To ‘gaslight’ means to manipulate someone psychologically into doubting their own sanity. It comes from a 1938 stage play of that title, portraying a man deliberately tricking his wife into thinking she is going insane.
I should have known I was in trouble when my mother’s voice in the next room switched from her breezy telephone tone to a cold, stern growl. When she hung up and called me in, I saw the anger in her eyes, and I knew I was in for it.
A year before, I had created somewhat of a stir at summer camp , threatening suicide after a heated argument with a friend. The counsellors, not really trained for this eventuality, had merely assumed I was “acting out” due to my parents’ recent divorce. One was dispatched to tell me that her parents had divorced, too, that it wasn’t the end of the world, and that she was sure that both my parents still loved me and wanted the best for me.
I just stared at her, not knowing where to begin. I let her finish her string of platitudes and leave.
Now, a year later, the same camp counsellor had decided to see if I was doing better, and tell my mother she’d be there for me, if I needed to talk. For some reason, she simply assumed that my mother would know what had happened at camp; why wouldn’t a girl confide in her mother?
Replacing the phone with icy calm, my mother wanted me to know how very, very disappointed she was in me that I had not told her about my suicidal thoughts. She felt betrayed that I had hidden this from her, and likened her shame to that of a woman who has at last found out that her husband is sleeping around, when everyone else in town had known for months.
How dare I keep things like this from her! How could I be so inconsiderate of her feelings? This wasn’t the first time that some concerned adult had phoned her, telling her that Little Kathy seemed to be a very unhappy girl, and that they wanted to make sure that she was alright.
My mom hated getting calls like that! How absolutely horrible they must think her, because I kept telling everyone how unhappy I was. After all, it wasn’t as if I had anything to be unhappy about. She often reminded me that she had friends who had real pain, real problems. I was fed and clothed and lived in a nice neighbourhood. I wasn’t sick, and all my limbs functioned. What right did I have to be unhappy?
And even if I was unhappy, why did I need to go outside the family for support? What did I think I was doing, airing our dirty linen in public like that and bringing disgrace upon her?
Only now, after years of therapy and hard work, am I able to look at this scene and see what wasn’t being said. The words of concern, love and nurturing that would spring to the lips of most mothers were not only denied me, but the focus of the counsellor’s well-intentioned call was immediately shifted: in my mother’s gaslight glare, the most important issue was not the well-being of a child who, at thirteen, was already no stranger to suicidal ideation and self-damaging behaviours, but the pain of a woman wounded by the dishonesty of her ungrateful daughter.
When, a half decade later, one of many actual attempts at suicide fell a few weeks short of my eighteenth birthday, I pleaded with my school counsellor not to tell my mother. The woman was kind but firm: the law was the law, and anyway, she was sure that my mother wasn’t going to be angry at me, just concerned – after all, she was my mother, and surely all mothers love their children, and want the best for them.
My mother listened to the counsellor with every sign of concern; but once the woman had departed, any concern for my feelings departed with her. My mother was hurt – so very, very hurt – that I felt I couldn’t come to her for support, and she said so. What was the matter with me that I didn’t trust my own mother enough to share my feelings with her? “The worst thing,” she told me, “is that you apparently think I’m such a horrible mother that you won’t even tell me when you’re hurt.”
No, I hadn’t told her I was hurt. I hadn’t told her much of anything for a long time – I had long ago learned that my feelings would be criticised, even ridiculed, if I expressed them. However, I had also been frequently and forcefully assured that this criticism and ridicule “did not happen,” and that anything negative I remembered about my parents’ reactions to my attempts to communicate was completely deserved when it happened – and then completely imaginary by the next day.
When I told her about feeling depressed, I was told that I was being “selfish” and should “stop whining”. After all, I had nothing to be sad about. When my anger and frustration at the world’s inequities left me confused, I was told that I was being “dramatic” and that “life isn’t fair, so deal with it.” When I told her about my early experiences with dissociation, when suddenly I would feel completely alien to myself, or even seem to watch myself from a distance, my mother reacted angrily, furiously berating me for choosing to have such frightening thoughts; such things were “crazy talk.”
I was also told that she had never discouraged me, would never judge me, and would never use a phrase like “crazy talk.” We were an exemplary family and she was an open and honest communicator. I could be sure of this, because she told me so, often. So, of course, none of the scenes when a concerned adult called and I was berated for hiding my feelings from my mother ever happened, either. She would tell you that she was continually concerned for me and always did her best, but that I have what she calls a “creative memory.”
“Stop flinching like that,” I was once told. “You make it look like I beat you.” It would have been senseless to point out that, in fact, she did beat us, chasing us down with a wooden spoon for such crimes as being too slow at our chores or even for responding rather than simply doing as we were told. That, of course, was also untrue: she would have never hit us for anything but the most horrible of infractions, and yet the blows continued into my late teens, sometimes just for having the wrong look on my face.
By the time I went to University (she drove me there and back; I was not allowed to have a drivers’ licence until my senior year, and never allowed to live in the dormitories, being deemed “too immature” to do so), a tense discussion on our morning commute might still be punctuated with her fist pounding on my thigh, hard enough to hurt, but never quite hard enough to leave a bruise; she, too, had learned many things over the years in this dance of denial.
One morning on our way into the city, she seemed to have a moment of regret, telling me that she was sorry that she was sometimes violent with me, but that those who were abused by their parents often went on to abuse their own children. The next day, our entire drive was dedicated to a lecture on just how thoughtless and insolent it was of me to classify her as abusive, and that she certainly hadn’t hit me since I was small. And, of course, she was never emotionally abusive. That would be unthinkable. She was an excellent mother again, and I found myself apologizing for ever doubting her.
And although I’m sure that, as with all memories, some of the details have changed over the decades, my mother would deny that anything remotely like any of this had ever happened. Discussing the past with my mother, I have learned, is an activity almost as dangerous as giving a piranha a root-canal. Even memories with happy overtones can conceal landmines, as anything I say is immediately and thoroughly scrutinized for possible judgemental and critical overtones – for, if any small facet of the shared memory could be possibly interpreted as a sign of anything less than optimum parenting skills on her part, then for me to share it with her is nothing less than an assault on her very existence, and must be exposed as such – and retaliated for.
It is a truism of this emerging field that anyone, made sufficiently vulnerable by circumstance, can be induced to give up enough of their free will to an abusive group or individual using the right hooks and levers of undue influence. However, it is also true that a certain percentage of us are made ripe for the picking, raised in homes where it is so beyond the pale to question authority that we will gladly follow anyone who offers to lead us. When my cult leader demanded instant loyalty, no alarm bells went off in my head, because this was the way life was – my own opinions, feelings and experiences were instantly deemed inferior to anyone around me, and so I naturally deferred.
Even after years of studying the various phenomena of coercive influence, I still find myself constantly questioning my own values and opinions; although these days I mindfully adjust my thinking constantly to recognize the worth of my own input and experiences, a suitably enthusiastic friend can sway my views easily, if I am not careful. Does that mean that I am more likely than others to become ensnared again? In fact, I think that my constant practice of mindful observation has grown into my own protection.
Now, when I interact with my mother, my conversations are trivial, the topics inconsequential. When it comes time to discuss something that will threaten her by accentuating my independence from her, I just let her rant and shout at me, allowing her to calm down; eventually she will deny having yelled at me. Even though later she will remember only how “unreasonable” I have been, I simply stick to my boundaries and remember that I am an adult, that I am good enough, competent enough, and, no matter what she thinks, I can indeed get along without her Perfect Maternal Supervision.
Or, at least, that’s my intention. I am sure that until she ceases to draw breath she will retain the ability to draw blood with her gas-lit “guidance,” but at least now I can see the gaslight for what it is, and know exactly how to protect myself – and, more importantly, where to go for support when I cannot. Having friends one can trust is a more than a blessing – it’s a necessity! The minute we think we cannot fall is when we tumble, but I, in realizing that I am forever falling and catching myself, know that now I can find my own truth – and trust myself to keep asking the right questions.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about gaslighting that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!