The nation was both shocked and relieved on Sunday when The Archers domestic violence storyline reached a dramatic climax. Having attempted to walk out on her husband Rob, Helen cracked, stabbing the man who has been systematically eroding her sense of self for over two years.
The psychological coercion Helen experienced is a particular type of manipulation known as “gaslighting”, after the 1944 film Gaslight. In the film, Charles Boyer’s Gregory Anton sets out to convince Ingrid Bergman’s Paula that she has gone mad. One of his many tactics is to secretly dim the gaslights in their home and tell Bergman she is insane when she comments that the lights are flickering. As a result, gaslighting is now used to describe a particular type of mental abuse that makes the victim doubt her – and it is often a her – own sanity, memory and perception.
Setting up bizarre events and then denying them is one tactic, but so is the kind of behavioural and thought control Rob exerts over Helen, from controlling her money to forcing her to eat a sticky toffee pudding after his wife, who is bulimic, has just thrown up her meal.
Most victims of domestic abuse, narcissistic relationships or abusive childhoods see gaslighting as often as damaging as physical abuse. Gaslighting is so dangerous because it skewers the individual’s capacity to explain and realise what is wrong. It occurs in romantic relationships, like Rob and Helen’s marriage, but also in friendships, families, the military and at work. Gaslighting tends to start gradually, and can often appear ridiculous and everyday at first, for example being accused of overreacting because you are premenstrual.
However, as the lever is pressed more and more firmly, victims start to question themselves, trying to argue their way back to reality. This capacity to doubt – a healthy sign in comparison to the certitude of the sadist – is then pathologised by the perpetrator who often uses psychiatric discourse to tell the individual they are too emotional and disturbed, too irrational.
Attempts to keep a grip on reality are mocked and blocked, as the perpetrator works to cut the victim off from friends and a community that can provide a reality check, as in Helen’s case. The victim may know something is wrong, that reality is slipping away, but the undivided attention becomes more and more addictive, and is often fuelled by problematic experiences of childhood relationships.
As gaslighting makes people feel mad, and as labelling someone as insane is a classic form of abuse, people often turn to their GP. When Helen did this a few weeks ago, she was offered antidepressants and a talking therapy called CBT. Her surface complaints of feeling low, angry and erratic were taken at face value. She was not able to articulate her actual experiences, an excellent representation of the gaslighting experience where victims are coerced into believing that if they could just be less emotional, have more positive thoughts and be less troublesome, all would be well. These dubious goals being force-fed to Helen by Rob coincide with the therapy world’s preoccupations at this moment in history, with often devastating results.
I wish it were possible to have faith that the psychiatric system would have spotted why Helen was so distressed. However, not only are domestic violence charities closing, but also most victims of gaslighting don’t present at specialist services because they have been trained to believe they, not the relationship, are the problem. Like Helen, they present at GP surgeries, or via services where they will most likely receive a telephone assessment. With emphasis on placing people in diagnostic boxes as soon as possible, and huge managerial pressures to move on to the next person, surface complaints are often taken too literally in order to complete an assessment.
What is missing for many is a detailed understanding of how language and the toxic environments we experience can colonise our minds, and drive us into mental illness as Helen’s relationship with Rob did. Many listeners of The Archers would argue that Helen is not ill, but drowning in toxic environmental quicksand. Those of us who are lucky enough to spend our days listening to psychiatric patients’ stories often think similarly. But the time and space needed to allow a real story to emerge – always a brave act of untangling latent from manifest meaning – is increasingly under attack in the NHS.
The failure to understand gaslighting is not just dangerous to victims of adult domestic abuse, but to many psychiatric populations. A classic example is voice-hearing. Voice-hearing can be a way of trying to ward off an oppressor’s voice from completely taking over one’s subjectivity – a way to try to insert a minimal space between addresser and addressee, an attempted solution. But voice-hearing is often ticked off simply as an obvious symptom of schizophrenia. In this case, psychiatry can inadvertently work in the interests of the initial manipulator; this diagnosis would reinforce the classic taunt of “no one will believe you”. Sadly, mental health practitioners do not always see beyond surface communications that may look like someone is ill, to see how violent backgrounds can create mental illness.
While Archers fans are to be lauded for empathising with Helen’s plight, and donating to specialist domestic abuse agencies, deaths – both fictional and real – will continue to occur unless mental health practitioners listen in detail to the backstory behind each and every psychiatric presentation. Radio 4 listeners will attest that this has been a painful process. But it is an essential one if we are to stop psychiatric discourse being used as a gaslighting technique to discredit the lived experiences of those too readily seen as mentally ill.
“The Archers domestic abuse is classic ‘gaslighting’ – very real, little understood”