Curing Narcissism: understanding gaslighting
Small kids often ask “Why?” in response to everything you tell them. It’s a normal part of development and indicates a healthy curiosity about the world around them. But when my kids were teenagers, they started asking “Why?” all over again.
When I reminded my 14 year old son to brush his teeth before bed, he asked me why he needed to brush his teeth at all. When I disabled my other son’s phone for skipping class his freshman year of high school, he wanted to know why, as if skipping class was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. It seemed to me that their asking me why was now more of a challenge of my authority than an expression of curiosity.
Challenging authority is also a normal part of human development. But most teenagers I’ve known tempered their rebellion with negotiation. They pushed back on some rules and gave in on others. But my kids weren’t negotiating. Instead, they seemed to be using the question, “Why?” to imply that my rules made no sense. Even more than that, they seemed to imply that what I believed to be true about the world wasn’t true at all.
Manipulating a person to doubt their own sense of reality is a subtle form of gaslighting. In more extreme forms, gaslighting can cause a person to doubt their own sanity. The term comes from a 1938 play called “Gas Light.” I haven’t read the play, but I have seen the 1940 British movie adaptation called Gaslight. In the story, Paul has murdered his aunt years before in the house where he now lives with his new wife, Bella. He spends much of his time searching for his dead aunt’s rubies in an upstairs part of the house that’s been hidden from his wife. Each time Paul searches these rooms, he turns on the upstairs light fixtures, which causes the gas lights downstairs to dim.
Bella asks Paul why the lights are dimming, and rather than offer her a lie or an excuse, he denies that the lights are dimming at all. He tells her she’s imagining it.
We learn that before the story even begins, Bella has already had a nervous breakdown and it’s soon apparent why. Paul is systematically destabilizing her. He vacillates between praise and criticism, giving her just enough affection to give her some hope in the relationship, but withholding affection when she’s upset and confused. He mocks her appearance in front of the servants, then tells her how beautiful she is. He hides things, then accuses her of moving them.
At one point in the movie, Paul makes an important statement: “My only anxiety has been to get you well.” It’s an incredibly subtle but powerful act of semantic sabotage. He declares a love and concern that contains an assumption of her insanity. This is key. When he tells her directly that she’s imagining things or “losing her wits,” Bella argues and denies. At the very least, she tries to convince him that she’s “getting better.” But here, Paul couches the assumption of her insanity in a statement about his own love for her. There’s no way for her to argue with that, and she doesn’t. In fact, it’s at this point that she buys in to the deception: “I’ll never be well until I get away from this house.”
There have been many fictional examples of gaslighting. In an episode of the mystery series Monk, a group of people staying at a winery lodge employ similar techniques of gaslighting. Monk meets a man named Larry at the winery who is later murdered. When Monk asks around for Larry the next day, rather than simply lie about not knowing his whereabouts, the group denies that the man ever existed. Some of them express concern that Monk is imagining things. In a way, my kids were doing something less extreme but similar: suggesting that I was only imagining that brushing your teeth or attending class were valid, reasonable expectations. They were suggesting that I was crazy for trying to impose such odd, arbitrary rules on them.
Both Paul and the group of people at the winery were very calculating and conscious in their manipulation, but I believe gaslighting can also be done on an unconscious level. It’s unlikely my teenage sons were consciously trying to manipulate me or drive me crazy. It’s more likely that they grew up witnessing my own parents (who lived just down the road from us) gaslighting and undermining me, questioning my behaviors and beliefs and then manipulating me into questioning them, myself. When a child sees relationship dynamics in action often enough, it’s not a huge stretch for the child to try them out, too.
Both my parents challenged my parenting right in front of my kids. My father did it by attempting to superimpose his own punishments on my kids. That created an odd kind of situation where he both alienated his grandsons and undermined my parental authority. My mother’s tactic was completely different; she’d offer my kids privileges they weren’t allowed at home, especially regarding food. In doing this she’d contradict my views on health and diet, views my kids knew and heard me explain to my parents. What’s important is that my kids saw that my authority could be undermined. Whether conscious or not, they had witnessed a successful tactic to destabilize me and get me “off their back.” As they got older, they found they could also challenge my authority, just by questioning “Why?” and putting me on the defensive, provoked into explaining myself.
My kids were suggesting that my belief they should brush their teeth was, on some level, crazy. Rather than just asserting my authority as a parent, my normal response was being passively defensive — always having to explain myself. I’ve explained that my views on teeth brushing weren’t crazy many times, but in even my first agreement to make this explanation, I had already lost the battle.