How a heartbreaking film by Ingrid Bergman inspired the psychology buzzword

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 thriller “Gaslight” (MGM/Kobal/Shutterstock)

You’re not freaking out,” a detective tells Ingrid Bergman’s Paula in the climaxes of the 1944 film Gas light. “You are slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.” Seventy-eight years later, the term “gaslighting” was first used in a High Court ruling, after a woman’s abusive partner gradually convinced her that she had bipolar disorder.

Now, Merriam Webster has chosen it as the word of the year for 2022.

The term refers to a very specific and insidious type of abuse, the kind where a person is deliberately manipulated into questioning their sanity. The thriller, which won Bergman the Academy Award for Best Actress, was adapted from a 1938 play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, an English novelist and playwright who also wrote the source material for Alfred Hitchcock’s film. Rope. Strangely, the “gaslight” of the title was not the method of manipulation, but a vital clue to its discovery.

Bergman plays Paula, a young woman whose new husband Gregory (French-American actor Charles Boyer) starts a campaign of abuse against her. He gives her wife a precious brooch, only to make her think she has lost it. He starts removing more items from all over her house and accusing her of hiding them. “I hope you’re not imagining things again,” she says with feigned concern, using her presumably troubled mind as an excuse to keep her from seeing visitors or leaving the house. He openly flirts with the waitress (Angela Lansbury in her film debut) and turns her against his wife. As Paula grows increasingly distressed, he twists this against her as well: “Paula you stupid child”; “Paula, stop being hysterical”; “Please control yourself” – until even she is convinced she is losing her mind.

Just as Paula reaches her breaking point, a detective arrives to convince her otherwise. Her husband is – spoiler alert – the man who killed his aunt years ago in search of her precious jewels, and is now trying to kick Paula out of the house and take her to an asylum so he can continue the search for the gems. her. The gas lights that go down every time she leaves the house for work? He actually went to the attic to look for the jewels, and when he turns on the lights there, the rest of the power in the house dims.

When Gregory is arrested, he tries to get Paula to help him escape. He plays it at his own game. “If you weren’t angry, I could have helped you,” she says with pleasure. Thanks to Gas lightthis brutal form of emotional and psychological abuse has been given a name, but has only recently entered the common parlance. The New York Times he first used the term in 1995, but it was barely used again for the next 20 years. Some believe it was Donald Trump who helped propel him into the mainstream, with his tendency to make inflammatory statements and then deny ever having said them — a habit the media has begun to describe, controversially, as “gaslighting.” In 2016, the American Dialect Society named it the new “most useful” word of the year.

Gas light it’s not the only film to show the horrors of this kind of mind manipulation Hush… Hush, sweet Charlotte (1964), Rosemary’s baby (1968) and Sleeping with the enemy (1991) all depicting various types of gas lighting. Most recently, 2016’s The girl on the train starred Emily Blunt as a woman whose abusive ex-husband plants false memories in her head when she’s drunk; 2018 is brilliant, it causes panic Insane he saw Claire Foy being tricked into committing herself to a psychiatric hospital; and in the Netflix drama series IncredibleKaitlyn Dever’s college student actually got hit with the entire criminal justice system after she was raped.

It might be hard to confirm with real-life statistics, but at least in popular culture, gaslighting is overwhelmingly something men do to women. The blockbuster horror of 2020 The invisible man, meanwhile, was about a woman who runs away from her abusive partner only to be haunted by his invisible presence — if that sounds ridiculous, it does it to her at first, but it turns out she’s wearing an invisible leotard after faking her own death . Elisabeth Moss said The independent that the film was a “giant analogy” for gaslighting. “The invisible man could be your ex-boyfriend, ex-friend, ex-boss, whatever it is you feel is haunted in any kind of cycle of abuse,” Moss explained. “That was the story that we were trying to tell, as we were the Trojan horse in this horror thing.”

Aldis Hodge, Elisabeth Moss and Sam Smith in 'The Invisible Man' (Mark Rogers/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Aldis Hodge, Elisabeth Moss and Sam Smith in “The Invisible Man” (Mark Rogers/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

These days, the term “gaslighting” is so well known that the whiff of a backlash is already emerging. SNL parodied it earlier this year, recreating the 1940s film but taking it to ridiculous extremes: Cast member Kate McKinnon is told that a pineapple is a steak and a book is a mouse. And an article in The New York Times he suggested that, overused, the word had lost its meaning. “Gaslighting,” Jessica Bennett said in the piece, is meant to refer to a pattern of behavior, not an individual instance of it — and it’s not synonymous with simply lying, either. You quoted psychologist Nick Haslam, who spoke of a phenomenon known as “trauma creep” – “when the language of the clinician, or at least the clinician-adjacent, is used to refer to an ever-widening set of everyday experiences”.

However, when used correctly, “gaslighting” can be a useful, even life-saving term. Take the recent High Court case in the UK Family Courts: Ruling that a man had indeed raped and abused his wife, as well as convincing her he was bipolar, a judge used the word “gaslighting” in his written statement – the first time the word has been used in a document published by the High Court. Talking with The independentCharlotte Proudman, a prominent human rights lawyer who led the case, said she had used the word in previous cases, but that the judge either didn’t understand the term or didn’t think it was correct legal terminology. She said this new ruling gives the word “legitimacy and credibility,” adding that abusers have long warped victims’ “reality,” but that there was no legal term for it.

Elisabeth Moss explained that a number of women wrote to her afterwards The invisible man to tell how connected they were to the story. “I wish friends I didn’t know had an experience like this would tell me it was cathartic to watch,” she says. “That history of abuse is not something that has come up in the last five years. It’s not a bandwagon anyone can jump on, it’s a story as old as time.”

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