Conjugating the Verb “Gaslight”: Falsifying Reality, Generating Evil
by David Shasha
Though personal acquaintance with the 1944 MGM movie entitled “Gaslight” might be rare today, the verb that it spawned is not. “Gaslighting” someone signifies a cruel trick or swindle where one person knowingly tries to force another person to become confused about something that has happened.
In the US version of the film (a British version preceded it by a few years) a young woman played by Ingrid Bergman loses the woman who raised her under very murky circumstances that we think involve murder. After the death of her guardian, Bergman falls in love with and marries a character played by Charles Boyer. Boyer begins to gradually alter Bergman’s reality for purposes known only to him. He gives her a piece of jewelry that he then steals back from her and hides, only to insist that Bergman has “forgotten” where the jewelry was placed.
The incidents of “gaslighting” increase as the movie progresses.
Bergman’s young bride is thus tricked into thinking that she is losing her mind. Each evening as she tries to go to sleep, the gaslit chandeliers begin to fade a bit; leaving Bergman disoriented and frightened as she cannot fathom why the light is decreasing.
Of course the purpose of the “gaslighting” is to permit Boyer to embark on his nefarious business which is not made known to us until the end of the movie. But it is the process of “gaslighting” that is so important to the suspense and the philosophical meaning of the movie.
We have often examined the rhetorical slight-of-hand known in Hebrew as PILPUL which attempts to turn a thing into something else. The PILPUL is a form of legal casuistry that can, if misused, turn justice into its opposite.
But PILPUL is relative child’s-play compared to “gaslighting.”
The process of “gaslighting” is significant to us because it allows us to see the ways in which the wicked conduct their business. Such individuals seek to create realities and undermine them at the very same time. By manipulating reality, the protagonist uses the “gaslight” technique in order to entrap his unwitting victim into the very snares of madness.
In this context, the one who controls reality is able to manipulate it and force the reality to be altered into something that it most assuredly is not. Such a form of mind control is present in many different aspects of our lives. Those who choose to “gaslight” others must first choose a target that is easily defeated and manipulated. “Gaslighting” works best when one is dealing with individuals whose ability to defend themselves is minimal. Such an inability might be due to the inherent weakness of the individual, or it may be because of the honesty and integrity of the person which makes them an easy target.
Honesty is often unable to defeat lies because the liar has predicated his behavior on overt manipulations of reality. Thus, the “gaslight” technique is a reflexive form of behavior: the wicked deeds of a person are reinforced by their behavioral strategies and external appearance.
In the movie, Charles Boyer enlists the help of the servants of his London home while trapping his vulnerable wife inside that home. Thus, Boyer creates a monstrous laboratory of evil that snares Bergman. In essence, Bergman is caught in a labyrinth of Boyer’s making because of her kindness and honesty. While Boyer is intent on lying and dissimulating, Bergman is caught in a web engendered by her trusting nature and love for her husband. Boyer is enabled by Bergman’s pure and vulnerable nature which allows him to manipulate her mind and trick her into thinking that she is mad.
Bergman does not see this coming because she does not think in the evil ways that Boyer does. Boyer has hidden agendas that Bergman does not know about, but which the viewer of the movie is increasingly made aware of. The tension in the film rests in the moral sense of the viewer who becomes increasingly hostile towards Boyer, but equally frustrated that he can do nothing about it. We know that Bergman is not mad, but that her condition is being manipulated by Boyer.
It is a situation that leaves the viewer painfully impotent.
In real life, the issue of “gaslighting” is all around us. Individuals seek to execute wicked and evil actions by this strategy. They decide on the immoral deed they wish to commit and then play around with the reality that surrounds them. So long as they can control the reality and those around them, the “gaslight” will not be discovered. In fact, the danger is that “reality” will become inextricably altered and those who inveigh against this manipulation will be marked as insane.
We live in times where the wicked often rely on this tactic in order to eviscerate morality in its most rational form.
In “Gaslight” we see that the reality created by Boyer’s wickedness is taken as true by all those around the couple. Boyer takes special care to enlist the servants of his home in his machinations, but also works to keep Bergman trapped in the home where she can do little to change his “gaslighting” of reality. In addition, any time that Bergman tries to reach the outside world, Boyer stages yet more ruses that have been designed to expose her mental state as defective.
In one of the critical scenes in the movie, Bergman elects to go to a formal dinner at the home of an old friend. Boyer has already refused the invitation and is taken aback by Bergman’s insistence on going. She is already in a precarious mental and emotional state and, true to form, she snaps during a musical performance when Boyer “gaslights” her.
And that is the purpose of the “gaslight”: the victim of the “gaslight” is thrown into a mental frenzy because they feel that they have lost their grip on reality. The relationship between the “gaslight” manipulations and the truth is one that tears asunder all rational thought. Cognitive dissonance is a natural result of the process.
While the movie, in true movie fashion, allows the truth to be restored and the wicked punished, in real life the perpetrators of “gaslighting” are often successful. Far from acting alone in their wickedness, the “gaslighters” seek to employ the apathy and uncaring of others to help them in their evil ways. A conception of “might makes right” underlies the process whereby those who are deemed weak are left defenseless when they have the temerity to rely on the truth and on justice while the “gaslighters” seek to control reality by their use of lies and distortions. Appeals to the truth are often disregarded by others as merely lunatic ravings.
What is most complicated in this moral game is that truth and goodness are so easily destroyed because those who have been “gaslighted” give into the game of moral blackmail. Unable to withstand the pressure of being marked as delusional by those who have “gaslighted” them, such people either lose control of their mental faculties, or they accept the new reality that has been presented to them. Any attempt at fighting the “gaslighting” is fraught with accusations of paranoia and delusion.
After all, once reality has been changed in a definitive way by the mass acceptance of the “new” reality by others, then the individual who denies that “gaslighted” reality is deemed to be mad. The enforcement of “might makes right” – often involving money and other forms of power – is the mechanism that perpetuates the immorality of the deed.
Such danger is something that is not simply an ethnic, cultural, national or religious issue, but one that affects each and every human being who deals with evildoers. We can examine our own lives and see where and when these moments occur. Those who have been “gaslighted” are often those who have been persecuted and oppressed. Their oppressors use the “gaslighting” to force them to reject who they are and what they understand as reality. So often the technique serves the wicked in their attempts to cheat justice and rational ethics.
In order to defeat the “gaslighter” we are forced to refuse these manipulations and risk the disdain and incredulity of others. It means standing up for what is right in spite of what others may think, do or say. It means not giving up or losing faith in the dignity of what we believe to be just whatever the cost might be.
In a world where so often “might makes right,” those who fight back against the evildoers are marked as mad and set apart from the mainstream, while the evildoer is protected and enabled by those who are too stupid, blind or malicious to see what reality actually is. It is those who are blind to the ways of “gaslighting” that are often the most responsible for the evil it creates. It is one thing to try and commit a wicked deed or immoral action, but it is quite another to take the evil person into one’s confidence and assist them in achieving their nefarious aims.