Gaslighting: It’s not Just for Breakfast Anymore!

(Disclaimer:  I am not a mental health professional.  The statements in this blog post are based on personal observation/experience, as well as media for the general public.)

Have you ever known someone who caused you to question your perception of everything and dragged you down to the point where you allowed that person to control your life?

A lot of people have suffered that misfortune.  Please judge only the manipulators and not the people who have been manipulated.

Sadly, that second paragraph is difficult to interpret because some people who have been dragged down begin supporting their tormentors by becoming abusers themselves.

In 1976, I was in a high school health class in which two members of Synanon were invited to speak to the class about addiction.  We didn’t hear much about addiction, though.  One of the men addressed the class, while the other sat behind him and, the way I remember it, didn’t say a single word.  The more aggressive person bragged about how tough Synanon was on people, and suggested you just don’t mess with that program.  He spoke in grandiose terms about shaving the heads of members who trusted their own instincts over Synanon’s dogma.

This type of manipulation is called gaslighting, after the mental abuse depicted in the 1944 movie Gaslight.  Often, gaslighting is more subtle than the description the class heard from the Synanon speaker, though.  Physical coercion may not even be necessary to carry out the deed.  Listen to the Charles Boyer character ask his wife, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), if she’s imaging things, and you get it immediately. He’s not asking her anything. He’s telling her.

The man who wouldn’t shut up in class about the tough guy crap implied he was in charge of everything at Synanon.  In retrospect, we have to wonder how Synanon’s maniacal founder, Charles Dederich, would have reacted to that.  The fact that the other guy who visited our class kept a low profile was not surprising.  A gaslighting environment has at least one person with unreasonable power, and there’s also likely to be at least one frightened puppy who never makes a sound.  Other participants can fall on any point of the spectrum.

A little more than two years after the Synanon speaker turmoil at my school, a personal injury lawyer who had secured a large judgment against Synanon — in a suit filed on behalf of a woman who was tortured in one of Synanon’s facilities — was bitten by a rattlesnake that was placed in his mailbox.  He survived, and two Synanon members (serving in a division called the Imperial Marines) were held accountable and spent time in prison.

(Note:  I don’t recall the names of the men who visited my high school, and the numerical odds are against either of them personally being involved in that crime.)

Anyone who is familiar with cults should find that story unsurprising.  Gaslighting, whether subtle or overt, is part of the cycle which distributes corrupt power.  A person who challenges the cycle may be at risk.

Although cults are prime environments for gaslighting, the same thing can happen in any relationship.  Personally, I’m aware of some examples that are horrifying, and I can’t mention them here because of the liability risk.

When I have a chance, I’m going to read a book by Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. titled Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free.  Please click the link to an article the author wrote for Psychology Today’s website last year.

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