The Art of Manipulation: Gas Lighting and Domestic Violence

The Art of Manipulation: Gas Lighting and Domestic Violence

The late comedian Richard Pryor once joked about his wife walking in on him having sex with another woman and his attempt to convince her that she was not seeing the situation accurately: “Who are you going to believe”, he asked hoping to confuse her, “me — or your lying eyes?”


While it was just a joke, and the audience probably got a good laugh from it, convincing someone that they did not see what they actually did see is a tactic used by manipulators to gain power and control. It’s abusive, and although the terms manipulation and abuse are not synonymous, it seems undeniable that they often go hand-in-hand.


I recall being at a friend’s house a few years back and stumbling upon the book, “The Art of Manipulation: How to Get Anybody to Do What You Want”.  This book literally provides the “how-to’s” of manipulation as well as the telltale signs for knowing when someone is actually trying to manipulate you. I would not necessarily categorize “The Art of Manipulation” as a treatise on dark psychology per se since it does help people avoid being manipulated and explains that many people use manipulation rather subconsciously versus wielding it as a weapon).  However, the sinister celebration of manipulation within the book is rather strange. If nothing else, the chapters definitely show how some practice manipulation as an art and the connection between manipulation and abuse are clear.

While the nomenclature used to discuss the culture of abuse, abusers and victims successfully delineates between who is misusing power and who is suffering as the result of this misuse, these words alone do not expose the depth and convoluted patterns involved in incidents and cycles of harm. To state it plainly, and boldly, experiencing abuse via mental manipulation is basically being “mind-fucked”, and that has a profound effect on one’s psyche and spirit. The term most often associated with being “mind-fucked” is gas lighting.  Gas lighting has nothing to do with your stove.  Gas lighting has everything to do with how one is made led to doubt their own perception of reality.


The term comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light—which was made into a movie a few years later—where a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home while telling her that she was imagining that the lights were changing.



In the above clip from the 1944 movie version of Gas Light, the main character’s friend tries to help her clear her head with the truth that her husband was trying to drive her insane by making her doubt what she was seeing and experiencing. Her husband watched with patience as she became unhinged and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  He was aiming to have her committed, and subsequently, steal her inheritance.  Although, in the movie the husband does not leave any physical marks he harmed and bruised her psychologically.


Also unlike the movie, in real life verbal and psychological violence often lead to physical abuse, and the abuse is not usually identified so immediately through the help of a supporting actor. “Art imitates life” as the saying goes, but neither the stage nor the movie Gas Light lays out any specific warning signs or provides information on the help that is available to whomever is in need. Hopefully,  the information will do just that.

“Gas lighting is implanted narratives cloaked in secrecy.” 

― Tracy Malone

Gas-lighting is an effective tool for emotional abuse through manipulation because it plants seeds of confusion, doubt and insanity within a person’s psyche. It will have a person question his or her own mind and what is really happening to them—making her think she is imagining things or that she is the one causing harm.


Signs of Gas Lighting

If you or anyone you know are experiencing any of the following you may be the encountering gas lighting:


  • Constantly doubting yourself, your thoughts and the strength of your mind

  • Noticing personality changes and loss of confidence in your abilities
  • Having difficulty making decisions
  • Needing your S/O to give you direction
  • Experiencing depression and sadness but not really sure why
  • You believe you are delusional, crazy or imagining things
  • Your S/O seems to be aligning others against you
  • Feeling isolated
  • Feeling like you don’t have a voice


Although the list above is not exhaustive it does provide clear indicators of emotional and psychological abuse. Removing oneself from situations filled with these signs is of paramount importance for survival and healing although doing so is often difficult for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, there is help to combat the levels of embedded difficulties.


Help and Hope

Although leaving the abusive situation may be extremely difficult there are ways to protect your mind as well as receive help.


Reminding yourself of truth- You are capable, strong and valuable! Remind yourself of this truth:  it will help you combat the lies you are told. If you can recall times when you’ve made sound decisions, bringing to memory clearer, healthier days, then you will begin to drown out the ideas being projected upon you by your abuser.


Rejecting your abuser’s ideas- Your abuser aims to re-create you into a version of yourself he or she can control. Reminding yourself of the truth makes it easier to reject the thoughts your abuser has planted in your mind. Although this may take a significant amount of energy and may not happen immediately, if you continue on you will begin to recover your core self.  The fog will clear and clarity will return.


Regaining your confidence- Abuse has a profound effect on a person’s psyche and can diminish self-esteem and confidence. Learning to practice self-care will only help regaining clarity of mind but will also help with re-building confidence. As much as possible, find reasons and ways to celebrate yourself:  write out what you love about yourself, and show yourself some grace. And, if possible, begin to visit places that bring you peace. It could be a park, the beach, lake, a bookstore, a museum, or whatever… Where ever your peaceful place is…go there and breathe.


Reaching out to your support system- If you can’t seem to do any of the above because the fog and depression are so heavy, or the fear of your own ability to thinking clearly is overwhelming, please reach out to someone who is a true support to you. Perhaps she or he will go with you to some of those places. Connecting with others in a healthy way can help us to restore confidence, combat the lies with truth and even reject the ideas and suggestions of an abuser.


Receiving outside help and support- There is nothing wrong with speaking with a counselor. Reach out even in your confusion because you may need someone to remind you of the truth, to remind you of how awesome you are an walk alongside with you and help you get to a place of safety.


More importantly, know you are not alone and you can make it out!

For more information or assistance please call:

1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-900-787-3224 (TTY)


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