Are You Gaslighting Me?


By 1994, when Victor Santor published his creepily serious book, Gaslighting: How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy, the term had come to mean “a form of intimidation or psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory and perception.” Most Americans will associate this with the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman & Joseph Cotton, which was a remake of a 1940 UK film of that name [later released in the States as The Murder in Thornton Square], based on the 1939 West End play Gas Light, which opened on Broadway in 1941 as Angel Street, starring Vincent Price in his debut role as a Baddie, where it ran for a record-setting 1,293 performances. In a real-life attempt to gaslight American movie-goers [“British version? There was never a British version.”], MGM arranged to have the negative & all the prints of Thorold Dickinson’s 1940 film destroyed [but he surreptitiously made a print for himself and squirreled it away].

In all the versions, our heroine notices that the gaslights on the lower floor of the house intermittently go dim [indicating that someone has lit up a gaslight in the attic]; but the complicit housemaid [Angela Lansbury in the MGM flick] denies that anyone is upstairs and she denies that she notices the downstairs lights dimming, at all. It’s another case of, “Who ya gonna believe? Me, or your lyin’ eyes?”

Apparently, humans can’t resist this form of Poetic deception, often rationalizing it as “just a bit of fun.” According to my Dad, each Junior Officer, upon arrival at his first Pacific port of call, was gaslighted in the Officers’ Club, thusly. The Newbie would spy his first gecko, peering down at him from one of the corners of the room, point to it and say, “Oh, look! A lizard!” As one, the Old Hands would turn variously to every other corner of the room and say, soothingly, “Yes. I see it. Of course I do.” “No! Really! Over here!” the Newbie would insist; at which the Old Hands would all switch their gazes to another [gecko-free] corner and reiterate, “A lizard. Yes.” Of course, the wheeze would only work if there was only one gecko in the room. A log was kept, of how long it took for “the penny to drop.” And don’t you just know, the ex-Newbie was the most enthusiastic gaslighter, when the next Junior Officer arrived.

Why do we humans feel the urge to deceive? Probably, for the usual reason we resort to Poetic communication: because we reckon that the truth will get us in trouble. The Baddie in Gaslight fears his wife will dime him out as the murderer, so he seeks to turn her into an unreliable witness. The Old Hands seek to assuage the humiliation of their own Newbie cluelessness, so they ritually pass on the pain to the new Newbies. This is especially likely to happen if there is the perception of scarce resources [such as available females, or supplies, or even space] in the area, into which the Newbie has unwittingly intruded.

Turns out, we’re not the only creatures who engage in intra-species deception, as Jakob Bro-Jorgensen reports in his recent article, “Male Topi Antelopes Alarm Snort Deceptively to Retain Females for Mating.” [First of all, that title is far too high-concept to get green-lighted as an MGM film. I’m thinking, Don’t Be That Schmized Gazelle!] Quoting here, “male antelopes snort and look intently ahead if an ovulating female begins to stray from their territory [which] suggests to the female that there is danger ahead…[such as] lions, cheetahs, leopards [or] humans…the snort and intent look were a false call…and there was no danger nearby.” The article asserts, “This type of intentional deception of a sexual partner has not been documented before in animals. Previous studies have shown that animals do deceive each other but mainly in hostile situations or to protect themselves.” Bro-Jorgesen ponders “why females keep responding to alarms at all”; and concludes that “females are better off erring on the side of caution, because failing to react to a true alarm could easily mean death in a place…full of predators.”

So, here’s my suggestion, whatever your species happens to be. If you begin to suspect that you are being gaslighted, ask yourself, “How might the [would-be] gaslighter benefit from the deception? What’s up his [or her, let’s not forget Angela Lansbury’s shenanigans] nose, anyway?” If you come up clueless, you always have the option of reading the power subtext back to the other party: “Are you gaslighting me?”

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, semiotics, understanding shenanigans

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