The term ‘Gaslighting’ Comes From a 1944 Best Picture Nominee, And I Can See Why

It’s been somewhat of an every-few-years tradition of mine to listen to War of the Worlds on Halloween night, ever since I stumbled upon it on the radio when I came back from an eighth-grade party where I kissed a girl for the first time. BTW, the mass hysteria we all have been retroactively led to believe happened that night, didn’t actually take place. The original broadcast of War of the Worlds, I mean. Not me kissing a girl. Although it was a phenomenon rarely duplicated in the next few years.  The War of the Worlds “hysteria” is a fascinating story, but you know how to use the Internet and I’m not wasting space here. Instead, for the first time, I watched a nominee for the 1944 Best Picture Oscar (based on a 1938 British play and remake of a 1940 British movie) that is probably better known for creating a key piece of the Addiction/Recovery/Betrayal Trauma lexicon: Gaslight.

Starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, it’s quite a far-fetched story, even for early cinema standards, and I’m not talking about the actual gaslighting that takes place. Any plot that involves assuming another person’s identity and jewel thieves automatically goes into the “ya, sure, whatever” category for me. That must be why I don’t like Nicholas Cage films.

The psychological part of the movie, however, is very well done, and it is indeed the place that we get the term “gaslighting” from. Boyer hatches a plan to make his wife, Bergman, think she’s going crazy, hoping it eventually results in eventual financial gain. He does this slowly by setting her up to believe she’s a kleptomaniac when in fact, he’s taking things and planting them on her. For good measure, he also deliberately dims the gas in the lights in their house. He insists he never touches them and claims they are always the same brightness, yet they get darker, night-by-night, contributing to Bergman’s self-doubt and belief she is losing her mind. Finally, Boyer flirts with the maid (played by Angela Lansbury, about 300 years before Murder She Wrote) in front of Bergman. Lansbury develops a bit of a disdain for Bergman because she reciprocates the flirting, but when Bergman brings it up to her husband, he again tells her that it’s all in her head.

You’ve had 75 years to see the movie, so I’m going to slightly ruin it. In the end, the husband is tied to a chair by police and Bergman’s learned about his deception…however, he can’t stop. When the police briefly leave the scene, Boyer tells Bergman to untie him so they can escape and be free together. She comes to her senses and lets the police take him away.

While it’s the Hollywood ending the viewer wants and can somewhat see coming a mile away, real life often doesn’t end like that and the gaslighting takes place over may years, not months. It’s not just pornography or sex addiction either. If there’s an addict in your life, there’s a gaslighter in your life.

I heard of cases much more worse than me when I was in rehab and recovery, but I think that’s because I had my hand involved in so many different things I didn’t have to convince any single person of anything too ridiculous. I didn’t spend enough time with any one person for them to get too close to my addictions.

My wife – just like with every couple that has a male addict – was the biggest victim of my gaslighting. Most of the time, it was convincing her that I wasn’t nearly as drunk as I was and fully capable of driving.

Occasionally, she would say things like, “I guess you don’t like us anymore” or “Nobody has to work that much.” I didn’t like anybody, especially myself, at that point, which is why I wanted to be alone. And she was right about how much I worked, but it was the only place I felt like I was in control of my life until the end. I always convinced her she was wrong and acted offended she’d even bring up such things. I even surprised myself  how often I was successful. The last person to say “sorry” loses and I was never the last person. Like I said, not the worst gaslighting stories, but I certainly knew the drill.

Manipulating someone into believing they’re the crazy one, to the point it becomes second nature: Yep, that’s gaslighting and now you know where the term came from.

While none of the Q&As I sometimes post on the site are in the Top 10 most popular you can find on the right side, the one that I wrote a while back about gaslighting is by far the most popular and talks more about the nuts-and-bolts of what it is. If you’d like to take a look at it, click HERE.

Why Seek Conflict when Recovery is Going So Well?

Revolutionaries change the world. For better or worse, they leave their impact on the political, physical, cultural and/or social environment in ways they may not have even intended. They can be evil like Hitler, gifted like Shakespeare or unknown – like whoever started that goofy dance all the kids are doing where they swing their arms in front of them and behind them while swaying their hips. That said, I know being a revolutionary is absolutely counterproductive to my recovery.

For the first 30 years of my life, I told myself that I was put on Earth to have some kind of long-lasting impact that would be felt by everyone far and wide. By my mid-30s, that level of narcissism had settled as I decided I only needed to be known by everyone in a 25-mile radius around me.

The ironic thing is, I achieved it. Whether it was through my successful regional magazine, a film festival I co-founded or because of serving in local political office, I reached my goal of having just about everybody around me know who I was, and I loved nothing more than when someone came up to me to tell me what a good job I was doing.

I loved it even more though when somebody would come up to me and start an argument. I was the kind of person who, whether you did it to my face, in social media, or the local newspaper, I would dig in my heels and fight you word-for-word until I won whatever battle I thought I was fighting.

I thought I was a revolutionary. Whether it was introducing new ideas to the community in my magazine, discovering new filmmakers or creating city policy, I felt like it was my place to change the world and if that came with conflict, bring it on. I was going to win…or at least convince myself I had.

Today, instead of fashioning myself some sort of regional revolutionary, I actually avoid as much unnecessary conflict as possible. I haven’t had social media for about five years, first as a condition of bail and then probation and I don’t anticipate myself ever going back. I need neither the attention a picture on Instagram will get me, nor the long thread of responses as I argue some political or social point with my “friends.”

I’ve learned that when it comes to this kind of conflict, there is very little that I’m going to be able to do, either about someone’s opinion, or about whatever it is we’re arguing about. I completely understand why there is such support for Donald Trump, and I completely understand why there is such contempt, but I’m not going to get into a discussion about either. Whatever happens with Donald Trump, my opinion has no effect on his decisions and changing someone else’s opinion these days is just about impossible, no matter what facts or statistics you bring to the table, so why bother?

I’ve also become the same way with television and movies. Why do I want to get emotionally involved in something that is going to upset me, whether there’s a positive resolution or not? The other day, I happened upon the reboot of Wife Swap and it didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that it was just about setting the audience up to root for one set of parents over the other, depending on what your beliefs and background are. I don’t want to get upset watching what I think is bad parenting. I don’t want to get upset watching people fail at running restaurants, bars or whatever the premise may be. I also watch far less sports than I once did.

It’s not just “reality” TV. I’ve almost completely turned away from dramatic TV shows and movies. I don’t want to see criminals be put in jail, nor get away with it, even if I know they’re just actors. I don’t want to see people lose loved ones or relationships not work out, even if it’s fake. Unless I’ve seen the movie and TV, so it’s lost its emotional punch, I avoid programming that features conflict as entertainment.

Perhaps this means that I’m running from the world’s problems and great art. At this point in my life, with my recovery going so well for so long, I’m OK with that accusation. Regardless of my opinion about the death penalty or abortion, I’m not going to be marching for or against it. That kind of energy, on either side, isn’t going to help me keep things on an even level. I’d rather see an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond or The Office that I’ve seen 10 times and leaves me feeling amused – or at worse, not feeling anything at all.

I think that I used alcohol and porn to let me escape my need of being a revolutionary, if only momentarily. I used them to bring me down from the emotions I caused – and needed — while creating conflict. When those needs disappear, it’s a lot easier to handle recovery.

An Addict’s Mind & Nostalgia

I’m torn about nostalgia. I think every addict has to be.

This morning, I happened upon the movie Trainspotting 2, the sequel to the 1996 film based on Irvine Welsh’s novel. T2 came out earlier this year, so there was roughly 20 years between the movies.

I loved the first film. It was one of those movies that helped me define who I was. It came out when I was 20 and ready to take on the world.

My mindset in 1996 wasn’t that I HOPED to make something WORTHWHILE out of myself. It was that I HAD to make something AMAZING out of myself. I wasn’t going to go the route of my friends who either went to college, joined the military or went straight into the workforce. By 20, I had already quit college twice and had a job in journalism most needed a graduate degree to get. The plan seemed to be working.

I saw it in the theater a few times. I remember seeing it in Boston in early autumn 1996 with a group of my brother’s friends. Despite almost all being freshman scattered throughout the northeast, they were still processing the death of a close friend and this mini-reunion a couple of months into the start of their college experience was part of it.

We all went on a Saturday afternoon. I thought they were would love the independent spirit and brash filmmaking style. While the movie centers around the heroin addiction of its four main characters, Trainspotting was really about slapping the world in the face and doing things by your own rules.

When we left the theater, most of our group in shock. The movie was an assault on their senses and they didn’t see beyond the surface message of heroin will not lead to anything positive. I was shocked by their response, but over the next year or two, I came to understand the identical script we all followed for the first 18 years of our lives was about diverge into a million different stories. Until Facebook came along a decade later, it was the last contact I had with most of these people.

I knew a sequel to Trainspotting had been made, but it did so poorly at the US box office that it never made it to Maine and I just have never got into watching movies on Netflix. The only time I ever watch a movie now is in the morning after I bring my son to school and before I start working. This morning, I was flipping around and Starz was just about to begin the film.

I briefly thought about not watching it. Since I’ve been in recovery and simply matured, I find many of the movies of the early-to-mid 1990s that influenced me no longer hold me captive the way they once did. The films I loved Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, The Usual Suspects and yes, Trainspotting almost always mixed crime with addictive behavior. I think part of the adrenaline that turned me onto those movies back then was the adrenaline that helped stoke my addictions.

Even tamer films like Dazed and Confused feel somehow wrong to watch. The person I once was, who is still a ghost inside of me, remembers making them into more than movies. They all played into my belief I could conquer the world with my own rules. Consequences and repercussions be damned, I was special.

Well, fast-forward 20 years and as it turned out I learned you can’t ignore consequences and repercussions and the only thing trying to make myself appear special did was cause a lot more attention when my inevitable fall happened. Those kids who left the theater with me two decades earlier hadn’t lived nearly as fast or crashed anywhere near as hard. I thought that made them lame back then. Now it’s clear they were just far healthier.

I don’t often read reviews of movies and when I do, it’s only after I see them. I don’t want to be prejudiced going into it, but like reading other people’s takes. After watching T2, and living the life I have, it was fascinating to read the reviews because so few people truly understood what happens to addicts – regardless of their substance or behavior – over 20 years, but the movie nails it.

I won’t provide spoilers, other to say I don’t think it found a big audience because I think you had to be a wild child of 18-25 when the movie came out, lived a life of poor choices and regret, and are now somewhere in your 40s, struggling to just make a go of it. Critics complained the youthful exuberance of the first film was replaced by a melancholy resignation.

The movie uses a few clips from the first film, but largely as points by which to jump into the theme that even nostalgia can’t fix the past. The reckless mission-filled energy is recalled for what it actually was: An aimless escape of real life. Had the characters just learned to cope with real life on its terms back then, they wouldn’t be struggling so hard to do it two decades later.

I loved Trainspotting in 1996, but I can barely watch it because I remember who I was when I fell in love with it. Today, I don’t know if I fell in love with T2, but I appreciate the fact a film was made that didn’t keep its characters in their 20-something mindsets, as many critics would have preferred, but allowed them to age and come to the conclusions we all must arrive at.

We talk about our lives in the past tense and we usually recycle it for more than it was worth at the time. That’s nostalgia. When we recycle it for the lessons it can teach, it’s far more valuable. Sometimes it’s just hard to know the difference.