Many years ago, I worked with someone who loved telling me how I wasn’t doing enough – again and again. Even though I had the hours and bylines to prove him wrong, he had succeeded in making me question everything. My immediate supervisor disliked people who had been close to his predecessor and chose to intimidate people by constantly pulling them down. I was an easy target - emotional, easily bullied and susceptible to tears. He constantly impressed upon everyone in the department that I did very little work. And eventually, I began questioning my ability, my sanity and my choices. In the end, I had no option but to quit.
I realised only recently that I had succumbed to a classic case of ‘gaslighting’. The term originated from the 1944 film Gaslight, where a young woman is manipulated by her husband into believing that she is going insane following a murder in their home.
Psychology Today defines gaslighting as “a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality”.
In an essay in Vanity Fair, Monica Lewinsky spoke about why she faced so many barriers while trying to heal from the trauma she experienced.
“The reason this is difficult is that I’ve lived for such a long time in the House of Gaslight, clinging to my experiences as they unfolded in my 20s and railing against the untruths that painted me as an unstable stalker and Servicer in Chief.”
Twenty years later, she acknowledged that she found extraordinary hope in the #MeToo movement.
Closer home, the scene is a little different. As India’s #MeToo movement gathers momentum, victims and survivors calling out perpetrators are battling not only trolls, vile comments and defamation suits, but are also being gaslighted.
If victim-shaming wasn’t enough, women also face questions about gaps in their memories, trivial details about the size of the room they worked in or the model of an SUV in which they met their abuser, years, sometimes decades ago. Trauma is being invalidated by telling victims and survivors that they “must have misread the situation”, “imagined the harassment”, or even “it was probably something you did”.
The worst part is that often, allies too can gaslight, as illustrated by comedian Aditi Mittal’s apology to fellow comic Kaneez Surka, who alleged that the former had forcibly kissed her on the mouth during a show. While Aditi is a vocal feminist and a strong supporter of the #MeToo movement, she inadvertently switched to gaslighting Kaneez’s allegations.
Women have also related experiences of continuous abuse, even by their partners, because they were led to believe they were inferior and ‘probably deserved it’.
In another instance, a national TV journalist reached out to a woman who accused her husband of harassment, and asked extremely probing questions about the incident, saying that her accusations were baseless because of how she had interacted with the accused previously. Spouses, family members, and friends of many of those accused have also lashed out on Twitter, questioning the sanity of the victims.
Two days ago, former journalist and Union Minister MJ Akbar who has been accused by 14 women of sexual harassment, released a statement clearly gaslighting all his victims by indicating they were doing this for political gains. “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge. These false, baseless and wild allegations have caused irreparable damage to my reputation and goodwill,” he said. (Akbar resigned from his position yesterday.)
You would think that any individual accused of such heinous crime would introspect and try to apologise. But, many of the accused have released ‘statements’ that are unbelievably convoluted and designed to confuse.
It’s time to understand that victims and survivors have finally been able to voice their stories and confront their trauma, only when they found solidarity in the sisterhood of #MeToo. Their rage is justified and to make a mockery of their horrors through manipulation and psychological pressure is not only insulting but also a great disservice.
This is our moment. We may have our own weaknesses and insecurities, but don’t underestimate our collective strength. United we stand and the truth shall prevail.