Quantcast

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Two Books on Gaslighting, Memory, and Claiming Your Experiences


I heard the term "gaslighting" a couple years ago, and was completely unfamiliar with it, so doing what I usually do when confronted with an unfamiliar term, I looked it up. But no matter how many definitions I read, I still didn't quite understand what the term meant. Here's the definition as offered by Wikipedia: "Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim's belief."

Apparently I've lived a sheltered life surrounded only by loving and reasonable people, because I had a super hard time even conceptualizing what this would look like in practice. Psychological manipulation? Making someone doubt their own sanity? Who would do that, and how, and why?

Well, in the past few months I've read two books that have given nearly textbook examples of what gaslighting looks like--one fiction, the other nonfiction-- and these books have stuck with me and won't let me stop thinking about them, so I guess I need to write some thoughts out here to try to work through this.

The first book was Educated by Tara Westover (brief review here). If you've read this book, then you probably can immediately see how this is an example of gaslighting. I don't believe Tara ever uses the term exactly, but she definitely talks about specific memories that her family members have tried to convince her didn't happen the way she remembers them, and feelings of insanity because of their tactics to deligitimize her beliefs.

Now, the tricky thing about this example is that we only get one side of the story, and there really are all sorts of questions about how reliable she is as a narrator. Did these things really happen the way Tara remembers them, or the way her family tells her they happened? Everyone's memory is a little bit unreliable, and each member of the family remembers things differently. She even says that her memory is different than the way she recorded things in her diary, so does that mean she really is mis-remembering, or that she was in denial at the time of the incident?

These are really, really tricky questions to answer. They may even be impossible to answer.

The second book was fiction, The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows (brief review here). I'm not sure if this book would've stayed with me as much if I hadn't read it so closely following Educated, and could see the same pattern of gaslighting abuse going on. Now, because this one is a fictional novel and not messy real-life, the gaslighting is a little bit more cut-and-dry, with the perpetrator eventually confessing that he'd been lying, and the affected character being able to reclaim her memories as legitimate (sorry, that might be a bit of a spoiler...).

So, the situations are different, but both these books left me thinking quite a bit about what it means to trust your memory, your feelings, and your sense of reality. Memory is a tricky, fluid thing. Some of my memories from life are stark and clear and burned into my psyche, but the vast majority of my life (especially my childhood), is simply fuzzy blur, indistinct impressions. Even some of my most potent memories have fuzzy outlines and edges. I can remember distinctly how I felt, but not necessarily where I was, or vice versa.

One of the biggest take-aways I've garnered from reading both these books so close together is the idea that perhaps accuracy of memory doesn't matter so much as validating someone's perceived experience. What I mean is, maybe Tara isn't exactly remembering situations the way they actually happened, but that doesn't mean that her memory, her feelings of hurt and anger, and her story aren't legitimate. She experienced something, she has felt very powerful things as a consequence, and she has the right to claim that experience as hers.

While I'm nearly 100% positive I've never been the victim of gaslighting, I've definitely had the experience of my memories of an event being different than someone else's memory of the same event. Most notably, my husband and I both have different memories of our first kiss story. He was dropping me off at my apartment one night, and I went in for a hug while he went in for a kiss, which resulted in a miss with the kiss landing somewhere around my chin. We disagree about exactly what happened after that awkwardness, what was said, and how the scene ended, and it's kind of been a long standing joke between us that we have these different memories of this rather pivotal event in our early relationship. And honestly, at this point I can't really say whose story is right. Maybe things happened the way my husband says, maybe they happened the way I say, but the important thing is that we both have a right to our story. Maybe the details are fuzzy, but I certainly remember my feelings of shock and excitement, and those memories are mine. They are mine, and I get to treasure them forever.

There are other memories and experiences, however, that I tend to question more aggressively. If I have ever been the victim of gaslighting, it's only gaslighting I've inflicted on myself. Most of these memories have to deal with experiences of a spiritual nature. I've definitely had powerful spiritual experiences in my life that felt so incredibly potent at the time, but even now I'll look back on them and think, "Did it really happen that way? Were those feelings real? Maybe they weren't real. Maybe I'm misremembering, or maybe I'm just making it all up." I think doubting is the term one would usually use to describe this, but after reading these stories with examples of gaslighting, I can see interesting similarities. Someone else may not be manipulating me, but I can sure be good at manipulating myself, making myself doubt and question and dismiss my experience as not real.

And maybe I am misremembering or making things up. Maybe some of those experiences can be explained in a different way. But what I've been reflecting on, and what I'm taking away from these two books, is that whatever is "real," I still have a right to claim my experience. I have a right to remember things the way I remember them, and to count my feelings as legitimate and valid. This is a powerful and freeing way to view my memories. I have a right to claim my experience, to trust my memory of events, and to believe in the way I feel about things.

And so too does everyone. Everyone has the right to their experience. We should never dismiss someone out-of-hand because we don't view their story or their feelings as valid. That is how we begin to dehumanize people, by dismissing their experience. Maybe we disagree, maybe we experienced things differently, but people can perceive the same experience in vastly different ways and both experiences can still be valid. We should not assume that we understand how other people experience the world. This is true for people on the other side of the world, for people in our neighborhoods, and even for own own children. Especially for my own children. I always need to remind myself that what they are experiencing and what they are feeling is valid, even if it's frustrating or overblown or not the way I want them to be feeling. When I stop and remind myself that they are allowed to have their own feelings and perceptions, which may be vastly different from mine, I'm far more likely to feel sympathy rather than frustration.

I'm skirting the edges of some deeper questions here. What, then, is reality? What is delusion? What happens when people disagree on the "truth" of an experience, especially with dire consequences for one's reputation or life (for one example, think of the "me too" movement here, when what one party views as consensual the other party views as rape). How can everyone's experiences be valid when they disagree? Especially when one person's version feels more "right" or "reasonable" or "sane"? How can we know what we know? What is truth, then? These are super deep questions I can't even begin to approach here, and probably don't even have answers for.

All I know is that I have experiences and memories and feelings that are mine and that define me and define how I perceive my life and my reality. And I'm claiming those experiences as legitimate and valid and mine.


2 comments:

  1. Wow, I felt like I learned a lot from this! (Beginning with what "gaslighting" means!) And I totally hadn't viewed Educated with that lens before (though I noticed some of the things you pointed out). I think this will definitely change how I view certain accounts and books going forward (starting with I Was Anastasia, which I'm reading now and definitely has some of that going on in it). Very thought-provoking post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Okay, your post brought to mind a movie I watched a long time ago. I had to look up the name of it just now: "Flightplan," starring Jodie Foster. She's on a flight with her daughter when the little girl vanishes; apparently taking any evidence that she was ever on the flight along with her. Foster has to try to find her daughter, while convincing everyone else she's not crazy. Gaslighting. Now I now the name of it!

    I need to read "Educated." So apparently, the author and her family were my cousin's neighbors right there in Clifton, ID. She had some interesting comments about it. Still trying to decide if it's worth buying, though, since our library doesn't have it.

    ReplyDelete