Episode 78: Word of the Week: Gaslighting

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Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous, here with Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.

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Nahanni: Welcome back to Word of the Week, a miniseries where we dig into one word and explore how it relates to Jewish women. This time: Gaslighting! 

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[News clips play]

I would say prepare yourself to be gaslit tonight.

Doctors misdiagnosing, dismissing, even gaslighting their female patients.

The gaslighting of this happened almost immediately and it’s only gotten worse.

They’re gaslighting us on gas prices.

The president of the United States is gaslighting you and you deserve to know.


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Nahanni: The term is used on the news, on social media, and in lots of casual conversations. Of course, it’s not exclusive to Jewish women, but it’s pervasive, so we’re taking a look at where it came from and how its use has changed. We’ll talk with a linguist and a psychotherapist, but first, we want to hear what it means to our cast of cool Jewish women. Here’s Jen Richler talking it over with Judy Gold and Miriam Anzovin.

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Jen: Tell me what you think about the word gaslighting. What's your reaction to that word?

Judy: I have a visceral reaction for the concept of gaslighting. It’s demoralizing—no, it makes me really angry.


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Miriam: It erases the experiences of people who have gone through something and then those experiences are rejected—”Oh no, you're overreacting. It didn't go down that way.”

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Jen: Do you think that Jews are subjected to a lot of gaslighting? Do you think women are?

Miriam: A lot of Jewish men gaslight Jewish women, just like men in general sometimes can tend to do.

Judy: When you’re trying to prove that someone is gaslighting you, it is crazy-making.

Jen: That's exactly the point, right? Like, it’s supposed to make you question your own sanity.

Judy: Jews are already insane.

Jen: Right. [laughs]

Judy: Gaslighting for Jews is on a whole other level because we’re already, like, wait a minute, did I not see that?  Do I really think that? Wait, did that really ha–?  We question everything. 

Jen: Do you think women do that too?

Judy: Oh, way more than men.

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Jen: When have you been gaslit in a Jewish context?

Miriam: Okay. So let's say, the thing about the morning prayer where men say, “Thank you God, for not having made me a woman.”And if I went, “Oh, that's really painful to read,” I will be told, “Oh no, you don't understand. What that means is you're on a higher spiritual level. It's not a negative, it's a positive.” That's gaslighting.

Jen: It almost seems like it goes hand in hand, at least in that example, with mansplaining.

Miriam: Exactly. These are very connected ideas.


Nahanni: You might think gaslighting and mansplaining are both trendy new words, but the term gaslighting has much older roots. It originally came from a play called Gaslight, which in 1944 was made into a Hollywood thriller.

[Film trailer music plays and then fades]

Nahanni: Charles Boyer plays Gregory, an emotionally abusive husband who is systematically deceiving his wife Paula, played by Ingrid Bergman. 

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He’s trying to make her think she’s going insane—to cover up a murder he committed.

[Film clip from Gaslight]

Gregory: If I could only get inside that brain of yours and understand what makes you do these crazy, twisted things.

Paula: Gregory, are you trying to tell me I'm insane?

Nahanni: Gregory hides things and accuses Paula of taking them, isolates her, and pretends events that happened didn’t happen. His deceit nearly works.

[Film clip from Gaslight]

Paula: Are you telling me that I've dreamed...

Gregory: Everything.

Paula: All that happened?

Gregory: All that did not happen.

Paula: Then it's true. My mind is going.

Gregory: Haven't I told you, Paula?

Paula: It was a dream.

Gregory: Like all the rest.

Paula: Take me away. I can't fight it anymore; it was a dream.

[Film music plays briefly]

Nahanni: Ingrid Bergman won her first Oscar for her performance in this film. But why is the movie called Gaslight? The name comes from the old-fashioned gas-powered lights in the house. They dim at odd times, which adds to Paula’s doubts about her own sanity. But the gaslights are ultimately the tip-off for Paula, giving away Gregory’s nefarious doings.

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Spoiler alert: Paula gets her revenge in the end.

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Several decades after the film Gaslight’s release, the word gaslighting appeared in the field of psychology. In the 1970s and 80s, it appeared in a smattering of academic papers, where psychologists used it to describe manipulative, abusive behavior that makes another person doubt their sanity—like what Gregory does in the movie.

These days, the term is used much more broadly. Recently, on Can We Talk?, the writer Dara Horn talked about the gaslighting of Jews, where Jews are told that things they see as antisemitic really aren't. Like when the Anne Frank Museum told a Jewish employee he couldn’t wear his yarmulke to work, and then insisted that this policy was not antisemitic. 

But it’s gone even farther from its original meaning. It’s applied to politicians who spin the truth. People use it to talk about journalists they disagree with. I've heard teenagers say the whole world is gaslighting them.  

Has the term become so general that it’s lost its power? I talked about it with Rachel Steindel Burdin, a linguistics professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Nahanni: So, the meaning of the word gaslighting seems to have really expanded.  What do you think about that?

Rachel: [Laughs] So I'm a linguist, right, and we're okay with words changing meaning. It's sort of become the equivalent of the phrase, “Don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining.” So it's sort of losing that shade of doing so to undermine your sanity, though I think that meaning is sort of there, at least a little bit.

Nahanni: It feels like it's losing its calculated nature of what happened in the film. That was part of a murder plot. [laughs]

Rachel: Yes.

Nahanni: I mean, you say as a linguist that you're okay with the meaning of words changing, but would you agree that that meaning has been watered down?

Rachel: Yeah. But again, the cat's out of the bag, right? There's sort of no way to take the word and make people use it the way you want to.

Nahanni: Hmm. Right. I guess as a non-linguist, but a speaker of English...

Rachel: Yeah…

Nahanni: …my observation, in certain circles, is that it’s sometimes used in place of a more accurate word, like patronize, or even being lied to—it seems like some people want to use the word gaslighting because it places them…like, it helps them identify with a particular outlook.

Rachel: Yeah. So there's a technical term in socio-linguistics called indexing or indexicality. So one way for me to use language is to communicate information. But there's another function of language, which is to signal something about ourselves to other people.

So I've done some work on this, with language and sort of indexing Jewish identity, right? So sometimes this can be kind of obvious. I can use a Yiddish word like schmutz. I can say, “Oh, you've got some dirt on your face” or I could say, “You’ve got some schmutz on your face.” And when I'm doing that, I'm indexing my Jewishness to a certain extent.

Nahanni: Uh huh. I love that there is a term…of course there's a term for that. [laughs]

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Nahanni: But is gaslighting really an example of this indexing phenomenon? Before I started digging deeper into the word, I thought it was used mainly on the left. But then, while I was searching through news clips, I noticed that everyone’s using it—from MSNBC all the way to Fox News.

The word gaslighting may be all over the news these days, but fifteen years ago, it wasn’t. That’s when psychotherapist Robin Stern wrote her book The Gaslight Effect. She used the word with its original meaning in mind, to describe relationships where one partner makes the other question their own sanity.

Nahanni: So you wrote The Gaslight Effect in 2007. What do you think about what has happened to the term gaslighting since then?

Robin: Well, it's certainly become popular. I'm interviewed weekly. You just need to go to the Netflix choices and see Inventing Anna, Tinder Swindler, Pretty Little Lies a couple of years ago, and The Girl on the Train, and all these movies are gaslighting movies. And now there's a movie called Gaslit with Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, and people talk about it all the time.

Nahanni: So, it's also used in much more casual ways.

Robin: In some cases, absolutely. In some cases, people just disagree. In some cases, I might think that your opinion is wrong. It doesn't mean I'm trying to gaslight you. But you're right that it is used…“You're gaslighting me,” if somebody says, “I don't agree with you” or “I don't think that you’re right about that.” Well, that's not gaslighting.

However, if that's happening in a relationship where the person who's saying it to you has power over you and it happens repeatedly, over time, again and again—you know, “You don't think clearly. You're not right about that.” When I first wrote about gaslighting, I wrote about it only in intimate relationships. And then suddenly, here people were talking about politicians who they were not intimate with gaslighting them.

Nahanni: And what do you think about that use of the word gaslighting?

Robin: I think the problem is that people are throwing it around as a way to either stop the conversation or perhaps not take responsibility, because they don't like what's being said to them, because they feel hurt or insulted or they don't like it: “You're gaslighting me.” You can disagree and not be gaslighting each other.

Nahanni: Mm-hm. Do you think gaslighting is still a useful term?

Robin: I think that for people who are being gaslighted, it's very serious and I feel really strongly about people being gaslighted being able to identify it. So I think when it's used accurately, it is super helpful. When you can name something, then you can do something about it. If you can't name it, then you continue to just point your finger at yourself much of the time and say, there's something wrong. I don't know what it is.

When it's used casually, just to mean, “I don't like what you said to me,” and I know this word, and people don’t really understand that it is also about the undermining of someone’s reality, I think it's not helpful.

Nahanni: On the other hand, I wonder if maybe the normalizing of the term might make it easier for people to identify with. And that could be a helpful thing.

Robin: Good point—that the more it's out there, you can kind of put it up and say, is this me? Is this me? Is this me?

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Nahanni: Whatever you think about the term gaslighting, one thing’s for sure—it has taken off. Google Ngram, which tracks how often a word is used over time, shows a steep increase in the use of the word gaslighting over the past decade. As Rachel Steindel Burdin says, the cat’s out of the bag.

Rachel: One funny thing, I was looking back...I'm a member of the American Dialect Society and every year in January, we have the Word of the Year vote. And there are a bunch of different subcategories and one of the subcategories is Most Likely to Succeed.

Nahanni: What does “succeed” mean? Increased use?

Rachel: Yeah, increased use doesn't go away, isn't just sort of a flash in the pan. And it looks like back in January 2017, the ADS voted gaslight most likely to succeed. And that was one of the more correct predictions, I think. Like yeah, it was on an upswing. We caught it on the upswing.

Nahanni: What was the word of the year this year?

Rachel: I think it was insurrection.

Nahanni: Oh my God. [laughs]

Rachel: Yeah.

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[Clip of Trump plays]

There was such love at that rally. You had over a million people there. They were there for one reason: the rigged election. They felt the election was rigged. That’s why they were there. And they were peaceful people, these were great people.

[Clip of Gaslighter by The Chicks plays]

Gaslighter, denier, doing anything to get your ass farther. Gaslighter...


Nahanni: And that’s our Word of the Week!

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Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Jen Richler and Judith Rosenbaum. Special thanks to Jenny Sartori for help on this episode. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble, and our Word of the Week jingle is by Alicia Jo Rabins.  

You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Tune in next time for the last in our Word of the Week series: eshet chayil—woman of valor.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 78: Word of the Week: Gaslighting." (Viewed on February 23, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-78-word-week-gaslighting-0>.