When I was a teenager, I read a novel where the protagonist was in peril, and they were described as having a slippery, greasy feeling of terror. At the time, it struck me as an unusual metaphor for fear. It wasn’t quite inappropriate or jarring, but it gave me pause. So it stayed with me.
A few years later, I read an article in a magazine about rehabilitation strategies for people who have had a stroke. It described patients who developed aphasia as a consequence of their stroke, impairing their ability to understand and/or formulate language. Intelligent, fluent people who had been avid readers and communicators were reduced overnight to having the reading and comprehension abilities of very young children, perhaps forever. I was horrified.
The dark symmetry between a common initial symptom of stroke — the inability to speak, read, write, or understand language — and a possible lifelong debilitating effect of the event was especially troubling to me. And so I started to worry about having a stroke someday, and in particular I became hypersensitive to any transient reduction in my ability to comprehend language.
For example, say you go to a restaurant and there are menu cards on the table, and the one in front of you happens to be upside down. You glance at it, and it takes you perhaps half a second to realise that it’s upside down, so you turn it a hundred and eighty degrees to ease your comprehension of it. In my case, I’d see the strange glyphs, and I’d have a tiny little micro-panic that there was something wrong with my brain. This would all happen within a moment, of course, but in some situations it would stretch out to several seconds or longer — maybe because someone had used a fancy font which delayed my ability to successfully determine that I was looking at inverted characters.
I’ve finally had that stroke, I’d think in alarm. I wonder if I’ll still be able to read after this.
And I’d feel that swirling, tingling, icy, slippery, greasy feeling of fear that I was losing my grip on my own faculties. The first time it happened, I remembered the phrase from the novel, and I knew then that the author was speaking from personal experience of having had that same sickening feeling, whatever the cause of it might have been. I knew that the metaphor was not only appropriate, but perfectly accurate.
I couldn’t have been too much older when I became aware of what dementia was, and Alzheimer’s, and cognitive decline in general. Just from my own reading, and from television, and so on; I’ve never had personal experience of someone with any of those conditions, nor of anyone who’s had a stroke, for that matter. But I knew, even back then, that the reason people became angry when their loved ones first broached the topic of lapses of memory or cognition, was because it provoked a slippery, greasy feeling within them. The panicky, nightmare sense of grabbing a handhold to try to stop yourself from falling, but finding it too smooth to afford any grip. The feeling of losing control of your own faculties. Of your own mind.
Let me reassure you at this point, dear reader, that I haven’t had a stroke and nor am I at any heightened risk of having one. Nor indeed do I have any symptoms of dementia. My faculties are entirely intact, insofar as I’m aware, and so are those of my loved ones. This preamble’s purpose was to ensure we’re on the same page regarding that slippery, greasy feeling, because it’s something we don’t talk about much. We avoid acknowledging it, in fact, since it’s so very unsettling. But we do have to talk about it sometimes, and this is one of those times.
Much later in my life, and within the most recent decade or so, I became aware of a term that by now most of us have encountered: gaslighting. If by chance you’re not familiar with it, I invite you to look it up, but I’ll summarise here for convenience. Gaslighting is when one person causes another person to question their own perception of reality, not in a philosophical sense but rather provoking doubt in their own reactions, recollections, cognition, or sanity. Understandably, it’s seen as an abusive relationship dynamic.
The etymology of the term is prosaic — like catch-22, or bunny boiler, it’s from 20th-century entertainment media — but like most neologisms or recoinings, it serves a genuine cultural purpose. We’re still learning how to think about and talk about how we interact with each other on a personal level, and more terminology invariably helps.
When I first learned what gaslighting was, I was interested, but in a vague and detached way. The archetypal and also most common examples would involve a man in the power position, and a woman as the victim, and so as a man I had no personal experience to resonate with. I think that historical gender power-dynamics are probably also a large part of the reason we’re still so in need of relationship-related terminology of this kind, but I digress. Suffice it to say that I encountered the term, learned what it meant, reflected upon it briefly, and moved on.
I now need to provide a bit of context, but I want to preface that context with a note that the context isn’t the core point. Rather, the point is that I’ve had reason to gain an understanding of something that previously was little more than a tangential, academic curiosity, and I think it’s important to talk about it. For those reasons, I’m going to try to be as brief with the context as I reasonably can.
There’s a family member I broke off contact with last year, for good. There were abusive elements to the relationship in the past, when I was an adolescent, and neither I nor the relationship ever really recovered. I passed the age of forty before my wife’s gentle insistence led me to finally seek therapy, and I put a full year into it, every week like clockwork. I took myself apart, and I made progress with a partial rebuild. I learned a great deal, from myself, about myself. It helped with a lot of things, and mostly it helped with seeing things more clearly.
As a result, and amongst other measures, I made the aforementioned decision. The family member couldn’t resist having the last word, though, which wasn’t unexpected. So one day, I received a pair of emails which were also delivered to my wife, my brother, and my brother’s wife, but largely addressed to me. Together they formed a lengthy narrative of the other party’s own life, and a point-by-point refutation of most of the events of the past that I felt had been most damaging to me. Sometimes rewriting them, sometimes outright denial, and sometimes downplaying, but unified in general character.
You might know that I have a son (or two, if you count the dog, which I do), and I’ve written about both the discovery that we were expecting a child despite having been told that couldn’t happen, and also later about my continuing efforts to come to terms with the unexpectedly traumatic nature of the birth. In the latter article, I describe the surreal scene of myself standing in the operating theatre in scrubs, holding my moments-old son whose heart had previously almost given out, and watching as the medical staff worked on my wife. I think about it quite often; more often than I ought to. I think there would be something wrong with me if I didn’t.
The thing is, the final salvo in the refutation emails said that I hadn’t been there at all.
The family member, who wasn’t in the hospital at any point — since it was in September 2020 during the pandemic — asserted that it was all embellishment on my part. That I’d been somewhere else, never setting foot in the operating theatre, and hadn’t been there for the birth. Putting aside the bizarreness of such a claim, and how trivially it can be dismissed by my wife readily corroborating my presence since she was never anaesthetised beyond the epidural, I remember actually feeling grateful when I read it.
I was grateful that the closing point was made about an event so recent as to be immune to any claims of the passage of time creating uncertainty. I was grateful it was an event that the other party wasn’t present for. I was grateful I had not just one but theoretically about a dozen witnesses, given how many doctors and other staff were clustered around the centre of the room. I was grateful that it served to cast the rest of the whole missive in its deserved light of not just incredulity, but also tawdry spite. I was grateful it was so easy to dismiss.
That’s what I said to my wife, at least, and to myself. That’s what I tried to believe.
Months passed. There’s been no contact with the person in question, and I hope there never will be. That was my express request, and also that of my wife, on behalf of the two of us and our son too. But I found myself thinking about those emails. Revisiting them in my mind, if not actually re-reading them. Sometimes, I’d awaken at an odd hour and find them already in my thoughts.
But was I really there for my son’s birth? I wondered, in the dead of night.
Of course I was, my brain replied, easily supplying the entire memory. From the endless hours in the birthing room, to the commotion and the machines and the succession of new faces with concerned expressions, to the sudden wheeling-out of the bed while a kind but insistent nurse took me to a little room to hurriedly change into scrubs, leaving my own clothes and phone and wallet and car keys and everything else just sitting on a bench. The electronic standing stones of the operating theatre, and there being too many staff, and then all the rest of it. Wondering if I was going to lose one or even two family members in that room, on that day, in those moments. Finally having a little creature in my arms, blinking without comprehension. Everything that came afterwards. Detailed autobiographic memory; corroborated, nuanced, and genuine. There was never any question about it, because I was indeed there. And yet I wondered.
That slippery, greasy feeling.
To experience it, you need a person in whom you have, or once had, great trust. A close relationship, whereby their opinion matters to you. And then that person has to leverage their implicit credibility to try to shatter your personal narrative.
People can do so for many reasons. Denial is one. Ego is another. Even error. And it can be done in many ways; some of them subtle and covert, and some blatant and direct. The latter kind are a sort of defensive counterattack; a retribution of meta-denial, salting the earth in an act of punitive invalidation. And I understand why it happens. We each have our narratives, after all. I know that very well.
Let me leave you with a couple of thoughts, in case you’re where I used to be, with gaslighting being just a concept instead of an experience. Firstly, instilling doubt in another person’s own faculties — and also to blanket-deny, piece by piece, their experiences with you because those experiences are no longer palatable to you — is an act of abuse. This should be intuitive and obvious. But apparently it isn’t always.
Secondly, and much more importantly, you would be truly disturbed to learn just how much a person can be unsettled and damaged by such actions. Because of the violated but pre-existing basis of trust, nothing is beyond their reach, not even the most formative and significant experiences of a person’s life. I’d never have guessed that my confidence in my own faculties could be shaken in that way, but through the door of emotional conflict, they can be.
Gaslighting isn’t just a concept, unfortunately. It’s not just a word thrown around by the young, over-applied and increasingly generalised, the latest morsel of pop-psych meme mush. It’s not just that.
It’s a real thing, with a measurable and pernicious effect beyond what you might believe is possible. It is abusive. It is harmful. It is wrong.
And reader, you should take it seriously.