Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight”
The writer didn’t know what “gaslighting” was, until it happened to her. Here’s how a loved one's lies and manipulation can make you believe you are crazy—and potentially drive you to the brink.
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An envelope arrived at my house. My heart sank—I just knew what I was about to see: photos of one of my rock-star husband’s groupies. I’d suspected for some time that something was up between the two of them. I tried to believe him when he insisted he was faithful. But, c’mon now, what constantly touring musician didn’t indulge in extramarital affairs?
Naturally, I opened the package to find photos that indicated she’d spent five days with my husband. When I confronted him—and this wasn’t the first time I had—he’d insisted he only saw her once, at a show.
My husband and I sought out a counselor, who said I had to make a choice: Believe him or leave him. I decided to trust him, and stay together.
But, it was only a matter of time before I had reason to suspect him again: My husband called from tour to tell me he loved me, say goodnight, and tell me he was heading straight to bed. But before that final “I love you,” I heard a knock on his hotel door and the sound of a female voice. “I thought you were going to bed,” I said. “Who is the girl at your door?” My heart was racing, my head spinning. “It’s not a girl. It’s John*. You’re fucking crazy.”
Maybe I heard the voice wrong. He could be so convincing. I brought up the photos again—and then the unthinkable happened.
“We both saw the photos!” I screamed. “You saw her five times, not once. If you didn’t do anything wrong, why are you lying?!”
“No, it was once,” he insisted. “I’m getting sick of your paranoia, insecurity, and craziness.” He was twisting the truth—which was becoming a habit. It had been going on for about a year. But then I started to question what I saw. Was the groupie woman wearing a jacket in one photo and not in another, or was it simply that the lighting was off? Or that the photos were just in different areas of the same place? I’d ripped up the photos so I couldn’t check them again. Maybe he was right, maybe I was being paranoid.
Or maybe he was “gaslighting” me.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, in which a person convinces the other that she is going crazy. The word is taken from the 1944 film Gaslight that casts Ingrid Bergman as the woman being manipulated by her scheming husband, played by Charles Boyer.
“Serial cheaters are often the ones doing the gaslighting,” says George Simon, Ph.D., and author of In Sheep’s Clothing (Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People) and Character Disturbance (The Phenomenon of our Age). “A serial cheater might berate a suspecting spouse with such intensely feigned righteous indignation over being ‘falsely accused’ in the absence of definitive evidence that the accuser feels not only like a complete louse but also like a crazy person for accusing. As is the case with all manipulation tactics,” adds Dr. Simon, “the gaslighter successfully gets the other person to back down or cave in while concealing obvious aggressive, exploitive intent, and therefore ‘looks good’ (maintains favorable impression management) while victimizing.”
When you’re being gaslighted, you question your instincts, your memory, and your mental state. You are told you are crazy, paranoid, insecure, too sensitive, too stressed, forgetful, or are overreacting. You start believing their lies and perceptions. You feel so beaten down that you find yourself always backing down. You are confused and second-guess everything. Finally, you might believe you are losing your mind and/or fall into a depression.
Which is exactly what was happening to me. I’d kick him out of the house when new evidence popped up and then beg him for forgiveness when he convinced me that I was falsely accusing him. I thought he was a great husband—I loved him. We’d been together for 11 years. I didn’t know whether I was right or wrong. I suffered constant mood swings ups and downs, so much so, that my therapist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and put me on Abilify.
Tracy* endured a similar experience. “An ex-boyfriend used to move my keys and then accuse me of being forgetful. He’s also take cash out of my wallet and then tell me I was ‘losing it’ or irresponsible. I started thinking I had a serious problem. I was working late nights and wondered if maybe I was forgetful because I was so tired. I finally realized I wasn’t going crazy when a neighbor saw him move my car after he told me I was just forgetful of where I parked. When I realized what the hell was going on, I changed the locks and I eventually had to get a restraining order on him,” she says.
I finally realized I wasn’t going crazy either, when, in a burst of courage, I hacked into my husband’s computer. And there I found an avalanche of emails between my husband, the tour manager, security, and crew, adding various girls’ names on his hotel rooms, and instructing the tour manager to never put incidentals on his bill so that I wouldn’t find out. The emails said when someone was sleeping over, checking in and out of the hotel, and riding overnight on his tour bus. Can’t let Carrie know. When I confronted him this time, he finally fessed up. “Okay, fine. Yes, you are right. I’m actually relieved it’s over.”
I was relieved, too. Because it meant I wasn’t crazy. I sought out a new psychiatrist, recounting the entire story; not surprisingly, after several sessions, my doctor told me I’d been misdiagnosed as bipolar, took me off of Abilify.
Though many people have been in relationships where they’ve been lied to, manipulated, and, in some cases, called “crazy” at least once (especially if you’re a woman), true gaslighting is much more diabolical. “True gaslighting is a specific, conscious, deliberate tactic of manipulation and control,” says Dr. Simon. “A disturbed or disordered character gaslights someone to make their target self-doubt or to cause their already self-doubting target to further self-doubt. The objective is simple: make your target believe their gut instincts are both ludicrous and irrational and you successfully con them.”
When it was explained to me, it made sense and left me in fetal position for days. I was angry with my husband, angry with my former counselors for believing him over me, and most of all angry with myself for not trusting my instincts.
Jenn* is another woman who has been down this road. “I’m a pretty intelligent girl, so at first I thought, This can’t apply to me. How could I be fooled? But, I was. I thought I had early dementia. I didn’t know if I was coming or going. The incidents made me feel real dumb and real lonely, real quick, which is the point. I remember the first article I read about it, I sobbed,” she says.
Many psychiatric professionals agree that even strong, intelligent, confident, and stable people can find themselves in this situation. “That’s one of the most disturbing things about gaslighting, that even incredibly intelligent and emotionally healthy people are vulnerable. You don’t have to be dumb or a damaged person to fall victim to gaslighting. Intelligence and emotions are not the same thing. And a gaslighters’ key maneuver is to prey on emotion rather than intelligence. That said, it is not unusual for many of those who bond with gaslighters to have their own early-life trauma, which in essence taught them to look the other way and/or not question’ when a painful or confusing stimulus is presented,” explains Robert Weiss, a licensed social worker, senior vice-president of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health, and author of Always Turned On,.
While little research has been done on gaslighting, there is evidence to suggest that this behavior is not exclusive to romantic relationships; parents have been known to gaslight their children. “Strangely enough, my mother used to do this type of thing to me,” says Tim. “I do think it is much more prevalent in parent-child relationships than people think. She would accuse me of taking $200 off her table when I definitely didn’t take it, then sent me to a lie-detector test. If there were a pair of pants she didn’t like, she would offer to do my laundry and the pants would disappear. When I brought it up she would tell me I was crazy and she didn’t steal my stuff.”
Who does this? Common culprits include narcissists, sociopaths, people with borderline personality disorders, or anyone who needs to control the one they love or hide their own misconduct. As Dr. Simon explains in his book In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, it is the more aggressive narcissistic characters “who are out to dominate, manipulate, and control; and will use any means necessary, including gaslighting to further their ends.”
Weiss adds, “Gaslighters are generally men and women who were narcissistically wounded early in life—through emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, inconsistent parenting and the like.” I won’t go into details of my ex-husband’s emotional past, but I can say that he has some of these issues that could’ve played into what he did. As for myself, I’m educated, intelligent, confident, successful, and stable and wondered how this could happen to me. That said, I was teased through grade school for being too skinny, flat chested, and having a big nose. And though I’m sure this isn’t exactly early life trauma Weiss is referring to, it might have played a role in why I held onto my marriage so tightly and just kept believing in his lies. Though he never actually apologized, knowing his past helped me tap into some forgiveness for him, which is the only way to start the healing process.
The long-term impact of gaslighting runs deep. “Long-term effects of gaslighting can lead to depression, anxiety, and instability. Gaslighting results in a loss of confidence and trust in your own perceptions and ability to make decisions, which makes everything, including relationships more difficult. Trusting the other person will come in time if the relationship is mutually respectful, if you feel seen and understood, and ‘met’ where you are,” says Robin Stern, Ph.D., associate director at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.
After five years, Vicky* still feels the effects of her gaslighting experience. “The thing I grapple with all the time is intuition. I’ve ruined relationships thinking my intuition was telling me something when it just was suspicion. Assumptions are my undoing. I can be dating the best man in the world and will think every sweet text was a miss-text made for someone else. In short, I’m became so insecure. It was truly a torturous experience. It’s so much more than a mind fuck,” she reveals.
As for me, six years later, I am still solid in my sanity. But in my quest to never let this happen again, I do struggle with trust issues with men. The good news is: Since my divorce, I have had relationships with men whom I’ve wholly trusted. But, I have also “cut and run” prematurely from a boyfriend who triggered this past trauma. I’ll never know if I falsely accused him of wrongdoings. But I do know one thing for sure: My eyes are open as wide as a girl in a Margaret Keane painting to the signs of gaslighting now, but I still need to work on opening my heart further and do what every single girl needs to do—risk getting hurt again for the sake of love.
*All the names of the subjects have been changed.
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