Cosmo, Gaslighting, and How We See “Crazy”

Gaslighting – one of the tools of an abuser to make one doubt their reality. It plays on the fear of what people do to those with mental health disabilities to isolate and control. It’s also, according to a recent Cosmopolitan article, merely “naughty.”

It’s not new that Cosmopolitan tends to have some problematic articles. March 2012’s issue is no exception. There were plenty of things I found uncomfortable about the issue, ranging from choice selections from the #nevertrustagirl hashtag, to an account of maternal abuse that ended with a renewed relationship with the abuser. But what really got me was an account of a woman gaslighting a roommate in order to get her to move out.

The term gaslighting comes from a play written in the 1930s. A young couple moves into an apartment, only for the husband to begin a series of disruptions and denials with the intent of institutionalizing his young wife for financial gain. A movie version of it from from 1944 shows escalating behavior, including placing an object in her purse when they try to leave the house in order to make her think that fighting her isolation triggers kleptomaniac behavior.

Over time, this term has come to describe a tactic often used by abusers to isolate and control their victims. The most basic element is fairly often discussed – making someone doubt their own reality. In fact, it’s the defining characteristic. As the victim begins to doubt their reality, they become dependent on the abuser to interpret the world around them. When the victim presents reasons for objecting to a course of action, the reality that the abuser has built allows them to dismiss them as a part of the victim’s “delusion.” Victims become less likely to report any abuse that they face, even less subtle forms, because the abuser has convinced them that no one else will believe them. After all, who would believe a “crazy” person like you?

It’s an extremely effective isolating tool, mainly because of how we, as a society, view people with Mental Health Disabilities (MHDs). People with MHDs are framed as unreliable witnesses to their own lives. We are taught to doubt the trustworthiness of people with MHDs, avoid them for our safety, and see them as burdens to their families and society. Additionally, some of our most iconic horror antagonists have an MHD origin story. Doubt me? Say hello to Michael, Dr. Lecter, and Jason, who has a bonus of also being developmentally disabled.

When one buys into this stigma, having other people know you are as “crazy” as your abuser has convinced you are can be a powerful deterrent to seeking help. The same factors in play also, unfortunately, frame people with MHDs as deserving victims – a near karmic retribution for the “burden” of their existence.

In March’s “Naughtiest Thing I’ve Ever Done,” the writer describes having moved in with another young woman, only to discover her as being intolerable. Taking the advice of almost every columnist out there, she confronted the roommate, letting her know that this behavior was not okay. When the roommate didn’t cease being a poor roommate, the author does the opposite of what your generic advice column suggests.

By this point, the bad roommate behaviors have been framed by her roommate being “crazy,” with descriptions of the roommate ranging from being unreliable to being an outright burden. The rather typical domestic failures of a young woman out on her own for the first time are framed as pathological, and her admittedly poor choice of yelling at the author for her coughing keeping her up before an audition is classified as narcissism. Her entire identity in the article is built around stereotypes of what could make her deserving of the punishment about to be unleashed upon her.

Instead of moving out or telling the roommate to move out, the author opts for driving her over the edge. She does a wide range of things, some which would have been pranks if she had owned up to them, that are designed to make the roommate think she’s become unstable. They range from subtle to an elaborate scheme to move her car further down the block each day. Eventually the roommate does confide to the author that she thinks she’s going crazy, and eventually moves out. It is implied that she actually does pursue treatment. The author ends talking about meeting up with a friend in common. It reads as almost gleeful when the author declares that ex-roomie is mentioned as being crazy as ever.

Maybe it’s because I’m crazy myself, but I am having a hard time seeing this as just “naughty.” Is it that it’s woman on woman, or that it’s not between intimate partners that this isn’t being called out as abusive? Is it “okay” because, like the grocer in Amélie, the roommate is self-centered? Or is it that she’s already likely living with a mental health disorder that makes the story seem so inevitable?

I don’t know. What I do know is when I told my sister I was writing this article, she laughed at me.

She thought the original article was hilarious.

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Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone

Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone. Advocate, Writer, Geek. Multiply Disabled, Queer, and proudly Autistic. Primary Obsession: Institutions, History of Care of people with MH/DDs Also obsessed with: Social Justice, Cats, Victorian Romanticism, and Doctor Who. http://crackedmirrorinshalott.wordpress.com/

51 thoughts on “Cosmo, Gaslighting, and How We See “Crazy””

  1. This is why I don’t touch that magazine. How disturbing! I’m a survivor of gaslighting, and it took me until today to even get up the courage to read this and comment. I honestly believe that it is one of the very worst things that can be done to someone. It’s terrifying, and even now I’m worried when people start to “mess” with me out of fun, because if they keep it going for more than a minute, it gets very triggering.

    I was actually working on a piece I was *considering* publishing here about my personal experiences with gaslighting. I wonder if anyone would be interested, or if it might be topic overkill?

    Anyway, thanks for talking about it. I know it’s a topic that’s gotten some attention recently, but I didn’t know about the Cosmo thing. What that woman did was psychologically torment another person, and that is unacceptable. I’m not even sure how I feel about pranks. I think there is a fine line between pulling a fun little prank that doesn’t harm or really scare anyone and what we commonly accept as pranks in general.

  2. Ughh. It’s the worst when some guy does it to you, to the point where you do start acting batshit nuts ’cause you’re pissed as hell. More things: I’m leery of ever telling any man ever that I was ever on medication [lexapro], because I’m convinced they’ll bring it up later for the sake of low blowing. Also, when a dude regularly calls girls in his past “crazy”, that’s a warning bell.

    One in particular would do this thing (well, all of these things) where he would make comments completely unrelated to the topic I was discussing. Like saying my name for no apparent reason, or random words. Then I’d get annoyed because he wasn’t listening, and he’d stop for a second and continue. Then I’d get upset, he’d tell me I was overreacting, and then I’d lose it, after which he’d tell me I wasn’t being “nice”.

    At the end of it all, he told me I needed anger management and I laughed (maniacally) for a good five minutes. Right after he told me I needed to be medicated again. I’m glad there’s a name I can put to it, now. Looking back, though, I really think that he needed treatment or other help he wasn’t getting, considering his history, behavior, and the shitty hand life dealt him.

    ETA: I didn’t realize how personal and non-contributive that was til five minutes ago.  And I wanted to add that a)Cosmo’s kind of ridiculous in general and b) I think gaslighting can be another way girls gang up on each other sometimes, especially when it’s one they don’t much like or has other problems. It’s like bullying that extra screws with your mind.

  3.  

    As a gaslightee, I am not sure I can adequately articulate my feelings on the subject, but I’ll try.  I was married to a diagnosed bipolar with narcissistic pd for several years and had a child with him. It was an incredibly isolating and abusive situation… a real-life “The Shining” scenario, except the ghosts were the demons of his own mind.  Living with someone with an untreated mood disorder and a pd meant that we all started living his cycles. Looking back, I’m amazed at how easy it was to believe all the lies he told me about why he was the only person on earth who liked me and how he had to suffer through my craziness out of pity.  He used my own family against me many times as I tried to break away, spreading rumors that I was crazy and abusing him, telling me about them all the while. And, it worked. Long story short, I lost my family when I escaped (once he turned on our daughter there was no way I was staying), but I escaped.  It wasn’t all that big a loss, considering I had decades of being the scapegoated child from a narcissistic family (yeah, my life pattern was as subtle as falling piano). In a weird way, he did me a big favor. It’s funny to talk about now, but my ex was gaslighting me even on the witness stand during our protective order hearing, though he couldn’t recognize his own behavior because he was so far gone at that point. The judge, attorney, and bailiff were incredulous at his own assertions and admissions, and I ended up not only with my protective order but with daily trooper escort to and from work for awhile.

    All that aside, I empathize with the incredible amount of emotional pain that my ex goes through daily due to his illnesses, even today as he occasionally pops up to harass me or sue for access to a daughter he abandoned years ago. However, that person from Cosmo is another story. I admit I haven’t read a Cosmo in years, but I’m wondering what type of person thinks that they are entitled to manipulate another person maliciously with seemingly purely selfish reasons, based on her judgment of another human being?  What kind of morality lets her pick and choose how to treat another person so horribly? And for personal gain? Amelie might be a cute film, but it’s an obvious caricature , a piece of voyeuristic role-playing for the viewer. IRL, I would never dream to think I can sit in judgement of another person and choose whether anything less than compassionate, empathetic treatment is warranted.  That person in Cosmo wasn’t naughty. I don’t know enough to say what she was, but her behavior was unacceptable. Her roommate should count herself lucky she escaped.

  4. I agree with the other commenters, it’s completely fucked up. Seriously, if the author gave her name, it should be possible for the ex-roommate to take this woman to court; it should count as mental abuse prosecuted by the law.

    1. I don’t know if it was her real name or a nom de plume? Plus, it’s REALLY hard to get gaslighting taken seriously in the US, especially when it’s not in the context of ongoing intimate partner abuse. Domestic Violence and Intimate Partner Abuse are really the only things that people really see- even sibling on sibling abuse is doubted, let alone roomie on roomie. The best chance is harassment, and even that is likely past the statute of limitations.

  5. AUTHOR’S NOTE:  The original wording of this included “Suffering from” instead of “Living with” in the third to last paragraph. I corrected it, after a friend mentioned it.

    But another friend asked if I could leave it in because of emotions and how I ended up getting a phrase I’ve mostly eliminated from my vocabulary because of its oppressive potential in a social justicey post. I can’t- I have highish standards for myself and it would make me feel ill to leave it in- but I let them know that I would both let people know about it and why it snuck in there.

    I have multiple disabilities. I’m Autistic, but I also have several Mental Health Disabilities. The biggest one is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, followed by PTSD from surviving abuse and some other random bits and peices. When I’m not doing well managing all of these things, I get depressed. Very depressed. As in, this weekend I didn’t take all the pills in my med bag because I didn’t want my niece to find me dead- and she was the only reason I could think of that I didn’t do it.

    I’ve been homeless and crashing on family member’s couches for over a year. I’ve gotten to the point of being pretty desperate because of it, and the hope thing just gave out this weekend. While I was writing this article, I was depressed. When I finished this article, I was depressed, a couple hours past my deadline to turn it in to the editors, and exhausted. All these things- painfully true things- meant that the things I was taught, the ways in which I was munipulated by my former abusers and made to think about my life, snuck through into my writing.

    Because I was suffering in that moment, and I’m someone who lives with MHDs, my language centers crossed and the old suffering terminology came out. I appologize.

  6. I think what the writer did was worse than naughty and a form of abuse, and I’m sorry and angry that your sister thought it was funny and laughed. Because, you know, making someone think they’re crazy to try to get rid of them is hilarious. /roll eyes

    If she wanted to actually help (as I’m sure some people would say “well, at least the crazy roommate got help!” she could have taken her to a therapist/helped her find one, tried to help her cope, etc. But what she did was terrible, IMO, and as I said I really think it’s awful your sister laughed, too.

    I use the term “unreliable narrator” but I have had similar things happen to me in the past, or to my friends, either deliberately or not, and it is true you come to distrust yourself and your perceptions; I’m still dealing with it, as are many. We don’t need people laughing at this sort of thing and therefore tacitly condoning it.

    Thank you for speaking up.

  7. Back in my front line social workin’ days, I saw this kind of shit all the time, mainly directed to people who were already terribly vulnerable (abused/neglected children, low income women, elderly parents, etc.).  It’s an easy way to exert control, and full on abusive.  When I was working in the UK (where there is a lower threshold for child protection involvement than in the US), I was able argue grounds for psychological abuse for similar behavior.  Lovely that Cosmo glorifies it as “naughty.”

    1. I count it as abusive behavior. Absolutely.

      I think you would have been appalled by the maternal abuse story. It was. . . hard to read, especially knowing as I do that maternal emotional abuse is so rarely recognized for what it is. That the woman ended up resuming a relationship of some sort with the woman left me a bit freaked out- though that was nothing compared to this.

  8. What bothers me about this story is how deliberately and openly she talks about making someone else crazy.  Like it’s funny. Like mental illness, created by genes or by people, is funny.

    That’s so sick.  And the whole thing is so immature.  She;s the one who needs the most therapy for being a complete psychopath.

    “How to constructively deal with people” and “Empathy for beginners!”

    1. Or she’s at least majorly passive aggressive. I know that when I was writing this, I was considering talking about the passive-aggressiveness of this move on her part, and what that says about how we teach women in particular to react to conflict. As incredibly aggressive and manipulative as this is, it’s also a case of avoidance- by terrorizing her roommate into leaving, she’s avoiding giving an overt ultimatum.

      But Then I ended up going into how our cultural memes make people with MHDs seem like inevitable or even deserving victims and. . . yeah.

      Looking through TV tropes I was actually also looking for examples of people with MHDs as the “deserving” victim, but other than the horror tropes could only find things that them up for comedic effect. It’s a sad and disturbing aspect of our popular culture.

      1. Did you see the SVU episode a few weeks ago with Natasha Lyonne? Her abuser convinces everyone that she’s crazy so he can abuse her for years and years. I was so struck by it, because it was the first time I can remember seeing something on TV that was showing us how society’s ideas about “crazy” keeps victims vulnerable. There was also another episode earlier this season where some white girls pinned a torture/murder on a developmentally disabled Romani kid, and they were again pretty clear that our own prejudices were contributing to horrors such as that. They were classic over the top SVU, but I thought it was a pretty bold statement.

        Great article, too!!

        1. I didn’t. . . But I saw the episode a couple of years ago where the victim was a woman with . . . Histronic Personality disorder? I think? Episode 11.16- the TV guide summaries focus on the wittness, who was an illegal immigrant from the congo in the states to escape rape and other issues there. But I thought it was a powerful highlight of how we doubt and second guess people with MHDs in our legal system- and in other systems as well.

          Objecting to a certain treatment while in inpatient can land you with a new diagnosis, refusing a certain treatment can be used to threaten reporting those on Medical assistance and other assistance with “non-compliance”. The line of when they can yank you off assistance for non-compliance when you have an MHD is fuzzy, and so it is held over your head that if you don’t do X they will report you and you will lose your assistance.

          1. Oooo! Have you read The Pscyhopath Test by Jon Ronson? (I don’t have unique ideas, I just refer to others’:)) A major theme in that is the fine line between helping and hurting a diagnosis can have, and how quickly after certain diagnoses a person looses their autonomy. Basically, you can fuck a person out of their basic human rights by trying to “help” that person “overcome” a MHD. He also discusses how certain traits of many MHDs are typical personality traits, and that once people are biased to see them as instances of MHD, you’re basically imprisoning others based on individual perceptions. It’s a great read!

            1. no, But I’ll have to! I do disability advocacy and activism, particularly Mental Health and Developmental disabilities, and being a proud crazy autistic person is so complex. . . My not hating and not being ashamed of my disabilities was held over my head for my SSI hearing, even though that has nothing to do with my ability to work enough to support myself. . .

              But yeah, I’ve been doing MH advocacy since I was 12 years old and my mom asked me to sit on a panel at a state wide conference. It’s disgusting how MHDs are used to invalidate people’s opinions, especially about their own care.

              People’s faces when I tell them I don’t want cured. . . I want to be able to manage those symptoms that cause me pain, and be able to live without bigotry for those that bring me joy like flapping, rocking, not doing eye contact, and losing verbal words.

              1. That is really awesome! I’m so glad I’ve found P-Mag and all of the fascinating and brilliant people around here! I think you’ll really like The Psychopath Test. He really highlights human ignorance in such a self-deprecating way, which really, I think, helps guide people out of their own problematic thinking. Although, hilariously, people on Jezebel kept citing The Psychopath Test in order to diagnose Casey Anthony with Psychopathic Personality Disorder. It was so obnoxious. I kept being like, “People! How are you armchair diagnosing a woman with a complex personality disorder by citing a book about how armchair diagnosing people with complex personality disorders is entirely dangerous?!”

                I also have PTSD, and one of the things I always struggle with is letting go of the shame of one of my symptoms coming out. I’m learning all the time how to get beyond it, but it sure would be a lot easier if people weren’t so awful! I just remind myself that PTSD is my cross to bear, and being totally ignorant is theirs.

                1. UGH. Seriously? I mean, it’s bad enough that people diagnose people as borderline in armchair just because they are hard to live/deal with. UGH UGH UGH.

                  Yeah, it’s rough. I’m mostly okay and reclaimy about my symptoms around PTSD, but there are some things that are hard. Like, IDK, Peeing myself in public because I had a flashback when some dude gets pissed off and yells. That one sucks when I come out of it- though I also have stress urinary incontinence so accidentally peeing myself is something I have plans to deal with, though usually not on that level.

                  If you like, you could join the P’s With Disabilities group on here. It has a high proportion of people with MHDs, some with additional disabilities and some not. I kinda meant it as a group to vent and support each other and I’d love to have you join.

  9. This behavior is disgusting. It’s manipulative, controlling, and incredibly selfish. Not only is the author trying to destroy someone rather than being an adult about it.

    Too often, this sort of behavior is praised when a woman is the abuser. Contrary to popular belief, she is not being “strong” or “bold”. She is being immature and abusive.

        1. To be sure, having mental issues doesn’t disqualify you from being a good doctor to others, and their own therapy is the important part. 

          It’s the doctors who are trying to treat themselves with their knowledge that this system runs into snags for them.  (not necessarily their patients)

    1. Have to admit, worst one I had met was my former flatmate who was a medical student, now a doctor He spent his entire time making girls think they were crazy, then try to fix them. He was fucked up and he continues to fuck up one of my very good friends. I’ve told her I love her, but I cannot stand him and what he does to her, so please don’t discuss him with me. But she does, because he’s made her believe that he’s the only person who understands her, while he makes her loose her marbles.

      /This is not an attack on doctors or medical students. It is just that this fucker is one, and accordingly has power over many people’s decisions relating to their lives and health. Makes me feel nauseous.

       

  10. First, I just realized in voting “sad” on this article, that I vote the same on pretty much every article related to social injustice.  Though I am passionate about equality, rights, and justice, I think this isn’t helping my depression….

    Anyway, you are spot on in denouncing this “naughty” behavior for what it really is: cruel and absolutely wrong.  I am a big advocate of counsel and believe everyone should seek it from time to time (in whichever format is appropriate to what it is in their life they want to get better at doing), so I hate how society makes light of or creates stigmata around mental health issues.  Whether the “intolerable” roommate had a pre-existing condition which was exascerbated by the cruelty of the other or if she was simple hoodwinked, it makes me sad that one person could have so little respect for another that they would be willing to use such a malicious means to run someone off.

  11. Gaslighting is infuriating. You see it online a lot, often in mansplaining situations, where the Manâ„¢ convinces a woman or group of women that their totally valid concerns are all in their heads and that very real issues don’t exist at all. It’s manipulative and awful, and relies on the recipient/victim being convinced that they don’t know their own mind.

    1. I dated a guy for about a year and a half who “mansplained” any issue I had with our relationship (he was a bit of a thoughtless jackass and sometimes I would call him on it) away as part of my depression. I was pretty stable at that point which was really really lucky, because that sort of behaviour could have set me over the edge if I’d been in a worse place.

    2. You are absolutely right. This is done all the time with things like gender issues, race issues, anything challenging oppression.

      “You’re overreacting!” “You just don’t know how to take a joke!” “Why are you getting so defensive?” “Of course I didn’t mean X, so why are you saying I said X?” “You’re just bitter because _____!” “I’m a (insert oppressed group here) and I don’t find X offensive, so it’s not offensive.” “It’s all in your head.”

      Total. Bullshit.

  12. That’s completely fucked. I could make a case for the actions in Amelie because I feel her character was giving the grocer a taste of his own medicine (he frequently set up his shopboy to believe he was less intelligent and less mentally and socially capable than he actually was in order to inflate his own ego; Amelie did cross some lines with him, but I would at least say her intentions were mostly noble – to give the shopboy an opportunity to escape the tyranny of his oppressive employer’s behavior just long enough to see that it wasn’t accurate, and so, thrive. It’s still questionable behavior, though, but at least she didn’t do it just because the grocer was ostensibly crazy.

    Even if the roommate in this article was mentally ill (and it sounds like her behavior was conflated to make her seem vaguely ill, but not specifically diagnosable), there are healthy ways to approach people with mental illness about conflict and about sorting out unresolvable personal issues, and these were certainly not those healthy means. Pushing buttons and gaslighting are inexcusable.

    1. I was actually unsettled when I connected what Amelie did to the gaslighting concept. I love that movie, and I loved that she was avenging her friend who happens to have disabilities but who is a very capable young man when he’s not being terrorized. Recognizing that she overstepped the line was a hard realization to face.

      I associate Fiona Apple’s song “Limp” with my brother because of his history of pushing buttons and gas-lighting me to prove that I’m incompetent-especially compared to him. . .

  13. It’s different if it’s a prank that’s owned up to. But doing this to someone with the express intention of making them feel crazy? And how about the fact that this woman likely got therapy that she didn’t need and is taking medication that isn’t necessary because she now feels unstable? And also, how about the fact that her life is now changed (I.e being crazy as ever) and will likely continue to get worse? I bet that eventually, she will actually need that therapy and medication to function.

    Obviously, the woman was a poor roommate, but you know what a rational person does? Makes them move out or moves out themselves. That’s what normal people do. You know what people don’t do? Drag out a situation and cause psychological harm to another. The writer is the one that needs therapy and medication. The fact that she thought it was okay to treat another human being this way is appalling. Empathy. She’s missing it. And that scares me.

    1. “It’s different if it’s a prank that’s owned up to.”

      Yes. Yes, exactly. If she owned up to these pranks, I could see humour in them. But she didn’t, and she did it  with the express intention of making the roomie move out because of going “crazy” and then essentially bragged about it years later in a nationally/internationally (I don’t know if this article made the carry over to any of the international editions or not) distributed magazine.

      I wouldn’t say she lacked empathy per se. But then, being someone with a Dx that people say “lacks empathy”- I’m Autistic as well as having PTSD- I’m a bit sensitive about how people use the word. Don’t get me wrong, she certainly didn’t use her empathy, and her interactions with this roommate seem to have lack its use.

      I read it more as Passive aggression and conflict avoidance behaviors remolded in a way to make her feel “empowered”. And honestly, that framing of her behavior makes a lot of sense in the context of Cosmo. There’s a lot of the messages of how one should be empowered but not forceful. . . it’s pretty rough. The gender politics that make up how passive aggression and conflict avoidance work out are sticky and craptastic. One is supposed to avoid being mean to someone’s face, avoid starting conflict, but at the same time. . . at the same time, must be empowered, must see herself as powerful, must only appear to lean on others and never actually ask stuff of others. I sadly don’t have to words for this dynamic at this point, though this incident could be one of many examples in a post of how our construucts about what a modern woman should be creates dangerous perspectives when it tries to cling to the past. but I digress.

      1. Sorry about the lacking empathy bit. It was the word that came to me at the time. I wouldn’t presume to use it a developmental disability context (I have an autistic stepsister myself).

        As for the rest of what you said, I completely agree. That’s a really good way of putting exactly how their readers are taught to live their life. And most of us for that matter. It’s scary that this is where it ends up.

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