variety infidelity, it ventures into the unusually cruel and twisted as the lyrics reveal line by line a man and his mistress taking pleasure in slowly planting doubt in his partner’s mind. He pride-fully boasts about the methods the two lovers have employed to oust his current girlfriend, beginning with drugging a beverage, giving her clothes to the mistress and stroking his ego as he watches her wonder where they have gone, and finally in the end setting a scene to make her think she has lost her mind…. As the last line says, “That’s right — a tweak or two and then she’s out of here.”
Long before this song was ever penned, the British play “Gas Light” debuted in 1933 and was later released by MGM in 1944. Starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, “Gaslight” is a depiction of the insidious nature of mental abuse. Ever adept at illustrating how exacting and deliberate abusers’ actions are, it details one man’s manipulations of a woman in the worst way possible: by deceiving the niece of a murdered opera singer into believing he loved her so he could take advantage of her with no more consideration than if he had sneezed. As the story unfolds, he resorts to complex manipulation to get her to believe that she is losing her sanity. (And here-in lies the origin of the term gaslighting) The gas lights dim as she hears noises above her. Objects disappear and reappear at will. He tells her that she has said and done things she did not. And he gains success in isolating her, as his deceptions on the surface appear to make her look like a mentally unstable thief who finally agrees after she last breaks down in public that she should be housebound. That it is in her best interests to oblige his devious act of isolating her. Still she pleads with him for patience. She reminds him that things had temporarily gotten better. But he twists it around into being her fault. Her delusions. Her broken, frail mind.
The preceding paragraphs describe, albeit in deliberately exaggerated ways, how an abuser uses the deviant art of gaslighting in their tested and true arsenal of abusive behaviors designed to damage, isolate, and control their victim. Even though there are definitive signs that an abuser is using this tactic, many experiencing emotional and verbal abuse often do not recognize parts of what is happening to them as gaslighting. The main hallmarks of this type of abuse, which cannot exist without being used in combination with emotional and verbal abuse, are that victim is made to believe they are crazy by various manipulations and to lead others to believe that the victim is crazy as well. Gaslighting is one of the many ways the abuser succeeds in achieving the forced complicit silence that allows them to continue to abuse the victim with diminishing fear of discovery, because in addition to the verbal assaults they face on a daily basis and the isolation and fear, victims give way to the doubt that if they do try to come forward, no one will believe them.
What are some ways abusers gaslight their victims? I found a very helpful article written by Natasha Tracy at Healthy Place’s Gaslighting Definition, Techniques and being Gaslighted page. Since gaslighting can be harder to define that the more obvious types of abuse, Natasha does an excellent job not only presenting the types of methods gaslighters use, but provides thoughtful examples of things the abuser would say in each instance. I have copied and pasted the Technique and Example section here; the methods used against me are designated by red text.
Gaslighting Techniques and Examples
Withholding — where the abuser feigns a lack of understanding, refuses to listen and declines sharing his emotions. Gaslighting examples of this would be:1
- “I’m not listening to that crap again tonight.”
- “You’re just trying to confuse me.”
Countering — where an abuser will vehemently call into question a victim’s memory in spite of the victim having remembered things correctly.
- “Think about when you didn’t remember things correctly last time.”
- “You thought that last time and you were wrong.”
These techniques throw the victim off the intended subject matter and make them question their own motivations and perceptions rather than the issue at hand.
It is then that the abuser will start to question the experiences, thoughts and opinions more globally through statements said in anger like:
- “You see everything in the most negative way.”
- “Well you obviously never believed in me then.”
- “You have an overactive imagination.”
Blocking and diverting — where the abuser again changes the conversation from the subject matter to questioning the victim’s thoughts and controlling the conversation. Gaslighting examples of this include:
- “I’m not going through that again.”
- “Where did you get a crazy idea like that?”
- “Quit b****ing.”
- “You’re hurting me on purpose.”
Trivializing — where the abuser makes the victim believe his or her thoughts or needs aren’t important, such as:
- “You’re going to let something like that come between us?”
Abusive forgetting and denial — where the abuser pretends to forget things that have really occurred; the abuser may also deny things like promises that have been made that are important to the victim. An abuser might say,
- “What are you talking about?”
- “I don’t have to take this.”
- “You’re making that up.”
Ridicule — where the abuser will mock the victim for their “wrongdoings” and “misperceptions.”
(End of article reference)
Part of what makes gaslighting so disturbing is it proficiency in making the victim question their perception of reality. Further, there are very real (often physical but always emotional) consequences for us when the methods are employed. For instance, if the abuser consistently moves things and then accuses you of stealing, we come to expect when they “unexpectedly” find their phone adapter in the kitchen cupboard that there will be punishment and accusations. When we can’t satisfactorily explain random events away, we will be accused of planning something behind their backs. They tell us we say things we have never said or that we misheard something they said. (The man who abused me loved to use my being hard-of-hearing against me in these instances.)
Slowly, we will be driven to distraction, perhaps in more severe cases resulting in paranoia. Our reliability comes into question not only in respect to ourselves, but our loved ones will also begin to question us as the abuser relates an altered version of events, usually offering up manufactured and manipulated evidence to support their claims that you are becoming unstable or untrustworthy. Our fear of being revealed as such is one more tool exploited by the abuser to keep us exactly where they want us: trapped with them and in constant peril.
For further information not only on gaslighting but other forms of abuse, please visit Healthy Place.