At a social gathering, a woman becomes inexplicably panicked and hysterical; her soothing husband whisks her away from the public spectacle. To the disinterested onlookers she seems an emotional wreck, he a noble protector. They respect his chivalry, perhaps pity him a little. Safely back home, his exasperation pours out, ‘If I could only get inside that brain of yours and understand what makes you do these crazy, twisted things!’ However, we know what his wife does not even suspect: that he himself has slowly planted the seeds of her anguish and self-doubt and is plotting to drive her out of her mind.
The scene comes from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight, the second screen adaptation of an earlier play. In it, Bergman’s character Paula is slowly manipulated by her husband into believing she is losing her mind. He moves objects around the house to confuse her, steals her possessions while claiming she has lost them, and his mysterious, secret ventures into the attic cause the gas lights to flicker and dim, which only Paula ever sees, causing her to doubt her own sanity. The title of the film has thus lent itself to this form of psychological abuse, ‘gaslighting’.
Essentially, gaslighting is a term used within psychology to describe the psychological abuse that results when one person attempts to convince another that they are mad. In the film, the viewer is fully aware that Paula is not insane and that her husband is up to no good. However, this is not apparent to the people around her, unable to see what is going on behind closed doors at home. Indeed, when she is out and about her husband often plays a trick or two so that he can ascribe her confusion, stress, and later hysteria to witnesses as part of a tragic descent into insanity. Paula herself is trusting and cannot understand what is happening.
As the film progresses and her imagined ‘condition’ deteriorates, her husband informs her that two psychiatrists will be coming to review her so they can take her away to receive the ‘help’ she needs – i.e. to put her away for life in an asylum. Fortunately, this being Hollywood, and Ingrid Bergman to boot, a handsome and observant detective suspicious of what is going on arrives in the nick of time before she can be institutionalised. The question is, though, what would have happened if the doctors had got there first? Would they have diagnosed Paula as mad, or is there a chance they might have realised she was the victim of a campaign of emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of the man she thought loved her?
Having myself managed to escape from a psychologically abusive relationship, unfortunately only after years of ‘treatment’ within the psychiatric system, I would argue strongly that they would almost certainly not have recognised the gaslighting. Psychiatrists, with the onus they put on diagnostic labels rather than discovering the root causes of distress, have little chance of spotting when the behaviour is the result of others’ abuse. My partner, too, was able to persuade both me and those around me that I was mad, that I lacked insight, and that my worries (including about him) were manifestations of my ‘paranoid delusions’.
It began when I tried to leave him for the first time. Having no family to turn to I had nowhere to go, and the stress of it all caused me to break down. My partner took me to a doctor. I was mainly exhausted after weeks of heavy drinking and a lack of sleep, but the GP referred me to a psychiatrist. I see how this could happen: the NHS’s guidance on what to look out for as indicators of psychosis includes: hallucinations; delusions; confused and disturbed thoughts; and lack of insight and self-awareness*. As it turns out, the same might reasonably be expected to result from an unhealthy combination of insomnia, inebriation and constant denigration. Funnily enough, these are all traits a doctor would have seen in Paula too.
The gaslighting I experienced gathered pace once I started treatment within the psychiatric system. My partner positioned himself as my carer and my friends would often tell me that, considering my ‘condition’, I should be grateful to have someone around so dedicated to my wellbeing. That condition was never doubted by anyone. My partner escorted me to psychiatric appointments, where the professionals listened sympathetically to him, valuing his sane perspective. He would also counsel me that a major problem I had was a lack of insight and that he could help me to see things correctly. So much control did he have over me and my so-called illness that he even took responsibility for monitoring the anti-psychotic drugs I was taking. He ensured I took them, except on the nights he wanted me to join him out drinking; on these occasions he would generously allow me a night off the pills. When I accused him of trying to be my doctor he would get angry and I would let it be – after all, no one else I knew would consider that the problem might be anything outside of my own biology. If I ever tried, again, to leave him he would tell my friends I was having a relapse, and this was accepted by all, again leaving me nowhere to go for support.
It took me a long time to realise that I was being gaslighted. In fact, I had no word to describe the experience until years after I had finally escaped him, when I came across the term by chance. What is worse, whenever I talk about my past relationship now with friends in my new life, I am horrified to discover how common manipulative relationships are. Fortunately, most who have shared their experiences with me had families who supported them in getting away. I didn’t. The only people I could turn to for help were psychiatrists because in the UK the medical system is where you are sent with ‘symptoms’ like mine. I can never go back and prove I was gaslighted so I am stuck with a psychiatric diagnosis to this day. There is a laughable idea that mental health conditions are about susceptibility, that yes, our experiences impact upon our minds, but not everyone reacts psychotically so it is alright to label those who do as having some underlying chemical imbalance. Yet who could experience the level of control by a partner that I did – or the trauma Paula suffers in the film – without emerging traumatised?
So what can be done about the problem? The phenomenon of gaslighting has become much better known recently, and this is progress. Victims need a word to describe what is being done to them, to know it is wrong and that they can escape it. Also, popularising the term hopefully means more people seeing through the abuser’s disguise and providing support for the victim. This would require a wider awareness of the fact that diagnostic labels are not scientifically validated and are, at best, subjective opinions of doctors who do not see the patient in the reality of their surrounding world. Meanwhile, the system has to change to prevent the recurrence of what happened to me. ‘Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’ is now a crime in England and Wales carrying a prison sentence. The healthcare system needs to catch up; psychiatrists must stop being blind to anything but the diagnostic labels that actively abetted my partner in his abuse, and realise that severe and long-term psychological fallout can be caused by various traumatic abuses committed behind closed doors, not just the obvious ones.
The problem is not exclusively one that affects women, but researchers acknowledge a gendered aspect to gaslighting given how often in society a woman’s responses to situations are deemed irrational and over-emotional, while it is assumed that men have a monopoly on reason. For a woman who was never listened to when it mattered most, it is now almost impossible to imagine getting a psychiatrist to believe my story and right the wrong of labelling me, a label that has caused so many problems in my life even after I got away from my abusive relationship. Essentially, what the psychiatric field needs to do is listen, and not only that but to hear and actually believe people’s experiences.
I still have no idea whether my partner’s manipulation was deliberate or if he genuinely believed I was ill. Paula’s murderous husband in Gaslight is clearly evil to the core, but either way the outcome is the same: the manipulation causes intense suffering and damage. Paula’s husband eventually gets his comeuppance. There is no such fairy tale for many real life victims who are left to try and prove their sanity in the face of something so perniciously abusive as gaslighting.
* Editor’s note: At the time of writing this blog, online NHS guidance identified four major indicators of psychosis including ‘lack of insight and self-awareness’. This information was updated in December 2019 to limit the major symptoms to hallucinations, delusions and confused or disturbed thoughts.