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February 1, 2012

Let X = X

One of my friends is very practical. He (or she) bristles whenever somebody says (or, more accurately, repeats that ubiquitous cliché), “It is what it is.”

“Why would you say that? It’s meaningless! It’s a waste of breath! Of course, ‘It is what it is!’ It goes without saying! If you don’t have something meaningful to say, I wish you would keep your *bleep*in’ mouth shut and stop wasting my time!”

And I’m, like, “Uh … yeah, you know, you might have a point.”

For whatever reason, the conversation made my mind wander back to a movie I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As you know, most movies aren’t worth watching; I wouldn’t watch them if I wasn’t getting paid to do so, and even then, I have to wonder if there might be a better way to make a living, but, I guess, your results may vary.

“Gaslight” is a terrific exception. Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1944 for her work here. She plays Paula Alquist, a young woman who is psychologically abused by her husband, Gregory Anton, played by Charles Boyer. Set at the end of the 19th century, it opens with a murder. Then there’s a long gap of time, and when newlyweds Paula and Gregory move into the murder victim’s house, a bunch of curious things happen. Paula asks Gregory about the strange occurrences, and Gregory explains that Paula’s perception is out of whack and that she’s probably losing her mind. The really crazy thing is that sooner or later, she starts to believe it!

In the late 1970s, the term “gaslighting” started to be used to describe the efforts on the part of an abuser to manipulate another person’s sense of reality. Thereafter, the term became a common colloquial expression and continues to be used in clinical and research literature.

According to Wikipedia, it is “a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.”

A Google search gleaned 404,000-plus entries. The Huffington Post picked up an article last September, “A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not ‘Crazy,’” by Yashar Ali, which dealt prominently with the concept of gaslighting and included a brief reference to the Bergman film. Another article, “Are You Being Gaslighted?” — written by Robin Stern, PhD, and published by Psychology Today in 2009 — broke down the stages of the gaslighting process and offered a checklist to help potential victims identify its influence in their lives.

It is a widely recognized principle, but when I found myself talking to several friends about it over the last few months, I was surprised to discover that few of them were familiar with the term or the movie.

Originally a play, “Gas Light” debuted in London in 1939. Renamed “Angel Street,” it became the longest-running melodrama in Broadway history, featuring Vincent Price (in his first role as a villain). There was a British version of the film made in 1940, starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. This, too, was retitled “Angel Street” for American release. Presently, it can be found under both titles depending on the source, but it is well worth seeking out for its much more subtle and menacing presentation.

The film’s resolution is extraordinarily satisfying. Without giving too much away, I’ll point out that the victim makes a dramatic move in the direction of recovering from her husband’s abuse. It’s a clean break, and everything seems to make perfect sense once the perpetrator has been sussed out.

Personally, I wonder if anything is ever that clear. I keep saying, “It is what it is,” in hopes that some day I’ll believe it, but for the time being it seems like it’s at least as likely that it is what it isn’t.

For further consideration: Martin Bashir recently ended one of his programs on MSNBC with an editorial exposing “The Great Republican Hoax.” Here, he dismissed accusations that President Obama is trying to establish a European-style socialist government in the United States and suggested it is actually the GOP that is trying to do what they accuse the president of doing. Look for the clip at crooksandliars.com.