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Gaslighting

Thank You, Angela Lansbury: Reflections on Gaslighting

Gaslighting was all about relationships in the 1944 film. Now, it's mainstream.

Key points

  • Ms. Lansbury's 'Nancy' brought attention to the power of an accomplice in heightening confusion.
  • Nancy’s complicity in gaslighting foreshadowed by decades the cultural phenomenon of gaslighting and it's destabilizing power.
  • Gaslighting - undermining someone's reality and causing them to second guess themselves - can be crazy making and lead to loss of sense of self.
  • Naming the gaslighting tango helps you understand that you are in a destructive dynamic.....a first step to stopping the gaslighting.

Thank you, Angela Lansbury

Reflections on the Origins of Gaslighting in our Culture

People will remember Angela Lansbury for her many iconic roles in Hollywood, on the Broadway stage, and, of course, as the smart and unassuming mystery writer on TV’s “Murder, She Wrote.” But few may remember that she also had a role with a lasting impact in both cinema and culture: Gaslight.

In the 1944 film Gaslight, a young Ms. Lansbury played Nancy Oliver, the housemaid who was witness to the diabolical Gregory, played by Charles Boyer, manipulating the psyche of his trusting and adoring young wife, played by Ingrid Bergman. In contrast to the character Ms. Lansbury later played in Murder She Wrote, the caring and approachable Jessica Fletcher, Lansbury’s Nancy captures the audience's attention with tone of voice and facial expressions foreshadowing something sinister. Early in the film she becomes a (possibly unwitting) accomplice to the master of the house in his gaslighting efforts.

Nancy’s menacing presence and her possibly flirtatious interactions with Gregory were featured in several key scenes. Gregory, not Paula, interviews and hires Nancy and tells her to come only to him when she has a question and that his wife (Paula) is “very particular” and also “highly strung.” Nancy displays an attitude of distrust and maybe even disdain towards Paula, her mistress, adding to the tension in the house and creating a climate that envelopes Paula in a fog of confusion.

In an early scene where Nancy witnesses Paula leaving the house, Lansbury conveys a dark and questioning tone that creates doubt and uncertainty and causes Paula to stop in her tracks and second-guess her decision to go outside for a walk. Nancy’s facial expression seems to exude impending danger, triggering Paula’s anxiety as she abandons her walk and goes back inside the house. She played her role so well that she captivated audiences and earned an Academy Award nomination.

Lansbury’s Nancy draws attention to how others can magnify the call and the power of the gaslighter. This ‘extra’ piece of gaslighting—the power wielded by an accomplice or destabilizing outside circumstances—is something not often talked about. It raises the question: do some gaslighters need an accomplice? Relatedly, do people help gaslighters intentionally, or are they caught up in the dynamic without being the wiser? Think of a husband turning to his wife to validate a comment he is making to his daughter – over and over again. Does the climate created by a third party help the gaslighter and drive the gaslightee deeper into the gaslighting paradigm?

Though the movie was set more than 70 years ago, it had a lasting impact on today’s culture. Gaslighting in the 40’s was not much different than it is in the 2020’s. The movie centered on Gregory’s ability to manipulate his spouse by insisting she was losing her mind and memory, convincing her that she was crazy and “it was all in her head” and that he could never be wrong. Sound familiar?

Now, gaslighting is everywhere. It’s in music, TV, movies, and everyday vocabulary. There are literally shows and albums titled “Gaslight” or Gaslit.” Shows like Bad Vegan, Inventing Anna and The Girl on the Train are just a few of the gaslighting moves and series that have been popular over the last few years.

We saw this phenomenon often during the uncertain times of COVID, when echo chambers of “fake news” caused some to turn away from science and experts. Nancy’s complicity in gaslighting foreshadowed by decades the cultural phenomenon of gaslighting and it’s destabilizing power. As demonstrated by the recent verdicts against Infowars’ Alex Jones for lying about the Sandy Hook massacre, repeated untruths can lead to widespread gaslighting and wreak havoc on lives other than just the gaslightee. Before we hit “repost,” we all owe it to society to make sure we aren’t playing the role of Lansbury’s Nancy, perpetuating a scheme—willfully or not—to gaslight others.

I have seen Gaslight many times and was always fascinated by the phenomenon of a woman, seemingly strong and self-possessed, giving up herself and her reality, over time, to the twists of her husband’s machinations. As a psychoanalyst in private practice, I was dedicated to listening, learning, researching and understanding these dynamics for decades, culminating in my 2007 book The Gaslight Effect.

In the world of psychology we often say that “you have to name it to tame it.” Naming the dynamic helps people suffering the gaslight effect understand they aren’t crazy, paranoid, or forgetful, but rather that they have fallen into the trap of dancing the gaslight tango with a master manipulator, a dance that often results in a gaslightee losing themselves and their reality in the process.

Ms. Lansbury, thank you for a lifetime of gracing our screens and for your iconic characters. You inspired us to ask questions, stand up for ourselves when we’re challenged, and to follow our instincts (even if that means not trusting our maids).

References

The Gaslight Effect by Robin Stern

Gaslight 1944 film - Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer

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