An infuriated friend reported recently that she had been “gaslighted.” Fearing the worst, I asked if she had suffered second- or third-degree burns. But it turns out that gaslighting has nothing to do with actually catching fire.
As I should have deduced, but did not, without having to look it up, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse, in which false information is conveyed in order to make a victim (or others) doubt his or her cognitive ability.
The allusion is to the film Gaslight (based on a play called Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton) that was first produced in 1940 and remade in a more famous version in 1944, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman (and a teenaged Angela Lansbury). Boyer’s character methodically attempts to drive his wife (Bergman) insane, or at least to make others believe she is mad, partly by frequently causing the gas lamps in their Victorian-era house to dim and flicker for no apparent reason.
Such a manipulation of someone’s environment to disorient them is what is known nowadays as gaslighting. It may take the form of denial by an abuser that previous incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser. It has become a colloquial expression that is now used in clinical and research literature.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who for much of his life has been lit (but not by gas, which is an entirely different problem for him), goes, when he is able, with the flow, as follows:
If someone stabbed me in the shower,
Then I guess that I’d be Psychoed.
And if a gecko made me cower,
You could say that I was Geicoed.
If you should burn my favorite sled,
I guess that I’d be Citizen Kaned,
Serve a big dead rat to me in bed?
Well, then I would be Baby Janed.
But the most horrific notion,
The one that really makes me panicked,
Is of drowning in the ocean,
For then (glug, glug) I’d be Titanicked.