I was a fearful child—scared of spiders, jellyfish, dark rooms, polio, bees, lightning, drowning—but one thing terrified me most of all: Being crazy. Just the thought of it made my stomach lurch and my throat tighten, because I knew with the kind of certainty that only a small child can muster that if I were crazy, then no one would ever like or love me. No one. I was probably around six or seven when the crazy thing really worried me, because I knew that either my mother was right and I was the crazy one, or I was right and she was the crazy one—and the first thought was much easier to consider as a possibility than the second.
Worrying about being crazy kept me up at night.
This all took place in my childhood bedroom in the Riverdale section of the Bronx when Eisenhower was president. I was an only child at the time and my obsession with being crazy was in part because I was also sure I was the only little girl in the world whose mother didn’t love her. I didn’t know then, as I do now, that there were lots of little girls (and boys) out there worrying about being crazy. There still are.
Many decades later, I discovered that the way my mother made me feel has a name—gaslighting.
The term, drawn from a popular 1930s play, which was turned into a successful movie starring Ingrid Bergman, refers to manipulating someone so effectively that the person comes to doubt his or her view of reality. While it’s most often used in the context of adult relationships, the truth is that when a mother is unloving—whether she’s dismissive, unavailable, unreliable, combative, or self-involved—gaslighting is often part of the dynamic. It's a specific kind of abuse that leaves its own particular psychological legacy.
Why it’s So Easy to Gaslight a Child
The parent-child relationship isn’t one of equals—in fact, it’s terrifically lopsided. All of the power is vested in the parent and while it’s a thought that might make you cringe, where there’s power, there’s also the potential abuse of power. A mother controls not just the little world a child lives in—she sets rules as well the table, decides whether it is stable or chaotic, comforting or scary—but she also, as Deborah Tannen has observed, dictates how the experiences and events in that world are interpreted. That’s fertile ground for gaslighting, especially since a child is hardwired to look to her mother for an understanding of how the world works.
There’s a terrible and painful irony in even considering that the very person charged with helping you discover the reality of you—helping you master skills, manage emotions, become sure of your own worthiness and solidity—could be the one who actively undermines you and your reality. Yet that is precisely what an unloving and unattuned mother does.
It takes work to gaslight an adult. In the movie, the bad guy played by Charles Boyer has to manipulate the physical environment—footfalls in an empty attic, the flickering of the gaslights—to make his victim feel crazy. Gaslighting an intimate partner requires a consistent game plan. Boyer uses what he knows about his victim's fears and insecurities to manipulate her, using her love as a cudgel or accusing her of being too sensitive or neurotic when she catches him in a bald-faced lie. Alas, gaslighting a child is, as the saying goes, like shooting goldfish in a barrel.
There’s not much work involved making a love-deprived and insecure child doubt his or her reality. Think big and little (tall parent and loud voice, small child with a voice easy to silence) in the following scenarios:
Carrying a platter of food into the dining room and having it fall, break, and splatter all over the floor. The child registers that the plate is slippery and that’s why it happened. That’s not what her mother says: “You did that on purpose. Why do you always do stuff to make me angry?”
The child is bullied by her older brother. She cries and asks her mother to intervene. She answers, “Well, when you stop bothering him, he’ll stop hitting you.”
Walking down the street with her mother, feeling happy. And then: “Stop skipping. Can’t you ever be normal? Your skipping is making my heels catch in the cobblestones and you will ruin my shoes. Do you have to ruin everything?" (This is a direct quote from my childhood, translated from Dutch.)
The child is told that if she plays quietly and lets Mommy work, Mommy will take her out for ice cream. She spends the afternoon playing and then asks her mother when they’re going for ice cream. The response: “I never promised you ice cream.” When the daughter protests, the mother simply says, “Stop making things up. No one likes a liar.”
Childhood gaslighting? Easy peasy.
Why it’s Hard to See That You’ve Been Gaslighted in Childhood (or Beyond)
The reasons gaslighting is hard to see vary. First, all small children accept the circumstances of their household as “normal” because it’s all they know. Second, the child’s hardwired need for her mother’s love and approval actually facilitates her own gaslighting. To recognize gaslighting you have to be confident in your own vision and trust your emotions; most daughters in this position don’t. Finally, as one daughter described it, your mother’s voice may actually be part of a chorus:
"My father always insisted that my mother was the final authority. And my two brothers—one older and one younger—always called me the ‘cuckoo bird’ because what I said or did was supposedly so crazy. When I confronted my mother, she’d simply deny what she’d said or make up a reason for why she acted as she did. I was a bad person, an ungrateful person, and I believed it up until I left home. It was only then that I realized that, no, I wasn’t the crazy person after all. That said, now I’m 30 and, from time to time, I still wonder if my view of things is skewed. It’s hard getting my family out of my head."
Because gaslighting is about control, some mothers may actually amp up the volume when their daughters begin to talk back, question their vision of things, and begin to believe in their own perceptions. That was certainly true in my case, although it worked less and less well as I got older. I no longer believed I was crazy, but my mother’s words and actions were still crazy-making, and I continued to wrestle with the problem of needing her to love me.
I was finally thrown a lifeline in my first therapist’s office when I was almost 22. I had been in therapy for months—which felt like forever—telling story after story about my childhood. I was lying on a couch—yes, the Freudian set-up—and the therapist was behind me. I’d finally gotten used to not seeing him and not having eye contact, and even the fact that he only spoke when I went silent and then only to ask me a question: “Was that usual at your house?” or “How did her saying that make you feel?” I was beginning to despair because nothing was happening, even though I saw him twice a week and he was well-respected, even famous. I was afraid that if he couldn’t fix me, no one could.
One day his voice floated out above my head and I heard him say, “Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that your mother is unspeakably cruel and punitive—perhaps even crazy? Think about it for a moment. What could a three or four-year-old possibly do to deserve that treatment? What are you saying or doing now that justifies the terrible things she continues to say to you? The ways in which she makes you feel awful about yourself?”
It’s a moment I still recall word for word, four decades later. But while that moment effectively shut the door on further gaslighting, it did little to resolve the conflict between my need for my mother’s love and my need to be free of her poison.
The Lasting Legacy of Gaslighting
Gaslighting is emotional and verbal abuse. Like other kinds of verbal aggression, it changes the development of a child’s brain and is also internalized. Believing in the validity of her own feelings and perceptions is often a lifelong battle for the unloved daughter, even in adulthood.
"I realize that my timidity and the way I always second-guess myself get in the way of actually living my life. I’ve been taken advantage of by other people who have recognized my need to please and my willingness to take the blame for anything that goes wrong. But it took me forever to realize that this was tied to my childhood experiences with my mother. Can you imagine? I turned 50 and realized for the first time that it wasn’t about me or anything I did but about my mother’s own manipulative nature. Even so, it’s such an easy habit to fall back into."
There is good news, too: By paying attention to the unconscious behaviors we learn in childhood and pulling them into consciousness, we can set about changing them. The brain remains flexible and responsive throughout the course of life. While it takes time, we can change how we think about ourselves and develop the self-trust our younger selves lacked. It’s in this moment that other explanations for the flickering lights and footfalls in the attic come to mind and we can finally see Mom, the master puppeteer, as separate from the girls we were and the women we are now.
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Copyright 2016 Peg Streep