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Gaslighting: History and Basics

Gaslighter, denier

Doin anything to get your ass farther

Gaslighter, big timer

Repeating all of the mistakes of your father

                                                                                                     –Gaslighter, The Chicks

On Episode 4 of the SAGE Advice podcast, we focus on the topic of gaslighting.  As emotional abuse and manipulation becomes a more mainstream conversation, gaslighting has taken center stage.  However, there is a lot of misinformation out there so we are going to examine the roots of the term gaslight, how it feels to be gaslit and how regain your sense of self.

The Movie

Gaslight was released as a movie both in 1940 and 1944, the later starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.  The movie was based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, originally created in 1938.  Needless to say, the concept of gaslighting has been around for centuries. The better we educate ourselves against emotional abuse and manipulation, the closer we are to ending the cycle. 

Gaslight is a psychological thriller about a young woman, Paula, whose wealthy Aunt is murdered. Paula is sent to live in Italy where she trains to become an opera singer.  Years later, she returns to London with her new husband, Gregory, to live in her aunt’s old house.  To quote the movie, Paula was “slowly and systematically being driven out of her mind.”

The Con

Gregory was not who he pretended to be and as Paula grew closer to finding his true identity, he launched a campaign to make her feel that she was going mad.  The campaign began soon after they returned to London and moved into the home of her murdered Aunt. Paula found a letter her Aunt wrote days before her murder naming a possible attacker and Gregory was immediately enraged, snatched the letter from her hand and spent his time convincing Paula that the letter never existed.  You read that right, he spent his time making her think she never found a letter and made it all up.  He convinced her that she was going mad, even providing ‘evidence’ that her mother had gone insane as well.  Servants and friends were all in on the con and helped Gregory with his devious plans. 

To ensure his plan was effective, Gregory spent every day confusing his bride.  This is where the gaslights come into play.  The movie is set in the Edwardian Age (1901-1910) and gas lights were used to illuminate houses and streetlamps.  Paula noticed that the lights would suddenly dim, and random footsteps could be heard coming from the attic. Gregory assured her that there were no footsteps, and the gaslights never dimmed.  One morning Paula couldn’t find the broach she set on her nightstand and Gregory told her she never had a broach. Another time she searched for a painting that he asked to see but it was nowhere to be found until magically it was right where he told her to look; a place she already looked several times.

The Truth

A policeman investigating the death of her aunt came to visit Paula when Gregory was away and proved to her the Gregory was a con man and she was being driven out of her mind on purpose.  Unfortunately, upon his return Gregory attempted to convince Paula that the policeman was all a dream.  The housekeeper even affirmed that no man had ever come to the house. At the end of the movie (spoiler) Paula discovers all of Gregory’s secrets in the attic.  When he left for work every day what Gregory really did was climb on the roof, enter the attic and play games with Paula’s mind.  The broach, the painting, the letters; they were all hidden in the attic and part of his master plan to take her money.

Watching Gaslight is a powerful look into psychological warfare.  It is an extreme example of manipulation and how love and trust can be weaponized against us.  Gaslighting starts with the small white lies or the seemingly innocent deceptions that most of us would brush aside; attributed to a mistake.  Over time lies grow more elaborate and intense; designed to make us question our own sanity and sense of who we are.  This conversation is one that needs to be had.  Gaslighting is very scary and very dangerous for the intended target.

What happens next?

At the end of the 1940 version of Gaslight, Bella (as Paula is called in this version) walks out onto her veranda after she has learned the truth and the police have taken her husband away.  She breathes a heavy sigh of relief as she stares up at the gaslight street lamps that line the road.  For me, that was perhaps the most powerful moment of the movie.  We talk a lot about the acts of the offender and the cunning manipulation makes for powerful cinema but watching Bella as she was finally free was the most powerful experience for me.

As someone who has experienced gaslighting in a relationship, I wonder how she will put herself back together.  Will she truly be ok?  The mental torture that she endured is not something that one easily gets through.  The heavy sigh of relief that the ordeal was finally over is only the beginning of another story.  There are years of her life that need to be processed.  There are even more lies that are yet to be uncovered.  There is pain that needs to be healed.  All of that takes time and lots of emotional energy. 

Tips and Tricks

There isn’t a secret or a magic pill you can take to erase the damage that gaslighting does to your mind.  It is psychological warfare and extreme manipulation.  We do have, however, some words of advice on how to start rebuilding:

  • Begin journaling your feelings, recording things as they happen. This will help keep you on task and in reality
  • Take caution with who you trust, not everyone has good or pure intentions.  Its ok to keep your circle small
  • Put your needs first in your healing process. You need to spend time with you, don’t let people make you feel otherwise
  • Talk to a specialized mental health professional, if you can
  • Strengthen your intuition to learn to trust yourself again. I found guided meditation and yoga to be the most helpful for me
  • Dig in The Dirt (keep scrolling)

Dig in The Dirt

You didn’t read that wrong, my last piece of advice is to dig in the dirt.  In fact, hug a tree while you’re at it.  Grounding ourselves into the earth and what is real can be the most healing of all.  The earth is a constant in all of our lives.  Taking time to nurture a vegetable garden or grow beautiful flowers from a tiny seed can bring you back to what is important.  Focusing on the little things, being in nature; those are excellent ways to get yourself grounded and back in focus.

When I bought my house, there was a lot of work to be done.  Most work I couldn’t do by myself but what I could do, I did.  The process of turning something broken into something beautiful was a very therapeutic exercise for me.  One major project that I could do myself was to make my back yard beautiful.  When I started there were only patches of grass beside dirt and debris.  Ivy and weeds littered the yard and had dug their roots fairly deep. For that reason, I started with the grass, covering it all in tarps designed to kill the weeds and enrich the soil.  Turns out I used the wrong tarps and thus began the journey of pulling all the weeds by hand. 

Yes, I pulled every single weed in my yard by hand.  It was a monumental task yet at the same time digging in the dirt brought me a sense of calm.  There is a whole ecosystem beneath the surface that we forget exists.  In a way my work was not only helping me but also helping all the creatures that live in the soil and on the trees.  After the weeds were pulled and the grass seed was sown, I moved onto the plants.  I chose plants that bloom beautiful colors, that attract the birds and that bring a sense of happiness to the space. Now when I sit outside, I look at all that I have created and smile at all the animals that come to visit on a daily basis.  It was something so small, something so simple that helped me recover my mind and clarify my soul.

Recovering from manipulation and gaslighting is not easy and it is not fast.  Take it slow and find calm among the storms.  You are a powerful being and a strong mind.  Your comeback will show just how strong you can be. 

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