There are a few words that need to vanish in 2023. “Malignant narcissist,” “self-diagnosed autism,” “gatekeeping” and all the other various manipulative terms people use to blame others for their own faults should be tossed. Leave them by the curb next to the yellowing Christmas trees.
“Gaslighting” is a term I’m willing to keep however, but only if people learn how to use it correctly.
Here’s what bugs me. People so love the term “gaslighting” that they use it to mean “lying.” Gaslighting is a very, very specific form of lying. Not all lies are gaslighting. It’s like constantly saying “corgi” when you mean “dog.”
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where you try to tell someone that she didn’t see something she clearly saw. The trick is not to fool the victim but to make the victim prefer to believe that her own mind is playing tricks on her than that something more disturbing is going on.
The term came about as a verb from the 1940 film Gaslight. In that movie a woman is manipulated by her husband who is trying to cover up the murder of his aunt. He searches for his aunt’s missing rubies in the attic of their house. Every time he enters their attic the gaslights in their living room dim a bit. When she asks her husband why the gaslights keep dimming, he tells her that they aren’t and that she is imagining things.
The feminist interpretation writes itself. Society has trained women to crave male love so badly that women would rather believe ourselves crazy, blind and delusional than that we are perfectly sane but with a man who does not care about us. Insanity is preferable to spinsterhood.
But that’s an essay for another time.
Alfred Hitchcock shows us gaslighting in its purest form in his 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes. In that movie a young woman named Ingrid (Margaret Lockwood) meets a mysterious old woman named Ms. Froy (Dame May Whitty) on a train in Europe. Ms. Froy suddenly disappears despite the train never stopping. Ingrid asks all her fellow passengers where Ms. Froy went but all her fellow passengers act like Ms. Froy never existed.
Ingrid knows Ms. Froy was there. They chatted. She and Ms. Froy went to the dining car. Ms. Froy drank tea, annoyed the waiter, made some British tourists pass her the sugar, and bored Ingrid a bit with her chatter. Ms. Froy EXISTED!
And yet each passenger keeps telling Ingrid that Ms. Froy was never there. A foreign doctor gently tells her that since she hit her head before getting on the train she may have imagined Ms. Froy.
Making a woman believe that her companion never existed when she literally spoke and touched and had tea with her companion over the course of two days is the Platonic ideal of gaslighting. THAT is gaslighting!
I won’t give away too much about The Lady Vanishes. It’s a great movie though it does bog down at the end during a shootout involving a train car stalled in a mysterious German forest. The whole scenario is clearly a leaden metaphor about whether England should involve itself in the war in Europe (remember, this movie was made in 1938).
I may revisit the film simply because I find the main romantic relationship between Iris and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) interesting. For the moment however, I will say that The Lady Vanishes can teach all us youngsters what “gaslighting” truly is.
Remember, not all dogs are corgis and not all lies are gaslighting.