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Warping Your Reality: Gaslighting


Imagine if someone else could be able to affect your perception of reality, and your memories?  That would be pretty weird, wouldn’t it?  It happens.

If you haven’t already, be sure to head over and read part 1 of this series of posts (this is part 9), in particular the Introduction section that puts this into a bit of a larger context, and gives a couple of disclaimers (like, for instance, assuming that I’m talking about a specific person or persons in these posts.)  Even if you don’t read the rest of that post, read the Introduction.  This isn’t just about a single person in my life, and it’s not about men or women.  While it happened to a guy, and it’s being told by a guy, you can change “he” and “she” to any gender you like, and it still fits.

Warping Your Reality:  Gaslighting

I’m a writer and a game developer.  Oddly, that gives me a lot of experience with dealing with personal perceptions of reality.  Now, I’m not a much sought after writer (I should work on that someday), but I’ve got multiple fiction books laying around either completed, or in various states of completion that I’ve yet to bother publishing (which might explain the problem with not being a sought after writer).

Both writers and game developers create realities from scratch, or create tangential realities to the one everyone shares.  People open up a book, or start a game, and they leave their own reality and experience someone else’s pre-designed reality.  It’s a cool concept, when you think about it:  the process of building the background in which characters exist in writing is called “world building”, and it’s exactly like it sounds.

A reader (or gamer) jumps into that reality to experience it.  If they enjoy it and accept it, then they internalize that reality.  Honest to goodness, it’s possible to internalize one of those realities so completely that you dream about it, or even experience vivid visualizations.  It eventually ended up with the name “Tetris Effect,” even though the concept had existed long before Tetris.  It’s amazing how much we can internalize and reorganize our thoughts to match something that exists as no more than a series of ideas, be them in print or virtual.

One of the important parts of this is it’s a decision that each reader or gamer makes:  they choose to open the book.  They even, to a degree, determine how much they internalize it.  It’s not thrust upon them.

In the previous bit about “It’s All Your Fault“, I talked about how you’ll eventually start to accept stuff like that as true.  Even if it’s just to stop the yelling, or to stop the feeling you are disappointing the other person, eventually you’ll start internalizing it.  It’s fully your reality that it’s your fault.  And, you’ll even apologize for it, feeling it’s your fault.

Think of “It’s all your fault” as the little cousin to something called Gaslighting.  Or, look at gaslighting as the big, drunk, belligerent cousin.  Take your pick.

Gaslighting might be considered one of the final triggers that caused me to sit down and write, uh, so far something like 16,000 words about abuse, and my experience with being abused.  It’s the moment I realized, wait:  what the fuck *IS* wrong with me?  In fact, after I finally accepted what had happened many years ago, I commented to a friend who’s well versed in subjects like this that “I just always said she had a bad memory for conversations.”  His eyes got big, and he blurted out: “Seriously?!  I thought you were just being sarcastic!”

It’s true:  I didn’t see it happening.  Gaslighting comes from a 1938 play and a 1944 movie with an interesting premise:  a husband attempts to drive his wife insane by changing the environment, then lying about it whenever she noticed.  Specifically, the name comes from her observing that the gas lamps were getting dimmer at certain times, and the husband convinced her she was just perceiving it wrong.

That might sound simple and stupid, but it’s actually also a cousin to techniques used for torture and interrogation.  No kidding.  See, our brains are fairly malleable.  That’s why it’s so easy for a writer to convince you of things like a world where wizards exist just around the corner where you can see them – we call it “suspension of disbelief” when it’s done that way, in a nice, safe, consensual manner.  BUT; you also know there’s a line there, where reality and unreality have mixed, and you can identify it.  But, without that flexibility in the brain, fiction writers would have long since been out of work.  You just wouldn’t be able to buy into it.

The example my friend was surprised by was this:  in one of my relationships, there would often come times where she would explain where I was wrong, and either she or I totally didn’t say what I was recalling from memory.  Now, we all know our memory is fallible to a certain extent.  Some people’s are better than others. We all just sort of accept that – sure, you’ll meet a rare person who’s memory is damned near perfect, but it’s uncommon.  But, according to her, my memory was far more fallible than hers in general.  (Now, do keep in mind this was also brought up about stuff like test scores.  She was smarter than me and had higher test scores.  I remember the day I found my old ACT’s.  I couldn’t remember the scores off the top of my head, but I could remember that I scored 99% in the nation and in Kansas for science, for instance.  Her jaw dropped when I handed it to her, and both my science score and overall score was higher than hers.  There’s a reason for that, I believe:  I was removing one of the realities she was trying to set for me over and over:  that she was smarter, no matter what.)

This is in the post BBS era (electronic bulletin board system – just go check the old blog post if you don’t know what one is), and the beginning of the chat room / instant messenger era.  We often talked using it.  Wanna see someone lose their goddamned mind?  The moment I’d show her exactly what had been said in an IM, chat, or email, which supported my memory, not hers.  That right there, by the way, isn’t uncommon when someone is gaslighting you:  present them with solid evidence they’re wrong, and suddenly you’ll be on the receiving end of a huge bundle of anger.

I really can’t say how much this happened.  There’s a lot of times where it was “But YOU said you’d (insert thing I have no memory of).”  For a while, I would fight back about it – I’d tell her exactly how I remembered it.  But, after enough times, I eventually just started accepting it – to a certain extent.  I just seemed like the statements got a little more daring at times, and I’d question them again.

Eventually, the IM thing started happening.  That actually “broke” a lot of that – yes, it caused many fights by pointing out the reality on screen.  But, it also weakened part of that power.  And, it was probably a year out before that relationship ended.  There’s very little likelihood that was part of the cause of the end of the relationship – there were plenty of other things going on, and trust me, not all of it had anything to do with abusive relationship issues.

Mine was contained to some various facts and conversations.  She wasn’t trying to drive me nuts (I assume) as much as always be right.  She had a competitive streak and an angry streak that crossed over each other quite nicely.  In fact, I remember a fight early on, that in some ways may have been the (conscious or unconscious) drive behind this:  “Why do you always have to be right?  You’re always right!!!”  Say that at really loud volume, of course.  Thing was, I was more often than not right when talking about facts or information.  I am a sponge:  I love to soak in information.  Now adays, I don’t do it quite the same as I used to – when the world wide web started, it was a source of hours and hours of fascination for me.  I could learn about anything.  I didn’t have to go buy a book – there was a chance it was already on some site, and all I’d have to do is hit Alta-Vista and find it.  These days, I still love to learn things.  I still soak up information from people like crazy.  Heck, I watched a friend of mine give a presentation at First Geek Congregation, back before we had been taping it.  I started to explain a concept (on video), and realized his presentation was perfect for this:  so, I performed his presentation, almost completely, after having seen it once.  But, some things I spend less effort learning, and learning how to think and research as close to instantly as possible.  Distilling all that:  if I say something, there’s probably around an 70% chance I’m right, if I don’t start it with “I think”, or end it with “but, I don’t know for sure.”  I am wrong from time to time (30%, if my 70% is correct), and I actually like KNOWING that I’m wrong so I can correct it.

The fact I knew so much, and could back it up with facts, had pissed her off a number of times.  I can’t say I’m right, but I still wonder if a combination of competitiveness and anger resulted in her tactic of trying to break my reality, so she could correct my facts at will.

But, for others, it doesn’t stop there.  Any part of your reality can be modified by another person if you let it. It’s when they finally get in your head, and start twisting juuuuust right that you’ll start seeing things their way, no matter what.  Sky is blue.  It’s obvious.  Unless they tell you it’s more of a baby blue.  Then, later, more of a teal.  Then later, more of an orange.  This is so sick and twisted, but by doing it in steps, if they’ve broken you hard enough, you’ll start seeing the sky as the colors they tell you.  Sure, you eyes will see blue.  But, your brain?  It’s going to think orange.

And it’s not limited to just the things you perceive.  You’ll start finding that your memory about a lot of events are wrong.  Last Christmas wasn’t at her parents, it was at your parents.  It’s her parents turn to host it.  Sure, it’s a little thing, but just like the example of perception:  slowly, you can end up with huge amounts of your memory being twisted into something completely different.

You’ll also be glad they’re around to correct you – I mean, it’s just so silly that you’d think the sky was blue, or that your friends really cared about you, ever.

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