Have you heard of this word? It’s quite popular these days in…what do I keep calling it? Mental health circles? Psychotherapy circles? Circles? Not even offices, “these days”. The milieu is the online cyber-sphere, the realm of Zoom, the I-phone; possibly the socially distanced consultation. But not conferences, networking lunches, or live “treatment team” discussions. Literature? Maybe. The editors I’m conversing (exchanging e-mails) with say they’ve been furloughed, or otherwise detained. So they won’t read me and they won’t read or publish anything new for a while. Our profession: it’s being podcasted, you-tubed, perhaps, but its edifices are being ghost-towned. Ghosting. That’s…well, that’s for another entry. Today’s subject is another staple of sex addiction treatment, Gaslighting. It’s an important concept, actually—perhaps more relevant to people’s daily lives than any other communication problem—though it’s an appropriated property, with a pedigree in drama, modern and classical. Here’s my footnote on it from Getting Real About Sex Addiction:
“Gaslight is a 1938 play and later a film about a man who torments his wife, searching for jewels to steal in her attic (the lights in which dim the lights elsewhere in the house—hence the title) and lying about his behavior and disappearances. The term has come to mean someone who deliberately seeks to induce anxiety, even psychosis in another through deception. Interestingly, the play recalls Sandor Ferenczi’s famous concepts of “identification with the aggressor” and “confusion of tongues” (1933): a sign of trauma is the subject’s identification with and induction into patriarchy—an internalization of its demands—exploiting a child’s dependence, need for love.”
Have you heard of Sandor Ferenczi? You should have. He’d be a darling of social justice warriors, Me-Too crusaders looking to history for evidence of good men. Ferenczi was a psychoanalytic dissident of the 30s; a once acolyte of Freud who thought the project’s original Seduction Theory—which would have implicated scores of Viennese men in the practice of sexual abuse—should have been restored to the center of psychoanalysis, in place of Freud’s subsequent theory of infantile sexuality. The latter became the model for the human mind, not the belief that external events—trauma—is the original sin besetting humankind. Modern psychoanalysis sings a different tune, humming the bars Ferenczi sang, citing the Gaslight example. I prefer its dramatic antecedent, Hamlet, but I get the point, what the stories are trying to say about what really drives us nuts. But even the zeitgeist ethos doesn’t capture the common hold that Gaslighting has upon everyday interaction. See, it’s not just about events that occur that are later denied. More intricately, it’s about thoughts conveyed that are soon denied, to be met by knowing yet beguiled and censored responses. Here’s my play. It’s from 2020:
A man invites another out for a drink, wanting company. He is rejected, but he will jettison—that is, split-off—that feeling. His stoical other and soon-to-be nemesis seems indifferent, elusive. He says no. Twice. The homoerotic current is subsumed beneath a hetero front: the first man provokes, asks if the other even likes parties…women. In the cold moment, the other man keeps a surface calm, but he looks away, knowing that eye contact in this instance would be aggression. It would betray hate. He gets up, stifles a reply but moves to leave. The first man delivers Gaslight comment number one: “what’s your problem?” Does it sound familiar, this chestnut of denial; this projection of offense? “Nothing”, the other says, not wanting a conflict—not finding the words, it has to be added. “Seriously”, presses the first man. He presses his luck. He acts like he doesn’t know what he’s said, and in some protean sense he is telling the truth, for he is on automatic, unaware. Still, he presses. Is he asking for something? Is he asking to learn?
The second man gives finally. Heaving a breathy sigh, as if it’s all an effort to explain himself, he declares, “You’re disrespecting me. You know you are.”
The first man shrugs, affecting indifference. Now he’s rejecting—rejecting truth, rejecting feeling, and altering the script. This is now about a guy who over-reacts to a simple question. Sensitivity. The second man juts his chin, utters a disgusted noise. Will he press his case, declare further what is happening in this banal, everyday moment? Given the stilled tongue of the adversary, further words might not be necessary. The escalation: it likely won’t happen; but what is the verdict? What will the narrative be if and when the stories are spun beyond this testy dyad? He–the second man–could state what is happening. He just about knows and understands the phenomenon. Everyone does, he thinks briefly. His family, his friends, himself at times; anyone: they’ve all done this thing. They all deny what happens and then fumble for words. Only one sums it up.
Another example, better perhaps, concerns a man who gets quietly drunk, is sternly obnoxious, and asks rude questions in the guise of being interested in others’ lives: “How’s your…” followed by “Well, sounds like he hasn’t got long to go…” –that sort of thing. Never mind why others put up with it. That’s a long story. And it’s not likely to change because if one raises an objection in the moment the man becomes confused. Talk to him about it later and he simply won’t remember. Either way, he’d pay minor lip service to the question of offense, chuckle it away, insinuate that the offense is in the complaint (“I was merely…”), and otherwise ridicule the protest. What do we now call this protest?