Perfect Ten: What is ‘gaslighting’?

Perfect Ten has been read in an online book club this last week and one of the question that has been asked most is: what is gaslighting?

Perfect Ten
Perfect Ten

This also raises the question of what Perfect Ten is really about. On the surface it’s about a woman’s quest for revenge on her ex-husband for his infidelity. But deeply embedded Caroline’s story is something much more sinister. To highlight this gaslighting and it’s meaning, I am supporting Women’s Aid at the launch of Perfect Ten – if you think it is happening to you contact them or the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline 0808 2000 247

Many of the elements of domestic abuse are very difficult to identify, even for the person on the receiving end. This is because they are often psychological and can be disguised as ‘for their own good’. Things like controlling someone’s behaviour and dress, restricting finance and movement, are often framed as being ‘part of a couple’.

When this controlling behaviour by the perpetrator is called out, and it often is initially because women are strong and resilient rather than passive, this is when ‘gaslighting’ begins. The perpetrator will socially isolate their prey and make the believe that they are mistaken by telling them that they are ‘mad’, ‘insane’, ‘imagining it’, ‘need medication’, and with no one to ask for reassurance, they start to believe it.

This psychological cruelty is extremely damaging. It lowers self-esteem, can induce feelings of paranoia and is very difficult to prove in court. Eventually, the person who experiences this psychological abuse questions reality as they see it.

The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play. Playwright Patrick Hamilton created “Gas Light,” a mystery/thriller that premiered in London and played there for six months followed by a 1944 film adaptation. In the story, a husband convinces his wife she has gone mad by making her think that she stealing and hearing noises. He fixes the gas burners in the house to dim and light automatically, but convinces her that it’s ‘all in her head’ as no one could be doing it.

Perfect Ten
Perfect Ten

In the film, the wife escapes, but in real life survival of this situation is much more difficult. Because it is a very complex situation, those experiencing gaslighting are often not believed. This is typified in the #metoo era, where, despite clear evidence of abuse, perpetrators blame the victim, and the victim is not believed. It is also at the root of ‘Fake News’ and the facts are bent and reality changed until the world starts to believe a made-up version of life.

In Perfect Ten, Jack has told Caroline lies in order to cover up his affairs. It has destroyed her, driving her to binge drinking and drunken shopping. Her life is in ruins until she realises that she was right. She was lied to and she can prove it.

The journey back from this is a difficult one and, from the comments in the book club, sometimes difficult to believe. Readers have found it hard to accept Caroline’s behaviour, yet have found Jack’s much more ‘normal’; this leads me to conclude that gaslighting is much more widespread and even cultural and a woman fighting back against it faces  even more doubt.

But readers do get it. Many readers have told me that it’s a difficult read because they have experienced it and Caroline’s journey mirrored theirs. They get it.

One recent review has commented that ‘I think the author wants us to think about that the next time we pass judgement too quickly or decide sitting on the bench is better than supporting someone in genuine need of a helping hand.’ I do. I wanted to write and entertaining book, but I also wanted to raise awareness of this terrible problem, and to highlight that ‘gaslighting’ is real and happening around us.

If you know someone who is suffering, tell them that you believe them and tell them that there is help out there. That they are not mad and they are understood. Give them resources to get out. Most important, don’t give up on them and leave them alone, because isolation is a weapon in a gaslighter’s toolkit of abuse.

24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline 0808 2000 247

Women’s Aid