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 AmÃ©lie, 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.