Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gaslighting and the Profound Power of Denial Mixed With Overt Parental Control

The term "gaslighting" derives from the British film (and the play that preceded it) that was remade in the US in 1944 staring Ingrid Bergman.  The husband in Gaslight wants to convince his already neurotic and previously traumatized wife that she is insane, so he sets up situations that convince her that she's literally lost touch with reality.

The term came to represent the behavior wherein one person challenges the perceptions and memory of another, though in dysfunctional families, it's not as malicious as portrayed in the old film.

As part of the disease of extreme denial, a controlling parent often believes their own press.  As many adult children of dysfunctional homes will tell you, "That never happened!" or some variation of it was a phrase they heard regularly.

Within dysfunctional families, denial exerts a powerful force that drives abusive family members to force their version of reality upon others.  By withdrawing love and affection or by instituting punishment for those who do not accept, agree, and comply with the fantasy, it becomes much easier for everyone else in the home to just agree and enable the gaslighting.  Might makes right, and it may be an automatic way of coping for the parent, not a willful choice to be deceptive.

Not only must children of Botkin Syndrome Families forfeit their rights and their wills to their parents, quite often, they must also forfeit their ability to perceive reality.  Truth must become what the parent says that truth is, one of the ways that the religious addiction of the parent affects children.  Can you imagine the tremendous sense of confusion, stress, and anxiety that this creates for a young child?  They grow up believing that they can't even be sure of what they've experienced or what goes on around them.  The become pre-groomed for manipulation and exploitation through bounded choice.  They can effectively "test reality" (the technical term), but they're never permitted to trust it until their perception of reality has been approved by the parent.

I cannot recall if this appears in Hillary McFarland's book, Quivering Daughters, or whether I read it in an early edition of the book publication.  The personal account left a profound impression on me.  As I recall, a young woman wrote to Hillary, explaining how her mother had to be right at all costs.  If a mistake had been made or if something was forgotten by the mother, this daughter was required to falsely admit to the mistake, or there would be chaos and great turmoil in the home.  The daughter may have been punished directly if she didn't claim responsibility for her mother's error, usually something of little importance such as failing to put something away.  Essentially, the daughter had to lie by owning up to an error that she knows that she did not make in order to preserve her mother's sense of well being which was too heavily dependent on performance.  It was not just a rare event but was a very disturbing chronic problem and a duty that this woman learned as a very young girl.

This is gaslighting.

At one point in the Bergman version of the film, the husband character named "Gregory" places his mother's broach in his new wife's handbag, and they leave for an outing of sightseeing.  "Paula," his wife, is the protagonist in the film.  The staff, the personal maids and housekeepers, also note that the wife looks healthy and fine (and she is!), though they note that the husband keeps telling others that she is ill and forgetful (though she is not!).  Note what happens in the next scene after Gregory slips the broach into Paula's purse.  Though Paula has done nothing wrong, her husband reinforces the idea that she is forgetful and is automatically at fault for losing the broach.  He seems very helpful and supportive, but he is actually trying to convince her that she is in error by distorting things and projecting false assessments ("you're tired, you're so forgetful," you lost the broach...").

Eventually, the husband begins to isolate his wife, and he steps up the pressure that he places upon her, continuing to more strongly challenge her ability to perceive what is real and what she has done.  He willfully creates situations that cause Paula to doubt herself, then uses social pressure and embarrassment in front of others to gain her compliance.  "You're far to ill to go to the theater!"  "How did the painting get there?  The maid didn't move it!  You'd better go to your room."  (This reminds me of a tactic that I'm told Scott Brown of the NCFIC uses by saying to people quite flatly and authoritatively, "You are confused," to gain control of conversations when his opinion is challenged.)  Slowly and systematically, Gregory tries to convince his wife that she's insane, his attempt to drive her out of her mind with doubt, anxiety, and direct fear.

The protagonist, Paula, is befriended by Joseph Cotten's character who validates her perceptions, encouraging her to believe in herself.  Without this kind of input, people like Paula often agree with the deception used against them, making such encouragement vital to surviving gaslighting behavior.  Paula begins to trust herself all the more when she observes paranoia in Gregory.  In one scene, he frantically asks Paula, "Why did you open my desk?"  She eventually stands up to Gregory, encouraged by the objective evidence also witnessed by Joseph Cotten's character, giving the film and the behavior its name.  The house is lit throughout by gas light fixtures, and when Gregory goes into the supposedly barricaded attic, Paula sees the flame of the gas fed sconces on the wall begin to flicker and dim.

Check back again in a few days
for more ideas about gaslighting and how to resist it.