When the sense of reality starts to flicker

A vintage mystery-thriller flick provides a very current term for a form of psychological warfare that seems much in use lately.

Chris Large/FX/AP
David Thewlis (l.) and Andy Yu (r.) star in 'Fargo.'

I might not have noticed this term at all if I hadn’t just had to change a number of lightbulbs around the house. It’s a lighting term – but it signals a way to cast doubt rather than shed light.

And now I see it everywhere: gaslighting.

A usage example from Macmillan explains: “In the simplest of terms, gaslighting is the act of using misinformation and persuasion to make others question what they know to be true, to make them distrust their own memory and instincts, for your own gain.”

Here are two recent appearances of gaslighting on Google News, both in headlines (suggesting the usage needed no explanation): A commentary in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called a politician’s recent visit “One Big Gaslighting Charade” and an entertainment website reported: “Seth Meyers takes a closer look at how the Trump camp is straight-up gaslighting us now.” 

On the TV show “Fargo,” actor David Thewlis plays a man who “cunningly makes a prosperous businessman ... question his own sanity in order to bleed him dry.” An interviewer called this behavior “gaslighting.” Mr. Thewlis agreed: “I like the term ‘gaslighting’ and it comes from classic Hamilton I understand.” 

He’s right. “Gas Light” was a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, later made into three different films (all called “Gaslight”). 

The 1944 version, directed by George Cukor, is generally seen as having brought “gaslighting” into the vernacular. In it, a villainous Charles Boyer woos and wins a young heiress (Ingrid Bergman) to gain access to her aunt’s London townhouse. It contains a secret stash of unimaginably valuable jewels the woman knows nothing of.

As he searches secretly in the attic for the jewels, he launches a campaign to drive his wife mad. He starts small: He hides his watch and pretends she’s taken it. He removes a picture from the wall and claims she’s hidden it. He messes with her mind to get her out of his way.

Amateur word sleuths should note that any term whose roots they seek is almost always older than they think. Gaslighting seems to be an exception to that rule.

Even if we understand where this term came from, though, not everyone agrees on the role of actual gaslight in the story. Earlier this year, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rosemary Erickson Johnsen wrote that most people assume that Boyer’s character “uses gaslight to drive his wife crazy, making it flicker and then telling her she’s imagining things in a deliberate attempt to undermine her sanity.” In fact, the writer argues, “[T]he alterations in the gaslight are one means by which the victim clings to rationality and exerts some agency.”

In a house lit by gas, turning up the flame in one room dims lights elsewhere. Bergman’s character eventually begins to trace her husband’s attic explorations, by the brightening and dimming of the lights. Aided by an earnest detective, she escapes her husband’s trap.

Strictly speaking, the husband did not actually use gaslight in order to gaslight his wife. But in the film, the lambent flames of wall sconces and other lamps throughout the house are a brilliant visual metaphor. They convey the way Bergman’s character feels her sense of reality has begun to flicker.

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