Several weeks ago there was an article in AppleNews on gaslighting which entirely missed the point of what gaslighting is (like almost all writing on it), discussing it as a general ‘messing with someone’s head’. Gaslighting is much more specific, calculated and vicious than that. And it has a core element not necessary to general ‘mind games’.
It concerns what physically exists – e.g. when the aggressor draws their victim’s attention to something which physically existed and then the aggressor makes a specific claim about that thing, now removed or absent, perhaps denying that it exists/existed, that they ever said that it had or claims that the victim has done something with it.
Evidence may be produced to support this – e.g. in the excellent 1944 film Gaslight, the husband pointed to the mark on the wall where a picture had been, charging his wife with having moved it (the charge of his victim’s having stolen it is not necessary to the aggressor’s purpose).
What is being targeted is the victim’s most fundamental connection with reality – their trust in their senses and, following that, their trust in their memory.
The key aspect of gaslighting is that we naturally (i.e. by not taking into account the finer points the current initiated by Plotinus has done so much to explicate) accept physical existence. Physical existence is not up for debate – a thing either is or it isn’t. We take it for granted that there is nothing more certain and real than physical existence. Thus, the stakes are the highest.
The aggressor’s purpose is to aim directly at the qualities of the victim essential to living a healthy life – to destroy not only the victim’s perception of reality and trust in their memory and self but their sense of worth, reducing them to obsessively second-guessing the aggressor and, in effect, to utter psychological vulnerability to and domination by them.
A range of secondary tactics are employed on the victim to achieve this (e.g. shaming and the manipulation of affection). This is the ‘messing with the head’ part.
The film Gaslight correctly made another very important point about gaslighting – that the aggressor’s ultimate purpose in targeting their victim may not concern the victim at all, but be the achievement of another goal – in the film this is the aggressor’s discovery of hidden wealth and keeping that discovery secret. This points to the degree of self-focus of the abuser.
On the healing power of positive reinforcement (also in the film): it only took the (from memory) policeman to confirm to the victim that the gaslight was going up and down, as she saw and knew, for the husband’s web of lies and his power over his wife to crumble and vanish.