Gaslighting In The Victorian And Modern Eras

There is a woman crying in my dining room. Her almost-musical wailing carries softly through the house. I’m used to this sound; it’s the second time this week. So, I know not to check on her, interrupt her cries, even as I hear a man’s voice begin to shout at her. The crying stops.

The scene is over.

My husband is a theater director and, sometimes, he rehearses in our house. We aren’t a formal family so the dining room, located at the front of the house, is used for rehearsals more often than dinners. I’ve gotten used to odd voices coming from that room.

This one hurts.

The play is “Angel Street,” more commonly known as “Gaslight.” It’s a play by Patrick Hamilton, written in 1938, which was made into a movie starring Ingrid Bergman in 1940. I’ve seen the movie and loved it, but hearing it in my house was a completely different experience.

The (oversimplified) premise of “Gaslight” revolves around a Victorian woman who is slowly being driven mad by her husband so he can search through their attic at night for rubies he had tried to steal from the house’s previous owner. Every evening, he leaves her alone with two servants and sneaks back into the house to rummage around the attic. When he goes up there, he turns on the gas lamps in the attic, which lowers the gas in the rest of the house. She notices it and hears noises in the attic. But, by the time the play starts, she already doesn’t trust her own senses because he’s been systematically convincing her that she imagines things and has a faulty memory, even misremembering her own actions.

The play is a powerful one — full of suspense, shifting moods and a mystery. It’s no wonder it was quickly made into a movie that is considered to be a classic masterpiece.

It’s also where the word “gaslight” in modern parlance comes from. “Gaslighting” now means the act of making another person doubt their own experiences of the world in order to control and manipulate them. It is a common, abuser tactic. I read about it a lot in my work in feminist jurisprudence, sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement.

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One of the key dynamics in “Gaslight” is that the main character, Bella, is taught to not believe herself, to mistrust her own memories, and her husband reinforces her self-mistrust by undermining her to the staff and keeping her isolated from anyone who could remind her that she is not, in fact, mad. It’s that dynamic that drives the play and makes it resonate so strongly with me.

The feeling of not being believed is distressingly common for women. Most of us don’t have a husband at home purposefully trying to drive us mad, but we still live in a society that constantly reminds us that we cannot be trusted. It’s not hard to find stories in the media (social or otherwise) that highlight the following “truths”: women lie, falsely accuse and fail to properly communicate their desires to men. Our words don’t matter when a man is speaking (or otherwise communicating his desires). It’s our fault when we get raped. It’s our fault that our rapists and abusers aren’t punished.

I could go through the long history of women being disbelieved as witnesses in the judicial system, but, even after the abolition of archaic rules such as women’s testimony needing a corroborating witness to be considered in court, we still know that we aren’t believed. That’s why we don’t report. That’s why we keep our silence.

The #MeToo movement is changing that, showing that we should speak, that we may be believed at last. That simple hashtag has given women a venue to tell their stories and a community of women (and other allies) who will believe them. It’s powerful — being believed. It’s no wonder the hashtag went viral, particularly when men started experiencing consequences. I study these trends a lot, wade through these stories and trace their effects. Seeing “Angel Street” is a bit of a busman’s holiday, but I’m actually looking forward to it.

Although written over 80 years ago, “Angel Street” could not be more timely. I’m seeing it this weekend, and I expect it to bring up a lot of feelings. I know my husband, and I know he won’t miss an opportunity to use this play to speak to the larger issues it embodies.

But I admit that I’m glad I’ll be able to see it on stage instead of overhearing it in my own house. The issues it raises already hit too close to home.

“Angel Street” is at the Little Colonel Playhouse through Feb. 9. Tickets: littlecolonel.org. •

Dr. JoAnne Sweeny is a UofL law professor.

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