How Gaslighting in Fiction Can Reflect the Realities of Psychological Abuse
Jennifer Baker Considers The Illness Lesson and Real Life
For years I didn’t have a name for gaslighting. The feeling though and the anger that accompanied it were always palpable, enough to keep me rooted in place, calculating what to say, clutching my hands together so they wouldn’t fly every which way in defense. I felt cut down, upset, confused, so confused—those were emotions I could name. I named my anger at my job when my boss laughed when a visiting vendor told me, the only Black woman in the room, to smile repeatedly. I named my frustration in couple’s therapy as my (then) husband insisted I wasn’t being a supportive enough wife, though my underpaid publishing job kept us both afloat while he finished his undergraduate degree. I named it each time I was struck with someone’s deflection, and ultimately left questioning myself. In each instance their power was maintained leaving me reduced to the point I could actually feel myself shrinking even as I stood erect in front of them.
Turns out there was a name for this feeling. It’s been around longer than I’ve been alive. But I wasn’t introduced to it until several years ago. The term “gaslighting” was originally inspired by the 1940s film adaptation of the play Gas Light, in which a newly wedded woman is continually manipulated by her creepy husband in order to hide his own crimes. The husband schemes to make his wife doubt her perception and stability at every turn. “Gaslighting” as part of the psychological lexicon refers to the ways in which people are pushed to question their sanity and their reality. Once I learned the true definition my mind flipped to almost every instance of me thinking I was losing my mind and how it was enforced by someone else. How often others’ defensiveness and inability to accept harm meant minimizing me at every turn, forcing me to swallow my thoughts in place of someone’s own.
To me, one of the best parts about reading are when you see yourself in the work. This may not always be a direct composite or mirror image but the emotional pull is reminiscent of something so real, in the strongest work it can be too real. Early last year, pre-lockdown, pre-a-whole-new-world, I read two debut novels—The Illness Lesson and Real Life—that so epitomized gaslighting that reading them was a painful reminder of similar experiences I’d had as a Black woman. Each contained portions of my identity, pieces of my encounters. The portrayals of misogyny employed in one bringing me to moments in the conference room where I’d been minimized and rendered invisible, or on the couples therapy couch when the dismissal of my reality kept my partner’s world afloat. Or of the ways in which the upholding of whiteness and white comfort meant waving away years of pain and exclusion. Too real, I thought to myself as I turned the pages, hoping for a happier ending for these characters.
In Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson, 1871 Massachusetts is as disturbing as 2020 New York City. Scholar Samuel Hood, with the help of his daughter Caroline, establishes The School of the Trilling Heart for young women, providing them the same type of education as young men—a radical notion at the time. Former military man and acolyte of Samuel, David Moore arrives on the scene to help as an instructor—adding to the gendered expectations and becoming the focus of Caroline’s affections. Caroline is hemmed in by these men, embroiled in her father’s efforts as an instructor even as she sits on a pedestal as an example of “proper femininity.” Samuel keeps his daughter at his side as evidence of his own success in rearing a smart, obedient woman to be what he could never make his deceased wife.
When one of the more popular girls within the small group of students experiences signs of an unclear illness—weakness, prone to faints, shaky and achy extremities, and red splotches along their skin—a domino effect incites the other girls to exhibit similar symptoms. The men assume this is groupthink not contagion, nothing serious, only the drama of young women needing attention. Even the male doctors beckoned agree. Caroline wavers but ultimately accepts what the men around her say when her status as a woman is brought up as an “example” for the “silly” young girls around her. As days then weeks pass, the disease remains unnamed and all the girls succumb to it. Suddenly even Caroline starts to show the initial symptoms causing even more uncertainty within Caroline and giving more ammo to those around her. For the men it proves the dramatic nature inherent in women. For the girls it reflects their reality—this is not a fit, nor an illusion, it’s an illness. However, another doctor visits and provides the ultimate diagnosis: hysteria.
Any inkling Caroline has to push back gets squashed by the insinuation that she’s not thinking clearly or rationally. And when it’s Caroline whose limbs start to fail her, whose thinking is at odds with those in power, her voice becomes quieter, her mind less assured. What’s worse is these seeds have been planted by Samuel Hood since Caroline’s birth.
I thought about the early ways self-doubt is instilled in us. How parents or adults in general have this power over their children. When I asked Clare Beams about the father–daughter relationship in particular, she said, “Samuel does know what he’s asking Caroline and the girls to do in trusting him. But I also think some of the manipulation isn’t even something he has to deliberately undertake—Caroline and the girls are doing it themselves, twisting themselves into mental knots (and sometimes physical ones) to justify the unjustifiable actions of the people in power. That’s what they’ve been taught to do.”I thought about the early ways self-doubt is instilled in us. How parents or adults in general have this power over their children.
As I read I recognized how a learned woman with deep desires like Caroline doesn’t take the action she internally yearns to. Caroline’s trust of her father is unyielding, but that trust of him and David over herself slowly unravels her mentally and physically. I didn’t only recognize it, I absolutely believed it because at one time or another, I had been Caroline.
Beams says of the impetus for The Illness Lesson, “One of the things that interested me in this novel was this question of what happens when you’ve been taught to trust someone else’s judgment more than you trust your own. That’s the case for the students, and certainly for Caroline—her whole life has molded her to assume her father knows and understands more than she does.”
These assumptions also come into play in Brandon Taylor’s debut Real Life, set almost 150 years after The Illness Lesson, in present-day Midwest. Where Beams focuses on the patriarchal power dynamic, Taylor captures the psychological manipulation inherent in the racial divide, one absorbed and vocalized by those on the receiving end.
“People can be unpredictable in their cruelty,” says Wallace. He is surrounded by whiteness in his cohort while on his way to a doctorate: the “good white friends,” the “liberal white friends,” the people who can be simultaneously incredulous at violence against Black bodies and unwilling to utter the word “white supremacy” because it means taking ownership of how they have been allowed to succeed. Wallace is the only Black student in his program, and too often he is witness to the silences, the mixed signals, the expectations of what he should say and do. Wallace is so attuned to these behaviors he’s become adept in the performance of him being the problem and others the supposed arbiters of truth.
Real Life’s first chapter illustrates the exhaustion that Wallace sometimes feels in the company of his friends. From the first few lines Wallace debates spending time with them. I immediately commiserated with his hesitation and even more so in the middle of a pandemic. Considering the energy of bringing around a group for whose benefit I may have to uphold a performance, at the cost of my comfort, is not fun. Their sometimes good-natured intentions can make it even harder. In the novel, a spotlight is on Wallace to perform to keep everyone at ease—this is something many BIPOC know well. The white collective’s need to be comfortable leads to a particular way of talking to and about him, eliciting more sympathy for themselves than for Wallace. Emma, the sole woman in the group, discusses Wallace’s father’s death, then quickly takes offense at Wallace’s frustration at her disclosing details of his personal life. She insists his anger is misplaced and he shouldn’t be mad at her because her intentions were good.
Even a walk home with an acquaintance (soon-to-turn suitor) and the residual feelings from Wallace’s exchange with Emma results in traversing around white feelings, white panic, run-of-the-mill white fragility. Wallace reflects on the emotional toll of having to play the part of sympathetic party.
The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment.
When a white woman labmate spews vitriol at him—complete with the n-word—she attempts to veil her racism as a reaction to what she perceives as Wallace’s misogyny towards her. He has the upperhand where she doesn’t. He is the problem. Their lab supervisor believes the woman accusing over Wallace who sits aghast while tending to a sabotaged project.
Where The Illness Lesson’s Caroline attempts to erase her concerns to absorb those around her, or misdirects her frustration at another woman for having the ability to vocalize her own desires, Wallace swallows his emotions, agreeing and keeping silent at the violence directed at him, violence that is continually dismissed as being fair and beyond concern. Wallace agrees to the terms set publicly by those around him—even those he considers friends and colleagues—through his silence.
Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened. Only Wallace will remember it. That’s the frustrating part. Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation.
The Illness Lesson and Real Life frame psychological abuse as a deeply felt reality, no matter when or where these characters are. At the base level the people we’ve formed relationships with and whom we sit alongside in companionship, be it romantic or platonic, are those we are assured wouldn’t hurt us, wouldn’t dare put us in danger. Yet, so many people who have gaslit, manipulated, and debased me, and I’m sure so many others, have been those closest to us guised as our confidantes.
What’s clear in both novels is how, when someone does find their voice, those who know them as docile protest that they “no longer sound like themselves.” Caroline and Wallace’s experiences separately and seamlessly tapped into the moments I’ve questioned myself when I compared my reality to the claims of the male and/or white/white adjacent gaze. My voice had to rise above inherent conditioning, not just by society at large but by those near and dear to me, who may not have had the intention to inflict harm, yet still caused me to question myself more than once. And this is how the cycle begins, or continues: if you try to break out, you’re encouraged to second-guess who you are and what you really believe. These characters confirmed my experiences as someone who is constantly expected to be what others have imagined us: complacent, happy, malleable.