Raising awareness is more than just knowing something exists: Gaslight and gaslighting
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Some of you know that I have a background in performance - and this is what underpins much of my training. Not only do I work with you on your emotional agility - in the way of an actor, but instil the confidence within you to perform until it has become a new habit. (...and then I'll teach you ways to keep yourself emotional healthy as it's all rather exhausting!)
However, periodically, as something that reinvigorates me personally - and as a form of my own CPD I get back on stage with my theatre group CLICK Arts, often producing a show supporting, or raising awareness of local charities or causes. Usually we work with The Chrysalis Theatre in Milton Keynes - a wonderful venue within a residential community for independent living. The theatre itself is hired out to groups, but what makes it special is that it is staffed by the residents who help with parking and front of house. This raises awareness - first hand - of the wonderful work being done within the local community as well as raises money for a local cause. This year, with permission from Samuel French Ltd for an amateur production, we are doing a one-off performance of Patrick Hamilton's GASLIGHT in support of MIND. As it is a much smaller production we are performing at The Etcetera Theatre in Camden, however, the motivation remains the same - raising awareness, this time of the play's topic - emotional abuse.
Gaslight - promoted as a "Victorian thriller" which told the story of one man's obsession with an old crime was written in the late 30's, made into two films and remains a favourite on the amateur circuit. What makes it so important, however, is that it also gave its name to a whole area of psychological abuse "gaslighting". Not only does the protagonist return to the scene of his vicious crime 20 years later, but he brings with him his wife whom he is slowly, systematically manipulating to make her think she is going out of her mind. The play suggests it is because "she is beginning to know too much" - it could easily be because he found it enjoyable.
We meet the couple when the wife, Bella, is already seemingly on edge, with the act of buying a treat for tea being something to fret over. We learn that she believes she is seeing things and hearing things which are frightening her, exacerbated by her husband, Jack, telling her not only is it her imagination, but that she is likely going mad - and he is trying to protect her. We witness what her husband must see - a picture goes missing off the wall, and Bella, despite her protestations knows where it is...and we wonder, is it her? As the play progresses we learn the depths of Jack's cruelty - including the act of hiding the picture himself as part of a long game he is playing.
As such the term "gaslighting" refers to the form of psychological abuse with the following characteristics:
- Systematic manipulation of the abused's memory (eg. taking things from where the person knew they put them, hiding them and asking the person to look for them)
- Shows of kindness (words, actions) while also making comments to the abused such as "are you mad?"
- Projecting behaviours onto the abused if they dare to question anything eg "Are you accusing me?"
- Making the abused believe they are always in the wrong eg "It's you who thinks that, darling".
- Blatant lying eg. clearly flirting with someone in front of the abused and then saying "I was just talking" if they dare to question it.
- Isolating the abused from others who might bring some reality to their perspective (sometimes with extra lies that help elevate the abuser's position "They don't like me, and all I'm doing is looking after you - you don't need people like that around you."
This results in the absued not being able to trust their own judgment helping to make them completely dependant on the abuser. The sporadic positive reinforcement offered by the abuser will often be enough to keep them hoping to recapture what it was like at the start of the relationship. While there is limited research supporting this, it is also possible that the more compassionate a person is, the more likely they may fall for such an absuer - often excusing any early indiscretions as such and believing they will change. It is also worth noting that while gaslighting can completely damage a person's sense of self worth - the absued often did not start out that way. Gaslighting is often committed by those with Narcissistic personalities - who would be more likely to be attracted a vibrant, confident partner (prey) in the first instance and break them down. Anyone can be abused (cf. Domesticviolence.org; Psychcentral; NHS.org; Mind.org), which is why, although the play is about a male perpetrator, I have otherwise refrained from applying a specific gender to abuser or the abused.
However, bringing this to the forefront is only part of the cause - after all, we often DO know it happens.
What is as important is helping those trying to help (who probably do talk about it more) to recognise the signs from their perspective, AND those going through it to recognise that something is not right from theirs.
When we talk about "raising awareness"- it is not just about knowing something is there and talking about it more, but also establishing a deeper understanding of it so that when it is discussed it is done so with the sobriety it deserves rather than misquoted - which can often go some what to people who are really experiencing it being dismissed (again).
I am fortunate to not have been through any form of abuse to this degree, yet performing the role of Bella has been more exhausting and challenging than I anticipated. Not only do I go through huge extremes of emotion within a rehearsal session, but the work I am doing with the actor playing Jack to embody the power struggle has been surprisingly demanding. For someone who has never questioned their confidence, I am beginning to understand how one can simply be too tired to fight.
The behaviours I am needing to portray offer some examples to someone who thinks they may be experiencing gaslighting:
- I am always on edge - I don't know whether my actions will provoke kindness or reproach...or nothing at all.
- I am desperate for approval - every crumb of compassion is something I seize upon often to the point where something tiny can make me euphoric.
- I am isolated - I barely leave the house - but I believe it to be for my own good, as I think it is my choice not to go out.
- I am left alone after scenes that upset me - often being told to think about what I did to provoke it.
- I have started to refer to myself as "not fit to be seen" or "pehaps I am mad".
- I am afraid of letting anyone see what is going on - because I believe a lot of it is my fault. We used to be happy and now we are not - this must be because of me. And, I believe this is because I am a bad person, that I have changed in some way.
- I no longer trust my judgment - I keep losing things and they turn up within my belongings. I hear things, but am told it is my imagination.
- I no longer feel attractive, and I believe it's because of my behaviours - crying, shouting, choosing not to leave the house...and when I feel jealousy - I don't blame my husband, even though I believe I am in the right.
- I feel as if my husband is doing me the favour of keeping me around - and I want to do things for his approval so much - so I can feel safe again.
Worst of all - it's going to take more than being told this is happening to convince me to leave.
To suggest anything to someone truly experiencing those things feels somewhat cheap - I get to go home after a rehearsal, I get to give my co-star, and my director a hug, say "see you next week", and feel the rush of adrenaline from the pure energy of performance, and I go home to my real husband who is waiting up for me and has often made me dinner because I don't get a chance to eat beforehand.
But as a psychologist - and as the person who wanted to produce this play to generate dialogue about it, to try and raise some money to support a cause (MIND) who is providing helplines for it amongst other practical support, to try and get people to understand it for what it is:
It is not right that someone is trying to tell you what you have experienced, but gaslighting does happen. It can happen to anyone. It can happen for no reason other than because the gaslighter wants to do it. If you are beginning to mistrust your judgment, try and keep a diary of what is happening so that you can look at your account and compare it with what you may be told later. Try and see people who are not part of the direct situation - and try to have the confidence to ask someone you trust (or a helpline such as MIND) "This happened...is this right?". If you are able to leave the abuser, do so completely, your self-esteem is likely to be in a position where it is too easy to be seduced back and find a therapist who understands the phenomenon and who is able to help build your self esteem and empowerment rather than a focus on taking responsibility for your actions.
Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton is being produced by CLICK Arts at The Etcetera Theatre on Sunday 10th December 2017, 2.30pm. It is an amateur performance by special arrangement with Samuel French Ltd:
To donate to MIND: www.justgiving.com/gaslight
For more information about our production: https://www.facebook.com/events/121532138550701/
MIND - helping someone else: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helping-someone-else/
MIND - seeking help yourself: https://www.mind.org.uk/need-urgent-help/?ctaId=/need-urgent-help/using-this-tool/slices/using-this-tool/
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt