‘Gaslighting’ is a term I’ve used for YEARS. Oddly, however, until recently, almost nobody knew what the heck I was talking about. I would have to explain about the movie from the 1940s, based off a 1938 play Gas Light.
Anyway, it would just turn into a rambling conversation almost as awkward as when I pitched my first ‘novel.’
For those who’ve not seen the movie or the play, I strongly recommend it because it dovetails into what I’d like us to discuss today. My archives are bursting at the seams with posts on plotting, scenes and sequels, themes, setting, etc. And NOT to say I won’t write on these topics again.
But, what I am striving for here, is a truly MEATY blog that digs deeper, plumbs the depths of our psychology, and simply offers more.
***For instance, take my last post. How does our story/character(s) change if we introduce a profound mother wound?
Today, we’re going to talk about a staple character in fiction—the narcissist—and one of the most powerful weapons they wield to get what they want. Remember, I am not a psychiatrist, I just play one on the internet 😉 .
Really GREAT storytellers are masters at noticing and unpacking the human condition.
Psychologically healthy, stable people, who always make rational, responsible decisions make for boring stories. So let’s spice things up, shall we?
Gaslighting: What IS It?
Mental health professionals also refer to gaslighting as ambient abuse.
The mental health community, as well as popular culture, appropriated the term ‘gaslighting’ from the classic play/movie.
In the story, Gas Light, the female MC is newly married and her husband insists they move into her aunt’s London apartment. The aunt is recently deceased and has willed the apartment to the MC.
Since this is Victorian England, gas lamps light most streets and homes.
Put a pin in here.
Before roughly the 1950s or maybe a little later, it was not uncommon for male family members to commit female relations (wife, mother, sister, daughter, etc.) into insane asylums for any number of reasons that had NOTHING to do with mental health. The burden of proof for ‘insanity’ was extremely low, especially for the wealthy who could afford ‘care.’
Besides, good luck disproving a negative. If someone labels you crazy, the more you try to prove you’re sane, well, the crazier you look, right?
Back to Gas Light...
In the story, the husband—for reasons I won’t go into here—is actively laying the groundwork to have his wife committed. To do this, he would, say, give her a really expensive necklace. She’d tuck it away in her vanity then, without her knowing, he’d move/hide it.
Later, he’d manufacture a reason for her to wear the necklace, but of course it’s missing. Once she was good and hysterical tearing the house apart, he’d berate her for being so absent-minded, then smugly go to the vanity and—VOILA!
Guess what was there all along?
He’d follow these stunts with lots of comments to express his care. “Are you feeling well?” “You know how you’ve not been yourself.” “Why don’t you go lie down?”
Husband continues to move/hide paintings, furniture, jewelry, common household items and all along acts as if his wife is losing touch with reality. The coups de gras, however, is with the gas lamps.
Every evening, when he leaves for his ‘walk’ the gas lamps noticeably dim. Not only does this make it hard for her to see, but she’s also hearing noises/footsteps from their third floor (which has been closed off and supposedly has no outside access).
Suffice to say, Husband is waging a psychological warfare campaign to persuade his wife (and witnesses) that she’s losing her mind and, thus, needs to be sent away for professional care.
Gaslighting by Degrees
Just like last week, the way we might use gaslighting in a story can vary by genre. First, the narcissist can be represented by proxy. Used this way, the ‘narcissistic force’ believes the ends justify the means and is willing to fabricate the facts and ruthlessly enforce a false narrative to achieve certain goal(s).
In the classic dystopian novel 1984, the government is gaslighting the public.
Thus, if one is writing a political thriller, a dystopian, a science fiction, then a system/structure doing the gaslighting is a mainstay. Regardless what the ‘people’ in your story see with their own eyes, the propaganda machine is there to say it isn’t real and, therefore, something must be wrong with anyone who dares disagree.
Now, I know it’s very easy for us to say, “NO WAY! This could never happen to me.” But, I’d recommend reading up on the Asch conformity experiments. Solomon Asch wanted test the threshold of conformity, as in how long could we hold onto a belief before the group superseded what one saw as ‘true’?
I draw a line on a board that’s slightly crooked. I recruit hidden actors to say the line is straight no matter what. You, however, insist the line is crooked. So, how LONG do you maintain the line is crooked as more and more people join the group avidly claiming the line is, in fact, straight?
How long until you at least questioned what you were seeing?
Maybe YOU would never change your answers, but read up on the studies. The pressure to conform is more powerful than I find comfortable.
This said, gaslighting is a LOT more common in fiction than we might realize. “Area-51 is just a base.” “There’s no such thing as aliens.” “Bat boy doesn’t exist.”
***Okay, I know I lost some of you there. BATBOY IS DEF REAL!
Gaslighting is the beating heart of coverups and government conspiracies so obviously, when done on a mass-scale, it’s essential world-building for many genres.
But what about when we are dealing with individuals?
The Many Kinds of Narcissists
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a narcissist is “an extremely self-centered person who has an exaggerated sense of self-importance.” Not all are crazy or violent. Some are well-meaning (in their own minds) as we’ll see.
Their self-absorption can come from psychological immaturity or they don’t believe they can get what they want unless they manipulate. Not all narcissists are gaslighting ‘intentionally.’
Why am I mentioning narcissists? Because gaslighting is a go-to tactic for getting what they want. This said, there is a WIDE range of narcissists to work with, which helps because different genres require narcissists of the appropriate stripe.
If we are writing lighter fiction, say comedy or sweet romance, then simply adding in a person who only thinks about him or herself (without regard to any consequences) works great.
In the lighter genres, we are NOT casting someone with a diagnosable personality disorder. They’re simply self-centered to the point of social blindness.
Think about the comedy classic, What About, Bob? Bob (Bill Murray) is an overly dependent neurotic patient with obsessive compulsive disorder who tracks down his successful therapist when his therapist tries to go on vacation.
The blind spots alone in this movie make for plenty of laughs. But, Bob is SO dependent, so fixated on his own needs, that he cannot see how utterly inappropriate his behaviors are.
In a sweet romance, writers might cast the heartless boss, the mother who’s a relentless match-maker (because SHE wants grand-babies), or the ruthless workaholic investor who doesn’t care who he screws over to land the deal.
***And, before anyone shouts about cliches, cliches are cliches because they WORK. The kicker is writing them well enough that people don’t see them/or care. It is all in the execution.
Gaslighting and Story Problems
Thus, the heartless boss could claim he has no memory your MC had a wedding to attend and her carefully submitted forms don’t exist in the system. Either she works the weekend or she’s fired (tampering with her memory).
The matchmaking mother will claim total innocence, that all her meddling is perfectly innocent, when she knows full well it isn’t. But, needs must.
Our ruthless investor can act as if the property manager didn’t submit the historic papers on time, thus the property is to be demolished for a new condo.
All of these scenarios can be tweaked with casting, setting and we have countless variations to work with. Since the audience has likely dealt with a person in their REAL lives who have acted similarly, this creates resonance.
***For those who’ve seen Glengarry Glen Ross (image above), the entire plot is a gaslighting. There never were any good leads.
Gaslighting can offer up some rough gems we can shape and polish into a story worthy of every storyline from Hallmark, to slapstick to psychological mind-benders and blood chillers.
Comedy & Horror
Gaslighting is a go-to for the narcissist as a tool to get what they want. If we are looking at a comedic character like Bob, from What About Bob? then this is simply a person with highly a warped sense of reality. He projects whatever inappropriate action he’s doing as totally normal and insists it’s actually his target (the therapist) who’s not ‘seeing clearly.’
In fact, insisting someone isn’t seeing/experiencing something is a REALLY common comedy trope.
Tallageda Nights comes to mind.
But comedy and horror are the closest of bedfellows. What do you get when horror is TOO over the top? Comedy. Conversely, what about when a joke/prank goes horribly wrong? Horror.
Once you know what genre you’re writing and start to cast characters, you’ll know what sort of narcissist you’ll need and the ways they’ll use gaslighting to get what they want.
Obviously, as we tread into grittier general fiction, psychological thrillers, thrillers, suspense-thrillers, crime fiction, etc. the narcissist we’ll see more often is the clinical version. Someone with, say, NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder).
This manipulator might be gaslighting unintentionally but, for a good villain, that’s a hard sell. These narcissists see people as pawns to push around a chess board. Others are merely a means to getting what they want.
Narcissists and Gaslighting
Narcissists come in a variety of packages from the overly self-absorbed the ‘clinical’ territory (psychopaths). Psychopathy not a diagnosable mental health disorder according to the DSM-V, yet we all know this is a real thing and professionals can diagnostically measure via assessments.
For gritty fiction or any of the darker sides of the genre spectrum, the ways, the degree, and to what ends the narcissist gaslights changes accordingly.
First of all, a story is only as strong as the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Not all BBTs are villains, though in certain genres, they usually are. This person forms the entire POINT of the story, so I strongly recommend reading the hyperlinked post above.
We (as a reader) must fear and respect the narcissist. Sociopaths and psychopaths are masters of manipulation. If we do our jobs right, our readers will be strapped into the Rollercoaster from Hell alongside your protagonist. WE should be questioning reality if your narcissist is worth his/her salt.
Gaslighting is a highly destructive tool that can cause permanent harm. Refer to my post about how lies change the structure of the brain. Remember the entire point of gaslighting is to make the victim (and those around who might possibly render aid) question themselves, their memory, their sanity.
What makes gaslighting particularly insidious is it extremely difficult to detect . For brevity’s sake, this post has a FABULOUS (okay, TERRIFYING) list of ways narcissists gaslight and the common things they say.
Gaslighting always starts small. This is to test if the victim/target has enough self-awareness, strong enough self-esteem to call the narcissist on their bull$!@. Anyone can be a target. Your character might have been otherwise strong/self-aware, but has recently suffered a loss or major life change and is in an emotionally vulnerable state.
Narcissists smell blood in the water.
Frequently, the gaslighter will begin by simply denying your feelings/experiences. You are just so sensitive. Why are you blaming me for your ex? You’re too needy. No one wants you around because you’re too controlling.
***Keep in mind, if the gaslighting remains at THIS stage, alone, it can still be seriously damaging.
This then could possibly escalate to moving your belongings, only for those belongings to reappear in the original spot or some bizarre place no sane person would put that item.
Then, the items (usually something important/treasured) never reappear. The narcissist throws them away, pawns them, gives them away, or maybe keeps them as trophies.
Gaslighting can graduate to more obvious emotional and verbal abuse. The aggressor says the most horrible things, then when you get upset, they act completely befuddled why you’re upset and/or might flat out denying the event ever happened. They will claim you’re tired, over-sensitive, or can’t take a joke.
But, they don’t BEGIN here. They have to prime the person, have them good and rattled before bringing out the bigger guns.
A main tactic is to always keep you on the defensive. Remember what I said earlier, you cannot disprove a negative. Narcissists can be among the most dangerous people on the planet, so nothing is off the table when they lock onto their prey.
They’ll accuse the victim of lying, stealing, cheating, not loving them enough, not being attentive enough. And they will do so in ways the victim cannot make a viable defense.
A lover might accuse her partner of cheating, but when he shows her his phone to prove his innocence, she waves a receipt for a disposable phone. One that, of course, HE didn’t buy, but good luck proving it.
The goal is to have the victim SO rattled they are hyper-vigilant and always a) gathering evidence of their innocence or b) actively trying to do ‘enough’ to appease the narcissist.
They dance and dance and dance because, over time, and without knowing, they’ve turned into a puppet the narcissist can make perform on a whim.
Should the narcissist launch a particularly viscous gaslighting campaign, be certain they won’t do it alone. They will enlist others to buttress their version of reality. The more witnesses on their side, the more the victim spirals into despair and self-doubt.
If you have one glass of wine at home with dinner, the narcissist might do something horrible then a) claim it never happened, you were too drunk to remember b) play the victim because you were blackout drunk. No matter how much you protest you had ONE glass—or even NO glasses of wine—who is going to believe you?
If you’re at home, he’ll have the ‘evidence.’ If you’re out with friends, the narcissist will suggest (compassionately and with deep concern) that you’re a closet alcoholic. He’ll be the long-suffering companion who’s still supporting you even though you cannot see you have a problem.
Look no farther than the psychological thriller The Girl on the Train for prime examples.
Should your MC take any type of medication—psychiatric medication in particular— that can/will be easily weaponized. God forbid your MC have any displeasing emotion—sadness, disappointment, righteous anger—lest the narcissist ask if you’ve taken your meds.
Gaslighting & Weaponizing the Well-Meaning
Narcissists can use gaslighting to weaponize well-meaning people. Say, the MC has had enough, is wise to the game and *cringes* confronts their abuser. Do NOT put it past the abuser to inflict some sort of self-injury then call the authorities claiming THEY are the victim.
Police are unlikely to have much sympathy for the person who isn’t bleeding and bruised and claiming the ‘victim’ ‘threw themselves down the stairs.’
Or maybe the narcissist lovingly brings your MC a glass of juice, but it’s filled with crushed Xanax (for which your MC has no prescription). The abuser calls the ambulance in the nick of time and insists on a psych hold and drug counseling. They had NO idea the MC was on PILLS!
Once a person hands any abuser the keys to the kingdom regarding their SANITY? Good luck digging out of that. Medical personnel, social workers, mental health workers can all become benevolent soldiers in the narcissist’s campaign.
And, once a narcissist has their victim publicly labeled as mentally unstable, unable to care for themselves, an addict, an abuser, a pervert, a cheater, a liar, a thief? There is almost no end to the level of destruction they can unleash.
We’ll talk more on that on a different post.
In the End
Gaslighting is only one of many tools a narcissist can use to get what they want. Again, remember your genre. In Season One, Episode 19 of Desperate Housewives, Susan’s mother is ditzy, immature, self-centered, over sexual and has zero respect for boundaries.
So, Susan’s mother ambushes her with two men in the living room, Mom insists she was trying to HELP! It was a double date, and Susan is the one always overreacting and a stick in the mud.
This is a FAR cry from the gaslighting psychological warfare campaign in far darker stories like Misery, Fear, Sleeping with the Enemy, or Single White Female. In books? Aside from the dystopian mainstays, I recommend Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Guest List by Lucy Foley, I Eat Men Like Air by Alice Berman, and Rock, Paper, Scissors by Alice Feeny to name a few.
Thoughts on Gaslighting?
Did you know what gaslighting was? Are you surprised to see how common it is in fiction? Did learning about the different types of narcissists and the way they mess with reality spark any good story ideas?
Anything y’all would like to add? Obviously, for time’s sakes, I cannot cover everything, so feel free to chime in.
I love hearing from you, and to show my appreciation…
What do you WIN? For the month of MAY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice.
The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
***April’s winner is Maria D’Marco. Thank you for your comments! Please email your 5,000 word WORD doc, double-spaced, Times New Roman, to kristen at wana intl dot com. Put CONTEST WINNER in the subject line so I can see you.
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