A man obsessed with stealing valuable jewels murders one woman and attempts to drive the other one (his wife) crazy. His single-mindedness, driven by selfish motives, caused him to deceive and manipulate in order to obtain what he wanted regardless of the cost to others. Bit by bit, he torments his wife until she believes that she is losing her mind. She believes that she is going crazy. Fortunately, he is discovered just before he tries to commit his wife to an insane asylum.
This is the dramatic plot of the 1944 movie Gaslight (starring Ingrid Bergman) and unfortunately, art imitates real life. It is just as valid today as it was in the 1940s. A person with narcissistic tendencies takes advantage of others to get what they want, resorting to deceptive tactics like twisting the truth. Any slight exposure to reality causes them to claim that other’s perceptions are inaccurate and possibly crazy. They even go to the extreme of hiding things and then saying the other person lost the items. Or trying to get them to believe that they are losing their mind.
The name of the movie has inspired the psychological term called gaslighting. It describes the process of grooming someone into believing they are losing it to the point of driving them crazy. Here is how it works:
- Find a target. In the movie, a woman who recently experienced the traumatic murder of her aunt was targeted by the man who was after her inherited valuable jewels. Unfortunately, traumatized victims tend to look a bit foggy, seem confused, distracted, withdrawn, and discouraged. A person meaning harm looks for such a person because they are less likely to be present and aware of any potential schemes and therefore more vulnerable.
- Charm the target. At first, the gaslighter will seem to be the perfect person. They will be attentive, caring, and constantly present. While this is comforting to the target, it is actually a method of studying their victim. The more they learn, the greater the ability to successfully twist the truth. In this case, the charm is very deceitful, deceptive, and ultimately dangerous.
- Push the boundaries. Early on in a relationship, it is normal to establish a boundary such as needing some time alone or with friends. A person, who truly cares for another, respects this limitation. But a person with ulterior motives will show up unexpectedly with some excuse of “missing them” or “needing to see them”. This is actually a test to see how the target responds. Any tolerance of boundary-stretching is a signal that a person is insecure and can be manipulated. A person who maintains their boundaries is not as likely to get schemed.
- Gives surprise gifts. A common tactic is to give a gift for no reason and then randomly take it away. The gift is usually something that is highly valued. Once appreciation is shown, then it is removed as a precursor to a push-pull abuse tactic. The idea is that the gaslighter is in complete control of their victim: giving pleasure and then taking it away. This creates a strange fear that things will be taken away if the target does not do exactly what is demanded.
- Isolates from others. In order to be effective, the gaslighter needs to be the only dominant voice in the victim’s head. So all friends, family, and even neighbors are systematically removed from the target’s life. There are excuses for this distance such as “your mother is crazy”, “your best friend said you are a gossip”, “that person is trying to take advantage of you”, and “no one cares for you as much as I do”. This reinforces the dependency on the gaslighter to meet all of the needs of their victim.
- Makes subtle statements. Once the stage is set, the actual work of manipulation begins. It starts with hints of “you are forgetful” or “you are angry”. The victim might not actually be forgetful but a little suggestion followed by the random disappearance of items, such as keys, easily reinforces the concept. The target might not feel anger and in an attempt to defend, says “no I’m not”. To which the gaslighter responds, “I can hear it the tone of your voice and your body language, I know you better than you know yourself.” Even if a person wasn’t feeling anger before, they will be now.
- Projects suspicions onto the victim. A gaslighter is naturally a suspicious person who takes their own fears and states that it is the target who is actually the paranoid person. This projection can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the victim (who has become dependent on their abuser) believes what is being said. Without anyone else to counteract with the truth, twisted perception becomes a reality. The victim becomes paranoid and the gaslighter becomes dominant.
- Plants seeds of imagination. This is step begins by suggesting that a person is imagining things that aren’t real. It is reinforced through intentional removal of “lost” items, claiming they hear random noises, and generating unnecessary emergencies. Everything is done to cause the victim to become even more dependent on the gaslighter’s perception. Frequently, this step is done in conjunction with a repetition of the other previous six steps. It is a slow methodical, almost daily process that is well planned.
- Attack and retreat. The push-pull abuse tactic comes into full view as the gaslighter attacks the victim through random anger outbursts which are designed to startle a person into further submission. Then they follow it by making a joke of the incident claiming that the target’s reaction is an overreaction. The victim feels ridiculous and subsequently trusts their instincts even less. Successful completion of this phase gives the gaslighter complete control to now convince their victim that they are going crazy.
- Takes advantage of the victim. This last step is where the gaslighter has obtained enough influence and domination that they are able to literally do whatever they want to the target. Usually, there are no limits or boundaries anymore and the victim is unfortunately completely submissive. For a previously traumatized person, this last phase is even more painful as trauma is built on top of even more trauma. The gaslighter, who has no empathy for their victim, can only see that the end justifies the means of getting what they want.
In the movie, it took the observation of an outsider to help the wife escape from the clutches of her gaslighting husband. In real life, it also takes such a person to shed light on an abusive situation. This could be a family member, friend, neighbor, or counselor. Being such a person requires observation, courage, and careful timing. But to a victim, it is a life-saver.