Before it was a verb, “gaslight” was a noun. A lamp. Then there was a play, Angel Street, in 1938, and then a film, Gaslight, in 1940, and then a second film in 1944 featuring an iconic, disheveled, unwinding performance from Ingrid Bergman.
A woman’s sanity is undercut by her conniving husband, who misplaces objects in an attempt to send her to an asylum. Ultimately, her husband’s plan is revealed: He had murdered her aunt when his wife was a child and had forced their whirlwind romance years later in order to return to the house so he could locate some missing jewels. Nightly, he ventures into their attic, unbeknownst to her, to search for them. The eponymous gaslights are one of the many reasons the heroine believes herself to be truly going mad — they dim as if the gas has been turned on elsewhere in the house, even when no one has seemingly done so.
Bergman’s Paula is in a terrible, double-edged tumble: As she becomes convinced that she is forgetful, fragile, then mad, her instability increases. Psychological violence unmakes everything she is: She is radiant, then hysterical, then utterly haunted, and by the end is a mere husk, floating around her opulent London residence like a specter.
Years later, the noun was verbed. “Gaslight” had a new definition: a form of psychological abuse in which the perpetrator causes the victim to doubt their own sanity. It was, for a while, a niche expression, one you’d probably only know if you were familiar with the lexicon surrounding domestic violence. This was how I learned it. I realized something I experienced had a name.
But for Paula, it was a literal terror: The gaslights twitched and told her that her perception could not be trusted.
In the past year, we’ve seen the unique pains of women’s lives paraded on a national stage, countless humiliations and traumas blown up to a massive scale and reproduced ad nauseam. We didn’t even have time to come to terms with the hostile, horrific misogyny of the election cycle before we found ourselves drowning under a flood of sexual harassment reveals from every conceivable industry — a toxic, surging backlog of shame and rage and loss — while being churned by the current of a punishing news cycle.
This was the worst part: Instead of the hypervisibility of our suffering and experiences being useful in any way — “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” etc. — it only created new avenues of denial. We were no longer just being gaslit by boyfriends, husbands, bosses — the status quo — but politicians, our country, our culture. They didn’t have to acknowledge it before, not really, but in a world of phone cameras and hot mics and general boldness, they now get to stare at a video of something terrible happening and turn to us and tell us it’s not happening, or it’s happening but we’re thinking about it all wrong. (The terrifying, liquid switch from “Donald Trump doesn’t commit sexual assault” to “Ah, well, it’s all just locker-room talk” still makes my stomach churn from vertigo.) Or how the very worst violence that can be committed against our bodies is, somehow, earned. A casualty of having a female body. Or that due process is important for those accused of sexual violence, but not for the women against whom that violence was committed. Of course men have trouble understanding the vast and insidious nature of this problem — of course they’re surprised! We can barely get them to acknowledge systemic male privilege and entitlement, the spring feeding the pond. The ultimate gaslight. No wonder we can feel reality bending underneath our feet.
Lauren Duca’s “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America” rang sharply in the month after the election, as a traumatized electorate tried to come to terms with a new reality. Rereading it now, a year after its publication, is stressful and frustrating. A year in, and things are such an extreme magnitude worse than when Duca wrote it, which felt impossible a year ago. And yet, here we are: staring down an endless succession of agonies that show no sign of abating.
The weirdest part about Gaslight is that even though Gregory has a relatively comprehensible motivation behind his actions — a desire to search for the aunt’s jewels unimpeded by Paula’s presence — there is an unmistakable air of enjoyment behind his machinations. You can watch the micro-expressions flit across his face as he improvises, torments, schemes. He enjoys it, and it serves him, and he is twice satisfied. He doesn’t lock Paula in her room or in the house. He doesn’t have to. He turns her mind into a prison.
What does it mean that a major news network has to release an ad reminding us that words mean things? What does it mean that the media continues to fail women in increasingly elaborate and inexplicable ways? What does it mean that it has taken this long to talk about systemic harassment? What does it mean that certain high-profile men have lost their jobs over their history of committing sexual violence, but our president, who has literally confessed to it on video, continues to slip out of everyone’s grasp? What does it mean that women with nonfamous rapists feel like they don’t have the same justice available to them as women who do? What does it mean that personal safety and bodily autonomy is, though it shouldn’t be, a finite resource, meted out unevenly? What are we supposed to do with all this anguish, all this grief, all this pain? If harnessed, it could power a city — a hundred thousand cities. Instead, the lights flicker, and flicker, and flicker.
In Gaslight, it is an inspector from Scotland Yard who tracks a hunch and ultimately serves as the stabilizing influence, permitting an end to Paula’s imprisonment when he presents her with the evidence that she is perfectly sane, and then arrests her husband for murder. But in the final beats of the film, Paula’s fragility sharpens to a point — her final monologue is triumphant. If only she weren’t so mad, she sarcastically opines, dangling the knife that could free her husband in front of him before casually tossing it away. If only she weren’t always losing things. It feels powerful in the moment — an outpouring of righteous fury, long stoppered.
Not shown, but reasonable in its assumptions: Years later, the trauma continues to surface and strangle her. She trembles when certain music is played. She sees a certain man in the square and bends over, hyperventilating. She winces when someone adjusts the lights. She tells the story of her terrible husband to a male acquaintance, and he begins to work holes in her story. Not because he doesn’t believe her, exactly. It just all seems so unbelievable.
There is no better word to encapsulate this past year. “Gaslight” encompasses every facet of our experience: evidence of the problem, symptom of our suffering…and, maybe, the seeds of its undoing. The fact that naming it — acknowledging its presence and its power — might be able to carry us through to the reality at the other side. If we’re lucky. If we’re not demoralized beyond repair. If we don’t return to the same patterns that have defined the entirety of human history.
I have typed out a half-dozen hopeful endings for this essay; calls to action, metaphors laden with triumph. I suggested that we kick a pipe at its joint and light a goddamned match. I returned to Paula’s final monologue: Maybe our strength is in what is done to us, I wrote, realizing it was wrong even as I finished the sentence.
The truth is, exploding the house takes all of us out. What is done to us often kills us, or leaves us breathing but not much else. If the inspector hadn’t shown up, Paula’s story would have played out until its natural end, and no one would have been the wiser. What do we do if no one comes for us?