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The Art of Gaslighting

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Published by Rising Tide Foundation


Gaslight (1944) - You Think I'm Insane: After becoming hysterical at a friend's house Paula (Ingrid Bergman), Gregory (Charles Boyer) shares his frustrations with her.
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For those who have not seen the 1944 psychological thriller "Gaslight" directed by George Cukor, I would highly recommend you do so since there is an invaluable lesson contained within, that is especially applicable to what I suspect many of us are experiencing nowadays.

The story starts with a 14-year-old Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman) who is being taken to Italy after her Aunt Alice Alquist, a famous opera singer and caretaker of Paula, is found murdered in her home in London. Paula is the one who found the body, and horror stricken is never her old self again. Her Aunt was the only family Paula had left in her life. The decision is made to send her away from London to Italy to continue her studies to become a world-renowned opera singer like her Aunt Alice.

Years go by, Paula lives a very sheltered life and a heavy somberness is always present within her, she can never seem to feel any kind of happiness. During her singing studies she meets a mysterious man (her piano accompanist during her lessons) and falls deeply in love with him. However, she knows hardly anything about the man named Gregory.

Paula agrees to marry Gregory after a two-week romance and is quickly convinced to move back into her Aunt's house in London that was left abandoned all these years. As soon as she enters the house, the haunting of the night of the murder revisits her and she is consumed with panic and fear. Gregory tries to calm her and talks about the house needing just a little bit of air and sun, and then Paula comes across a letter written to her Aunt from a Sergis Bauer, which confirms that he was in contact with Alice just a few days before her murder. At this finding, Gregory becomes bizarrely agitated and grabs the letter from Paula. He quickly tries to justify his anger, blaming the letter for upsetting her. Gregory then decides to lock all of her Aunt's belongings in the attic, to apparently spare Paula any further anguish.

It is at this point that Gregory starts to change his behaviour dramatically. Always under the pretext for "Paula's sake", everything that is considered "upsetting" to Paula must be removed from her presence. And thus quickly the house is turned into a form of prison. Paula is told it is for her best not to leave the house unaccompanied, not to have visitors and that self-isolation is the best remedy for her "anxieties", which are getting worse. Paula is never strictly forbidden at the beginning but rather is told that she should obey these restrictions for her own good.

Before a walk, he gives as a gift a beautiful heirloom brooch that belonged to his mother. Because the pin needs replacing, he instructs Paula to keep it in her handbag, and then says rather out of context, "Don't forget where you put it now Paula, I don't want you losing it." Paula remarks thinking the warning absurd, "Of course I won't forget!" When they return from their walk, Gregory asks for the brooch, Paula searches in her handbag but it is not there.

It continues on like this, with Gregory giving warnings and reminders, seemingly to help Paula with her "forgetfulness" and "anxieties". Paula starts to question her own judgement and sanity as these events become more and more frequent. She has no one else to talk to but Gregory, who is the only witness to these apparent mishaps. It gets to a point where completely nonsensical behaviour is being attributed to Paula by Gregory. A painting is found missing on the wall one night. Gregory talks to Paula like she is a 5-year-old child and asks her to put it back. Paula insists she does not know who took it down. After her persistent passionate insistence that it was not her, she walks up the stairs almost like she were in a dream state and pulls the painting from behind a statue. Gregory asks why she lied, but Paula insists that she only thought to look there because that is where it was found the last two times this occurred.

For weeks now, Paula thinks she has been seeing things, the gas lights of the house dimming for no reason, she also hears footsteps above her bedroom. No one else seems to take notice. Paula is also told by Gregory that he found out that her mother, who passed away when she was very young, had actually gone insane and died in an asylum.

Despite Paula being reduced to a condition of an ongoing stupor, she decides one night to make a stand and regain control over her life. Paula is invited, by one of her Aunt Alice's close friends Lady Dalroy, to attend a high society evening with musical performances. Recall that Paula's life gravitated around music before her encounter with Gregory. Music was her life. Paula gets magnificently dressed up for the evening and on her way out tells Gregory that she is going to this event. Gregory tries to convince her that she is not well enough to attend such a social gathering, when Paula calmly insists that she is going and that this woman was a dear friend of her Aunt, Gregory answers that he refuses to accompany her (in those days that was a big deal). Paula accepts this and walks with a solid dignity, undeterred towards the horse carriage. In a very telling scene, Gregory is left momentarily by himself and panic stricken, his eyes bulging he snaps his cigar case shut and runs after Paula. He laughingly calls to her, "Paula, you did not think I was serious? I had no idea that this party meant so much to you. Wait, I will get ready." As he is getting ready in front of the mirror, a devilish smirk appears.

Paula and Gregory show up to Lady Dalroy's house late, the pianist is in the middle of the 1st movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata #8 in C minor. They quickly are escorted to two empty seats. Paula is immediately immersed in the piece, and Gregory can see his control is slipping. After only a few minutes, he goes to look at his pocket watch but it is not in his pocket. He whispers into Paula's ear, "My watch is missing." Immediately, Paula looks like she is going to be sick. Gregory takes her handbag and Paula looks in horror as he pulls out his pocket watch, insinuating that Paula had put it there. She immediately starts losing control and has a very public emotional breakdown. Gregory takes her away, as he remarks to Lady Dalroy that this is why he didn't want Paula coming in the first place.

When they arrive home, Paula has by now completely succumbed to the thought that she is indeed completely insane. Gregory says that it would be best if they go away somewhere for an indefinite period of time. We later find out that Gregory is intending on committing her to an asylum. Paula agrees to leave London with Gregory and leaves her fate entirely in his hands.

Before we proceed further and see how this story ends, let us take a look at its relevance for today's mass psyche.

Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk?

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked .
"Oh, you can't help that,"
said the Cat : "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?"
said Alice .
"You must be,"
said the Cat , "or you wouldn't have come here."

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Cynthia Chung is a lecturer, writer and co-founder and editor of the Rising Tide Foundation (Montreal, Canada).  She has lectured on the topics of Schiller's aesthetics, Shakespeare's tragedies, Roman history, the Florentine Renaissance among other subjects. She is a writer for (more...)
 

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