To gaslight is to employ a sort of psychological abuse wherein false information is presented to another person with the intent of making them doubt their own mentality, memory and powers of perception, often with the ultimate goal of having them put away in a mental institution or worse. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The person who has been gaslighted eventually believes that he or she is insane, and that they actually deserve to be sequestered from society.
The term “gaslighting,” now commonly used for this old technique of mental abuse comes from a 1938 stage-play called Gas Light, and two 1940s film adaptations (most notably George Cukor’s 1944 film version of Gas Light). The plot involves a husband who attempts to drive his wife insane by manipulating small elements of their environment, all the while insisting that she is mistaken when she alludes to the odd developments. The title stems from the husband’s subtle dimming of the house’s gas lights, which she notices, but is told by her husband that she is imagining.
Gaslight victims are most often women, and children of both genders who have undergone sexual abuse.
The motives for gaslighting people have been many and varied.
Queen Joanna of Castile, nicknamed “Juana la Loca” was viciously manipulated by her husband and King Ferdinand II, her father, because they both wished to wrest power from her. A myth created by her sick husband, philandering Philip of Hapsburg, and perpetuated by her father, who was trying to issue a replacement-heir by his second wife, Germaine, that Doña Juana was “mad,” kept her from long-term power. “Juana la Loca” was very well-educated. The princess, countess and queen was an excellent student of court etiquette, dance, music, and equestrian pursuits. Doña Juana–Queen Joanna–was fluent in French, Latin and all of the Iberian Romance languages: Castilian, Leonese, Galician-Portuguese and Catalán. Philip, nicknamed “The Handsome” was young Juana’s first and only love, and she reacted in fitting fashion to the mental cruelty that he continually wrought upon her during their marriage. When she witnessed his extra-marital dalliances first-hand, he responded with a 16th-century Spanish version of “Who you gonna believe: ME, or your lyin’ eyes?” Queen Joanna of Castile was a very capable ruler despite the constant games played at her expense. After the death of her husband and a couple of years as active Queen, Doña Juana was incarcerated in an obscure room within Torresillas, an out-building of the royal palace. For fifty years until her death she languished there, while her son Charles I Holy Roman Emperor ruled in her stead.
The Millenium Trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson features a young woman who was gaslighted beginning at age ten. I do not like to give away any plot details here, thus I’ll keep it brief. Unlike Queen Joanna “Juana la Loca,” Miss Salander enacts revenge and some measure of justice for the wrongs done to her young life. This is a very violent but ultimately satisfying story written by a man whose mission as an adult was to expose and fight against sexual abuse in all its hideous manifestations. Stieg Larsson died before his Millenium Trilogy was released as three brilliant movies, but his books and the very popular films created from them will stand as object-lessons for those who would physically exploit others while manipulating, dominating, and crushing the human spirit.
©M-J de Mesterton 2011