Gaslighting: How an Ingrid Bergman Movie Inspired Merriam Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year

YYou can’t get out of your head,” a detective tells Ingrid Bergman’s Paula during the climax moments of the 1944 film gas light. “You are slow and systematic Driven Lost your mind.” Seventy-eight years later, the term “gaslighting” was first used in a published High Court judgment after a woman’s abusive partner gradually convinced her that she had bipolar disorder.

Now Merriam Webster has named it word of the year for 2022.

The term refers to a very specific and insidious type of abuse—the type in which a person is deliberately manipulated into questioning their own sanity. The thriller, which earned Bergman a Best Actress Oscar, was adapted from a 1938 play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, an English novelist and playwright who also wrote the source material for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Oddly enough, the title’s “gaslight” wasn’t the method of manipulation, but a crucial clue to their discovery.

Bergman plays Paula, a young woman whose new husband Gregory (French-American actor Charles Boyer) launches an abuse campaign against her. He gives his wife a precious brooch just to make her think she lost it. He removes more items from the house and accuses her of hiding them. “I hope you don’t start imagining things again,” he says with mock concern, using her supposedly troubled mind as an excuse to prevent her from seeing visitors or leaving the house. He openly flirts with the maid (Angela Lansbury in her film debut) and turns her on his wife. As Paula becomes more and more desperate, he twists that too – “Paula, you stupid child”; “Paula, stop being hysterical”; “Please control yourself” – until even she is convinced that she is losing her mind.

Just when Paula is reaching her limits, a detective shows up to convince her otherwise. Her husband is – spoiler alert – the man who murdered her aunt years ago while searching for her precious jewels, and he’s now trying to drive Paula out of the house and into an asylum so he can continue his quest for the gems can. The gas lamps that dim as he leaves the house for work? He actually went to the attic to look for the jewels, and when he turns on the light there, the rest of the house dims.

When Gregory is arrested, he tries to convince Paula to help him escape. She’s playing his own game. “If I wasn’t angry, I could have helped you,” she says with relish. Thanks to gas lighta name has been given to this brutal form of emotional and psychological abuse, but it has only recently entered common parlance. The New York Times The term was first used in 1995 but was rarely used for the next 20 years. Some believe it was Donald Trump who helped push it into the mainstream, with his tendency to fire incendiary devices and then deny ever saying them – a habit the media has controversially dubbed “gaslighting.” . By 2016, the American Dialect Society had named it the “most useful” new word of the year.

gas light isn’t the only film to show the horrors of this kind of mental manipulation Hush… Hush, sweet Charlotte (1964), Rosemary’s baby (1968) and sleeping with the enemy (1991), all of which represent different types of gaslighting. More recently, 2016 The girl on the train starred Emily Blunt as a woman whose abusive ex-husband plants false memories in her head when she’s drunk; 2018 is brilliant and panicky insanity saw Claire Foy tricked into committing herself to a psychiatric hospital; and in the Netflix drama series UnbelievableKaitlyn Devers college student was effectively gassed by the entire criminal justice system after her rape.

It might be hard to back this up with real-life statistics, but at least in popular culture, gaslighting is predominantly something men do to women. The blockbuster horror 2020 The Invisible Man, meanwhile, was about a woman who escapes from her abusive partner only to be stalked by his invisible presence — if that sounds ridiculous, so does it for her at first, but it turns out he’s wearing an invisible bodysuit after he faked his own death. Elizabeth Moss tells The Independent that the film is a “gigantic analogy” to gaslighting. “The invisible man could be your ex-boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, ex-boss, or whatever you’re feeling haunted by some kind of cycle of abuse,” Moss explained. “That was the story we were trying to tell while we put Trojans on it in this horror thing.”

Aldis Hodge, Elisabeth Moss and Sam Smith in The Invisible Man

(Mark Rogers/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

The term “gaslighting” is so well known these days that there is even a hint of a backlash. SNL parodied it earlier this year, recreating the 1940s film but taking it to ridiculous extremes: actress Kate McKinnon was told a pineapple is a steak and a book is a rat. And an article in The New York Times indicated that the word had lost its meaning through overuse. “Gaslighting,” Jessica Bennett argues in the play, should refer to a pattern of behavior, not a single instance of it—nor does it mean simply lying. She quoted psychologist Nick Haslam, who has spoken of a phenomenon known as “trauma creep” – “when the language of the clinical, or at least the clinical-adjacent, is used to refer to an increasingly extensive set of everyday experiences.” .

Still, when used correctly, “gaslighting” can be a useful, even life-saving, term. Take the recent High Court case in the UK’s family courts: when he ruled that a man had in fact raped and abused his wife and convinced her she was bipolar, a judge used the word “gaslighting” in his written statement – ​​the first time word has been used in a published High Court document. Speak with The Independent, said Charlotte Proudman, a leading human rights lawyer who was leading the case, that she had used the word in previous cases, but that the judge either didn’t understand the term or didn’t see it as appropriate legal terminology. She said this new verdict gave the word “legitimacy and credibility,” adding that perpetrators had long distorted victims’ “reality,” but that there was no legal term for it.

Elisabeth Moss explained that several women wrote to her afterwards The Invisible Man to say how related they are to the story. “I would have friends who I didn’t know had had such an experience who told me it was cathartic to watch,” she says. “This history of abuse is not something that has arisen in the past five years. It’s not a train everyone can hop on – it’s a story as old as time.” Gaslighting: How an Ingrid Bergman Movie Inspired Merriam Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year


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