I saw "Gaslight," a 1944 suspense thriller film, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I put it on my list of favorites. I did some research on the film and was elated to see it was based on a play! What is interesting is that this play title became a psychiatric term. To gaslight is much like gossiping and spreading rumors but it goes beyond with those who have a baleful intent to control and manipulate.
Simply, gaslighting is where a perpetrator uses repetitive false statements to make people believe something that is untrue. It is usually with the intent to destroy the wellbeing or reputation of an individual. It is also used against organizations. The perpetrator usually will not give up this endeavor until the goal is achieved. This gaslighting, with destruction intent, is typically employed by sociopaths.
In the film, the wife is methodically led to believe that she is losing her mind. She is unaware her sociopathic husband is changing locations of items and constantly repeating to her she is forgetful and not lucid. In social media this action can be seen in posts with the purpose to malign. If the film simulates a sociopath using gaslighting to manipulate and control, it is easy to see how social media can be used as a tool.
An example of gaslighting in the family might be a boyfriend who tries to disrupt the relationship his girlfriend has with her parents by creating lies and repeating the lies to the point that it poisons the relationship. In businesses, gaslighters would plant seeds that a person in the company is stealing money, is a drug addict, or unstable to have a position of leadership. Depending on the intent of the gaslighter, it has the potential to mushroom towards destruction. That’s what sociopaths desire. They enjoy the manipulation and the control.
Kathy Ahern, in her article Institutional Betrayal and Gaslighting,… says “Toxic people use this type of manipulation to exert power over others in order to manipulate friends, family members, and sometimes even co-workers.” She goes on to say that these gaslighters use ‘concern’ to disguise their inner desire to destroy a person or entity. If successful in gathering an audience, I would say they are good actors.
The victim must discern whether an excessive desire to be helpful, is not coupled with active discrediting. Sherri Gordon in her article, "15 Ways to Tell If Someone Is Gaslighting You," says that “people who engage in gaslighting are habitual and pathological liars. They will blatantly lie and never back down or change their stories, even when you call them out or provide proof of their deception. Lying is the cornerstone of their destructive behavior.”
Social media is a tool used by these gaslighters. They relish the attention from replies supporting their cause. I compare the replies to what occurs on a playground. Everyone runs to the two arguing and picks a side. Suddenly there are dozens shouting, ‘fight-fight!’ Someone invariably pushes one to the other and a fistfight ensues. A teacher will yank the fighters to the principal’s office, and that will be the end of that. No such luck on separating those that embark on social media.
Much has been written about gaslighters since the film. It was a playwright who identified it and it became a psychological term. I have always said that playwrights are keen observers of people. Kudos to playwright Patrick Hamilton for the wonderful play and film "Gaslight," now a classic.
Silvia Gonzalez Scherer is the Executive Artistic Director and co-founder of the Hanford Multicultural Theater Company. She is also a playwright and an actress.
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