Where does the term Gas Lighting come from?
Gas Light is a 1938 play by the British dramatist Patrick Hamilton in which a husband literally accuses his wife (falsely) of turning down the gas, when in fact he was in another apartment in the same building looking for lost jewels and his turning on the gas there weakened the flow of gas to his own apartment. The term “gaslighting” is now used to describe a common form of psychological abuse in which victims are made to doubt their perceptions and judgments. The original play is set in fog bound London in 1880, in the home of Jack Manningham and his wife Bella in late afternoon, the time “before the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea.”
The practice of “Gaslighting” however, is very much a part of our modern day dynamic and unfortunately common in both personal and professional relationships.
Have you ever been on the brink of delivering a new project, submission, or a piece of spoken word only to have the rug pulled from under your feet by a vague accusation that you have committed some kind of misdemeanor and hurt someone dreadfully as a result?
Did you find it impossible to get any kind of plausible explanation other than “I don’t want to talk about it,” so you are left in limbo and the ground under your feet is literally destabilized?
Were you hurt, angry, frustrated but cut off from any kind of meaningful exchange to resolve the issue, the so called “injured party” choosing not to engage after the accusation was hurled, either online, unwitnessed but rarely in and open manner?
And worse of all, did you feel isolated and afraid that the perpetrator had spread their version of events to those you know, work with, write with or make art with?
Well, I, and a few of my peers have experienced exactly this and I have to admit that I did not know at the time that this was “Gas Lighting”. Whereas the circumstances may vary, the process is almost identical and the result is ALWAYS a kick to your confidence as a writer/performer and human being.
I began to really think about why this happens when it happened to me for the third time in ten years (yes, I am a slow learner! 🙂 ). When I spoke to colleagues about it I was literally gobsmacked to find that it has happened to several successful people I know. Of those that admitted it had happened to them, they are, one, extremely talented and two, known to be generous with their time, their skill and in their willingness to support their peers. I had assumed (wrongly as it turned out) that it was more common with women. But it turns out it has/does happen to men too, and the effects are just as devastating.
Creatives being usually emphatic by nature and almost always sensitive about putting their work out into the world, so the effects of gaslighting are toxic and the damage long lasting. It can prevent creatives from working, delivering their art, creating new work and worst of all, having confidence in something they may have loved and labored over for a long time.
You may not know that it has happened to you, you may brush a toxic or sarcastic remark off as someone having a bad day, but if you begin to second guess yourself and stop enjoying your performing or sharing of your work, chances are someone somewhere has planted a seed of doubt and our minds tend to take these toxic sentences and blow them out of all proportion. Throw in a few rejections that are part and parcel of the writing/arts world and your spirits can sink within a very short space of time and you may possibly begin to question your skill or your right to take your place in what is a very competitive field at the best of times.
So why do some people feel the need to be cruel to others? Why do they feel its ok to issue a vague (or if you are lucky, direct) accusation or complaint without leaving space to discuss openly why they feel that gas lighting another artist is a viable form of resolving any issue?
When looking for an answer to this question the colleagues who had experienced being gas lit genuinely did not have one. When looking online, the most common explanation seemed to be that those who chose to lash out were trying to assert some kind of power over others. In fact, many of the people who had behaved in this way to the colleagues I spoke to were in some kind of position of power. Others were extremely close “friends” or even family, and therefore in a position to inflict as much damage as possible. Some reported becoming very close very quickly only to find themselves on the receiving end of a very “serious” accusation out of the blue. All reported (myself included) to have been blindsided as a result. Confused, exhausted, upset, frustrated and sad.
My own personal opinion is that when we are hurting, we lash out. But creatives are ultra sensitive creatures.
We all have issues. We all have insecurities. We all have doubts. But we DON’T all lash out at other people as a way to make ourselves feel better. I don’t have any insight from a Gas Lighter to share with you as to how they feel when they gas light others as gas lighters tend not to see themselves as anything other than a victim. Lets face it, who is going to put their hand up and say “I do/did that?”
So what can you/we do to protect ourselves from this kind of toxic damage to our creative lives? One thing we all agreed on when we spoke about this for the purposes of my writing this post was the importance of talking to friends, colleagues, peers when it happens. Hiding it for fear of upsetting others or spreading negativity is only ever helpful to the perpetrator. Talk about it. Say “this is/has happened to me”. Gas lighting is bullying in a highly insidious form. We encourage children to speak out when they are bullied, so we too, must speak out.
If the perpetrator is in a position of power then find out who their boss is and consider talking to them.
One common theme between the people I spoke to was that perpetrators were sometimes in a position to affect funding for a project/launch/production. Creatives are by and large dependent on funding to survive. However, more and more artists are taking their career into their own hands and self publishing/funding/promoting their own work so at least in this area artists may regain control over their art once the hurting has healed.
But almost all (myself included) reacted immediately by apologizing, usually out of habit….for what we were not clear. With hindsight you may find yourself saying “what the fuck just happened??? And what high and mighty fuck am I apologizing for??”.
Artists are easily hurt and that hurt can last a very long time. Gas lighters tend to move on to the next victim but it takes artists a long time to recover from the experience. That said, all of the writers/artists I spoke to have managed to navigate a way back to an even stronger position with their work, even if it took a while, by virtue of their talent and commitment to their craft. Some battered and bruised around the edges but finding their tribe among artists who want to create rather than destroy. You would not know by their success and current works that they had ever had this experience and perhaps in time it has made them stronger. But I feel very strongly that each of these people did not need to go through emotional abuse because perhaps their star shone a little too bright, or their piece got too loud a round of applause. Abuse is never necessary and is always toxic to both parties.
You can also report what has happened to you in confidence and with/without naming names in this excellent online survey below. Sometimes even the act of typing your experience and sending it off into the ether in confidence is a game changer in terms of you moving on and recovering.
ITI has launched Speak Up ACTiON Survey, a survey of arts workers & their workplace experiences. The findings will inform policy & the development of artist supports for safe & dignified working environments.
Supported by @DeptCulturelRL
And if it happens again going forward, I have decided to to take a leaf out of Dame Helen Mirrens’ book when she said
” At 70 years old if I could give my younger self one piece of advice it would be to us the words “fuck off” much more frequently.
Take care and take her advice if you think you need to! 🙂