Gaslight

bergman

The 1944 film Gaslight tells the story of a young woman named Paula (played beautifully by Ingrid Bergman) who is deceived by her new husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) into believing she is crazy. His manipulation starts small. He tells her that she has these little flaws and then makes them true through sleight of hand. He says, “You know you are inclined to lose things, Paula.”

“I didn’t realize that,” she responds because she has not been known to lose things and then he gives her a broach and when she loses it she thinks, oh shit maybe I do lose things! Of course, she didn’t lose it. He hid it from her because he is an evil murderer, but Paula does not realize this and the cycle continually repeats itself until she questions everything she understands about her own mind.

Gregory wants control and keeping someone in a state of heightened nerves is a great way to leverage power. He also wants money. He murdered Paula’s aunt and then tricked Paula into moving back into the house where the murder happened—a home conveniently owned solely by Paula until they married—so that he can spend his nights rummaging around in the attic looking for the family jewels because he doesn’t have any. He eventually finds them sewn into a gown, and I found this scene amusing and willed him through the screen, Gregory, please put on the dress. Sadly, he doesn’t put on the dress but he does grab the jewels and rub them around in his greedy little hands.

Meanwhile, Paula is held captive in her own house, like the madwoman in the attic or the young wife with her yellow wallpaper or modern day moms stuck cleaning with a cartoon bald man. Gregory tells her she is not well enough to go out and then fabricates events that make her believe he is right. What is most interesting about Paula is that she is not weak. Perhaps that is why he must go to such deceptive measures. He cannot control her transparently.

In the end with the help of a tall, handsome inspector from Scotland Yard, Paula realizes that she is being tricked. Each night Gregory leaves the house and walks to the back alley into an abandoned flat and climbs through a skylight into the attic. I like that the story involves him scurrying like a rat. There is no dignity in greed. When he gets to the attic he turns on the lights, thus using some of the home’s gas and causing the lights in the main house to dim. Paula notes that shortly after he leaves the lights dim and shortly before he returns, they brighten. She knows this change is real and that factor serves as a lighthouse to her sanity.

“You know who’s up there.”

She knows. Because she is not actually crazy. He distorted her reality. He controlled information. He made statements and then through manipulation made them come true. It is how most card tricks are done (spoiler alert!) He also places her in a spiral of fear and as her insecurity about the reliability of her own mind increases she must rely on Gregory to act as her compass. This gives him even more opportunity to manipulate her environment.

I was interested in this film to get a better understanding of the term gaslighting to condemn what Trump is doing by continually denouncing the legitimacy of the media. He is attempting to distort reality by telling the American people that we cannot trust the information we are receiving. And perhaps it started small, the same way Gregory started by simply telling Paula that she was forgetful, and now it has grown into daily poorly written reports and tweets that suggest the information we receive is fake. It is a tactic used to try to unsettle the public trust and make us question what we should be believe.

Distorting someone’s perception of reality can be done by inserting a single, subtle word that invokes doubt, like “You look nice today,” which usually leaves me questioning what kind of trash heap I have looked like every other day. Or maybe something like, “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s entire slogan was a manipulation. He used two unstated assumptions. We don’t even have to get into this country’s history of oppression and discuss timelines of exactly which horrifying “again” he was aiming for, the point was that by accepting the slogan, followers had to swallow the ideas that America is not currently great and that there was a time in our history when things were better. Relying on assumptions is a bad magic trick.

Trump said the media can’t be trusted throughout his campaign because as any gaslighter knows, the seed must be planted early and often. In May of 2016 Trump told Sean Hannity that Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and current owner of The Washington Post was unfairly attacking him and using the prominent news source “as a toy” (interesting choice of words, is it all just a game?) Trump suggested that Bezos, who as owner must obviously have complete control of all reportage, did not want Trump in the White House because of his “huge anti-trust problem.”

Since his first day in office the constant lambasting of any news source that does not report the facts he wants to hear is an attempt to make the American people question what we know is real. All negative news is fake news! Coincidentally, that is what I tell anyone who has ever spoken to my ex-husband. Trump is like a controlling spouse, and unlike most controlling spouses who must go it alone Trump has a posse, like his Press Bitch, Sean Spicer, and his rotisserie chicken, Kellyanne Conway, who stand up to corroborate all his attempts at misdirection.

Trump uses Twitter as a means of supporting his own fabrications. Lies! It is as if he thinks that if he tweets it, then it must be true. Sadly, I am not sure Trump is as good at gaslighting as Gregory. He does not have the restraint. His constant tweeting of easily verifiable misrepresentations keeps the majority of the public’s sanity in check. And maybe it is his overuse of exclamation points, but I always picture his tweeting persona as a giant orange New Year’s baby with his thumbs pounding on the keys in tantrum.

Usually what a gaslighter wants is control. Trump wants fame, fortune, and to be right. His grand wizard Steve Bannon wants control and to be alt-right. Under Bannon’s leadership Brietbart News has become an active participant in glaslighting America through its outrageous commentary meant to fracture and leave Americans in a state of heightened fear. Breitbart uses media as instigation. By spinning stories in certain ways, the site enrages the public, for example a search of “black on black crime” on the Breitbart site retrieves five pages of articles with 20 stories on each page. That is 100 articles. The sensationalizing of these stories seeks to demonstrate that black citizens are inherently violent and therefore any disenfranchisement is due to their own behavior and not a product of systemic racial inequality. These stories serve as a tool of the oppressor and promote othering. Breitbart is bad fucking news and now we have let its leader scurry into the White House.

Breitbart has even politicized the Super Bowl, suggesting that the Patriots comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons was like election night all over again. There is an actual story that compares Brady and his football sorcery to Trump’s “win” on election night. They are both backed by evil slobs, so I can see that angle. Even the links to ads on Breitbart of other things “You Might Like” are charged, like the picture of Obama with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and the caption “Obama’s IQ will shock you!” which I felt compelled to click on but never found Obama’s IQ or Donald Trump’s, although I did learn that Hillary Clinton has the same estimated IQ as Kesha and both, of course, have higher IQs than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It is important to remember that before gaslighting became a verb it was not the dimming and brightening of the lights that incited the manipulation. In the original story, the lights are what help Paula keep reality in check. They are the clue that brings her back to her own sanity. Those of us who can clearly see what these puppeteers are trying to do to the American people, that they are attempting to keep people in a state of fear and to promote their own corrupt agendas through distortion and sleight of hand, must stand firmly as the lighthouse that can help this country and all her people come back to sanity.

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Dark Water

I am a big fan of using the steam room at my gym. I like to sit quietly in the fog until I am dripping in sweat and then leave and replenish all those liquids with champagne. If the average person’s body is 70% water, mine is often just 70% bubbles. I am sure if I do enough research I can find an important study that suggests this is the secret to longevity. If nothing else, it will help prevent death by drowning, which will come in handy because most of the time when I am near the water, I am really drunk.

The water is one of many places that can be dangerous for women, like in the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. The main character, Clyde, a poor boy who is working (somewhat deviously) to move up in the social class ranks accidentally gets a farm girl pregnant. Unable to accept this fate as his life’s end-game, he decides to take young Roberta out in a canoe on an isolated lake so he can drown her. As they are paddling, Clyde internally wrestles with his decision and his intentions while Roberta sings songs and drags her fingers sweetly in the water. Then at one point she notices the look on his face, staring at her from the other end of the canoe; he probably looks as if he has just seen a ghost, and she starts to crawl towards him in a move of comfort, and then he hits her across the face with a camera, an “unintentional blow” so hard that she falls out. He stands to grasp for her as she is falling, and then the canoe tips. She gets hit in the head with the bow and since she cannot swim he is sort of like, well that was convenient.

Actually, she looks directly at him and cries “Help! Help!” and he just watches her head sink underwater with relief. He swims to shore and eventually gets caught and sentenced to death by a mostly rural and unsympathetic jury. One of the big questions from this novel is seeded in the title and begs the question about what is the uniquely American tragedy here? I am not sure exactly the answer, and I refuse to believe it is his execution, but I am willing to move towards pointing a finger at a cruel system that promotes cut-throat (or “unintentional blows” and condoned drownings) paths up the economic ladder. The tragedy most likely ends up as the systemic problem of an economy that suppresses social mobility and fosters greed.

However, what I took from this novel was that maybe I should be more careful about going out into open water with men. I have also read the book Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen where a husband pushes his wife off the balcony of a cruise ship. When she hits the water and lives, her thought is did that asshole just push me off a cruise ship? It is relatable, like when the man I was married to and had two children with bought me an iTunes gift card for my birthday. Did that really just happen?

Although I know to be cautious, like with most things in my life, I see the line that I should not cross and then I run down the dock in a bikini and jump on board! I once went on a second date with a man, whom I met on Tinder, to an isolated river where we kayaked up stream into the wilderness, far away from where people could hear me scream. I did not bring my cell phone because I didn’t want it to get wet and die—that would be absurd. It never occurred to me to be concerned until we were about an hour into our paddle, and I had a realization of panic. I stopped paddling and watched him moving forward in the dark water, leaving a momentary wake behind his kayak and then no trace as he glided forward. I scanned the banks and saw only trees. Nobody knows we are here.

But I survived. On the morning after our third date, I mentioned that although I enjoyed the kayaking, I did have a fleeting moment when I thought he might murder me.

“What would be my motive?” he asked.

A question that was both important to consider and disturbing. But he was right. I present no obstacle to his life. I pondered this because it is an important issue for women, often when domestic violence happens, it is because the victim poses some barrier between the aggressor and happiness or freedom. Like for Clyde, he just wanted to marry a wealthy girl and live happily ever after, but Roberta with her womb and her ovaries, got in the way of that dream. So she had to die.

Of course, sometimes violence is random, so he could have still murdered me while we were kayaking for no good reason, but that is not necessarily something I can guard against. I can’t live in fear of random acts of violence, then he interrupted my thoughts with a question, “What kind of wood doesn’t float?”

“What? I don’t know.”

“Natalie Wood.”

I laughed awkwardly. Then it got eerily quiet. I realized that I could probably try to avoid dates that put me in isolated areas with strange men, but also maybe men could put in a solid effort to not murder me. If something did happen, then it would likely be portrayed as me making a foolish decision. Even my children would be told that I met someone on Tinder and followed him into the woods, as if I was asking for it. The same way we justify that the girl in the horror movie who runs outside to check on the sawing noise coming from the woods deserves to die. What a dummy! While the murderer is seen as being on an unwavering trajectory to kill and unable to change or make alternative decisions. Sort of like Clyde, once they were in the canoe she was sentenced to die, and part of the interest of that section of the novel is watching Clyde wrestle with that supposedly unavoidable fact. Even though he could just as easily not drown her. Not hit her across the face with a camera. Not watch her sink underwater while she calls his name.

He could have changed the plan at any time. Even a man wandering around the woods with a chain saw could make better choices, but it is accepted that it is his manifest destiny to move across the dark forest or the misty harbor town killing everyone in his path. Slashing people up is just what he does. For the rest of us—the vulnerable characters—it is our job to stay out of his way.

Then I was drawn back into the bedroom, “Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat?”

“Are you fucking kidding me? You know two Natalie Wood jokes?”

I would like to say that this was the creepy thing that ended this brief relationship, but in all honesty, I was probably the one who made it weird. I won’t go into details, but I may have sent some drunk texts. This was during my brief but exciting skinny margarita phase, also known as January 2016.

I recently read the details about Wood’s death from the memoir by coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi. She drowned Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. He tells the events objectively, but it is difficult to read that report without feeling like there is blame placed on Wood for her actions—that she tried to get into her dingy at night without properly assessing the wind and not realizing the weight of her down jacket. She had been drinking. It is as if the take away is that she should have been more careful and because she wasn’t it is acceptable to make her death (and thus her life) into a punchline. When she died, she left behind two young daughters.

I have been taught to protect myself since I was a young girl. I should not walk alone, especially at night. I should lock the doors to my house and my car. Park under a street light. Don’t get into a stranger’s car. Don’t let a stranger into my house. These warnings are so intrinsic that defying them is viewed as in violation of common sense—she should have been more careful. But where are all the pamphlets teaching people not to be predators? Teaching about respecting women and their bodies? Teaching our boys not to rape our girls no matter what they are doing or wearing? Instead we are modeling predatory behavior as a perk of power. We have now even dressed it in a suit, sprayed it with fake tan, and given it the job of being leader of the free world.

I have heard that a man should never touch another man’s hat. The act of touching another man’s headwear is impetus to fight, but our girls should put on a sweater, get a longer skirt, or get a friend to walk them home. By doing so we are telling girls that they will remain the vulnerable characters. Men are not warned to avoid wearing hats. The warning is in the imperative: Don’t touch my hat! Lyle Lovett even wrote a song about it.

The World Health Organization estimates that one out of every three women has experienced violence by either an intimate sexual partner, or she has experienced sexual violence from a non-partner. 38% of murders of women are committed by a male sexual partner. Studies suggest that intimate partner violence can be reduced by improving women’s economic and social status. Otherwise they remain the vulnerable characters—they remain prey. We are choosing the ambulance in the valley instead of the fence on the cliff and just watching our girls fall. If we have different guidelines for boys and girls, especially about safety, then that signifies a problem. We can do better.

I want my daughter to be safe everywhere even if she makes mistakes. Even if she follows a boy into the wilderness. Because if she is like me, she probably will. It is intoxicating, like the bubbles that keep me afloat when all signs suggest that I should be drowning.

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