‘Gaslight’ is back in the Trump era, but where does it come from?
What do the people of America have in common with the late, great Hollywood movie star Ingrid Bergman?
We know how it feels to be gaslit.
“Gaslighting” — in which a narcissistic personality insists so strenuously on a false version of events that people in his or her life start doubting reality — has become a full-fledged sociopolitical meme over the past four weeks. It is what our new president tries to do when he repeats claims that his inauguration was the most well-attended ever or that there was massive voter fraud perpetrated by illegal immigrants; it is what his spokespeople engage in when they substantiate those claims with what they refer to as “alternative facts.”
Say it enough times, with enough conviction, and you bamboozle people into thinking they’re the ones going crazy: That’s gaslighting.
It’s the journey of this one term from its source — the 1944 Hollywood classic “Gaslight” — to broad everyday use that interests me here. With Lauren Duca’s December 10 op-ed in Teen Vogue, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” the word went nuclear. Google Trends reported a spike in searches on “gaslighting” after that article and then an enormous surge in the wake of last week’s post-inauguration claims, as a host of print and TV news media outlets picked up on the phrase.
It might seem odd that the meme is getting a springboard into general usage from a magazine aimed at young women, but it’s not. (What’s actually odd — and maybe a little shameful — is that Teen Vogue seems to have more spine in covering the new administration than a lot of more “respectable” outlets.) For some time now, “gaslighting” has been the word of choice for young women describing how ex-boyfriends have tried to mess with their heads. If you have daughters in high school or college, you’ve probably heard it around the dinner table; the rise of social media especially has created a sort of jungle-drum communications pipeline in which women can compare notes, take strength, and —perhaps most important — get a reality check.
I liked the woman who tweeted that an ex-boyfriend texted her “What does ‘gaslighting’ mean? Two girls have told me I do it and I figured you’d know.”
How many of those women have seen the movie from which the phrase comes? In truth, a fair amount; the notion of “gaslighting” has become so prevalent in describing perfidious mind-gaming husbands and boyfriends that, based on social media mentions, a lot of people are tracing it back to its source.
Or sources. Before there was a Hollywood movie, there was a 1940 British film called “Gaslight,” and before that, there was “Gas Light” the play, written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton and first staged in London in 1938. Set in the 1880s — the gaslight era — it’s a thriller in which a meek wife is slowly convinced she’s going insane by a manipulative husband intent on getting her out of the way so he can find a secret cache of jewels. Retitled “Angel Street,” the play came to Broadway in 1941 with a young Vincent Price playing the husband.
The 1940 film version is available on Amazon, and it has its pleasures (most notably an enjoyably hammy performance by Anton Walbrook as the villain), but it’s the 1944 MGM version, directed by George Cukor and starring a radiant young Bergman, that you want to see. Cukor was known as Hollywood’s premiere “women’s director” — among other things, that meant he was gay — and his “Gaslight” is at times stunningly attuned to the emotions coursing through the naïve, psychologically abused young Paula Alquist. Bergman won a best actress Oscar for her performance.
Are those real noises Paula hears in the attic and are the gas lamps really dimming mysteriously? Or is it all in her head, as her husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), insists? His tools are many: the seductiveness of logic, the short leash of his temper, the shame of public humiliation. He plants suggestions and steers conversations so that Paula appears to come up with his ideas; he charmingly denies things that she and we know to be true.
He even enlists a tarty young housemaid — a phenomenal Angela Lansbury, 18 years old and Oscar-nominated for her first film role — to cow Paula into further compliance. Before a nice young Scotland Yard inspector (Joseph Cotten) saves the day, “Gaslight” is practically a clinical case study in how sociopathic personalities can psychologically manipulate people in their lives.
In fact, the medical community came to use the film and its title as a way to describe a genuine psychological dynamic. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of “gaslighting” in psychiatric literature to a 1969 mention in the book “Changing Perspectives in Mental Illness,” and by the 1980s the term was established enough to feature in the titles of individual papers.
From there to the daily phrasebook of young women, and from there to a news media and a public trying to grapple with a chief executive who, as writer Ben Yagoda puts it in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “How Old is ‘Gaslighting’?”, has “a tendency to say ‘X,’ and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, ‘I did not say “X.” In fact, I would never dream of saying “X.”’”
If that sounds a little Orwellian, it is: The Trump administration spent its first week trying to gaslight America with NewSpeak. It’s no coincidence that people are freshly talking about a 73-year-old movie or that George Orwell’s “1984” has shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. When they give you fictions and call them facts, sometimes you have to get the facts from fiction.