shades of gaslight

Notes for a talk on narcissistic abuse.

i. introduction

The 1938/1940/1944 play/film Gaslight gave rise to the pop-psychological term 'gaslightling'. To cite 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. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.
The reality of narcissistic abuse has come out of the shadows in the last 10 years, mainly thanks to the internet. Isolated victims struggle by themselves to gain or regain any meaningful perspective on their experience, in no small part because of the manipulation of their self-esteem and self-understanding by the narcissist. But now we have available the ideas of 'empaths' and 'codependents' and 'echoists' and a new rhetorics of manipulation: 'hoovering', 'enablers' and 'flying monkeys', 'scapegoating', 'going gray-rock', strategies of 'divide and conquer', 'fauxpologies', 'smear campaigns', etc. We know something too of the lifetime prevalence of NPD (apparently around 1%), prevalence in the population (apparently from 1% to 6%), and in clinical populations (apparently 2%-16%). The strategies of isolating victims from other sources of support, spreading lies about the victim's alleged difficulties to others, love-bombing, projective identification of vulnerabilities into the victim, are becoming well-known.

Even so the focus on 'incidents' and 'events' in the above quote encourages us to think that what's most at stake in gaslighting is our perception of  facts that are determinate and concern external reality - whether or not something really happened, whether or not what someone said is a misrepresentation, a lie, etc. This, after all, is what happens in the play/film: the evil protagonist persuades his victim that she must be hallucinating and otherwise imagining things (that the gaslight is dimming, footsteps sounding, objects not going missing, etc). With this talk of 'external reality', determinacy, and facts, I mean to elicit a contrast with three matters: matters of the inner life (especially moral motivation), indeterminate matters, and matters of meaning. But I also want to highlight something about the way the narcissistic manipulation intended by talk of 'gaslighting' has its effects: not so much by persuading us to doubt what we perceive and understand, but by bending out of shape our very perception, understanding, moral emotions, and the fabric of the self.

Sam Vaknin, a writer on narcissism and himself an NPD sufferer, talks helpfully here of
ambient abuse as the stealthy, subtle, underground current of maltreatment that sometimes goes unnoticed even by the victim herself until it's too late. Ambient abuse penetrates and permeates everything, but is difficult to pinpoint and identify. Gaslighting is vigorous, equivocal, atmospheric and diffuse, hence its insidious and pernicious effects. It is by far the most dangerous kinds of abuse there is. ... Ambient abuse yields an irksome feeling, a kind of disagreeable foreboding, a premonition, a bad omen; it's in the air. In the long term such an environment erodes the individual's sense of self-worth. 
The ambient abuse may result in a feeling of walking on eggshells, being constantly on edge, feeling like you ought to apologise for no particular reason, like there's something wrong with your own moral character that you didn't previously realise, all of this for no very obvious reason. It is the nature of such 'ambient, atmospheric' abuse that I want to focus on today.

ii. omission

Acts of omission are rather more subtle and pernicious than acts of commission, usually because they can go unnoticed or can be more easily denied. Here's a rather obvious example:
When I was in my late teens, my mother had about 10 of her closest friends over for a party right after Christmas. I was sitting among them (the only one of my mother's children present) enjoying the banter when all of a sudden, my mother grabbed everyone's attention and asked "would you all like to see what my children gave me for Christmas?" They all chimed in "absolutely"!! And I knew she was about to pull one of her classic gaslighting moves as she's done it so many times. She doesn't realize she has a tell (a certain tic in her facial muscles) when she's about to go full on narc. She walked over to the tree and grabbed two gifts - the one my brother got her and the one my sister got for her. She showed both as her friends ooohhhhed and awwed over them, and then she went and put them back under the tree. Her two closest friends' eyes got very wide and puzzled but neither would look over in my direction. I did not take the bait. I knew she wanted me to spout off so that she could humiliate me in front of the group and say she just forgot about my gift - I guess she forgot she has 3 children. It was beautiful though the way her move completely backfired as everyone got very quiet and uncomfortable as I sat completely silent. I'm almost certain that her best friend railed her when she got her alone as their relationship went quickly south after that. But that goes to show you how sinister and calculating these people are and the damage they do to their children is so unnatural. [by kris777]
Other cases are more subtle. Think of how long someone takes to reply to a message, how often they forget to reply, how often someone keeps you waiting, how often someone 'just doesn't hear' what you say to them, says very little to you compared with to another, or how someone doesn't reply to a verbal question and then - if you ask why not - will tell you 'I was thinking'. Even a slight pause in a conversation, or heeding only part of a call, can manifest a narcissistic temptation to put someone else on the back foot.

iii. defeasibility and plausible deniability

Here I stress two things. First, that none of the above behaviours are criterial of narcissism. They're only expressive of it in particular contexts, when engaged in above certain frequencies, as part of a general pattern, etc. The criteria for narcissism, we might say, are defeasible. In various contexts the above-described behaviours could all be perfectly normal and morally innocent. In this they share a key feature of psychological concepts quite generally: the absence of any one to one correlation between behaviour and mental attribute. Such attributes are only ascribable in particular historical and social circumstances. And what shall count as the right circumstances against which to read any particular stretch of behaviour as expressive of this or that feeling or tendency or characteristic is always a matter of judgement. What is the context in which that raised eyebrow shall count as non-accusatory surprise, or as an unwarranted accusation, or as a warranted accusation? Second, that this lends to them all a degree of plausible deniability; contrast a flat-out lie.

iv. indeterminacy

As well as the heavily contextual nature and defeasible character of the ascription of psychological qualities there's another quality of psychological and moral life which adds to the possibility of spurious plausible deniability exploited by the narcissistic abuser. This is the constitutive indeterminacy of the mental and moral. When it comes to various physical qualities (height, weight, etc) and other qualities (e.g. quantity measured by integers), indeterminacy in our measurements can by and large be eradicated through the use of more refined measures or more clearly specified questions. How many elephants are there in the room? Well, four but one's on his way out with his arse still sticking through the door. So, ok, we ask 'How many whole elephants are there in...?' But when it comes to certain moral or mental matters there need - so the thought goes - be no such agreement even amongst perfectly competent psychological and moral judges. There can occasionally be expressions which to one person looks to be of annoyance, to another of mere indifference, and for which consulting the subject in question may provide no clear answer. We may take ourselves to be motivated by entirely selfless ambitions; another may find a sliver of selfishness there - and there be no fact of the matter as to who is right. Was he being annoying or just insistent? Was it thoughtless or merely casual? Uncertainty here can be "constitutional. It is not a shortcoming. It resides in our concepts that this uncertainty exists, in our instrument." (Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol II, 657)

In our everyday life we do well to accommodate to this indeterminacy by attempting to err on the side of thinking the best of one another. Even so many of us suffer sundry 'attribution errors': we tend to overstate the significance of personal as opposed to situational variables in determining others' unfortunate behaviour, and to understate the significance of personal as opposed to situational variables in accounting for our own unfortunate behaviour. Amongst us depressives are the least vulnerable to the fundamental attribution error. It is not then surprising that they (in the guise of empaths, echoists and codependants) are the most vulnerable to abuse by narcissists who are the most vulnerable to, or exploitative of, the fundamental attribution error. The narcissist reads every encounter in such a way as to sap the presumption of moral decency from his victims and accrue it to his own ledger. S/He can do this, in part, because of the constitutive indeterminacy of the mental and because of the contextually situated defeasibility of behavioural criteria for mental states.

v. co-enaction of conscience and sense of being wronged

Matters of conscience are often portrayed in entirely inward terms. And of course there's much right about this: you can't outsource your voice of conscience. Someone else may recall you to your morally better self, thereby reawakening your inner moral voice, but they can't take the place of that inner voice itself. (This is just a 'grammatical remark'.) Nevertheless our sense of what is right and wrong - what is deserving of reproach or praise - in our behaviour and in the behaviour of others with whom we interact is itself something which emerges in the context of certain relationships. The sense of conscience and the correlative sense of being well or badly treated by another, arise (are enactively constructed) in the context of those close relationships in which they're worked out. And this, I suggest, has something to do with what it means to even be in a close relationship.

A close relationship, of a recognisable and important sort, involves trust and attachment. One might say that letting someone in involves in part, and in certain contexts, partly giving over one's judgement to them. But we might put that better: usually the starting point is of them already being ‘in’, in there with us, here where we co-constitute one another, and what we don’t do is take the artificial step of keeping them out. You found what I said hurtful; I wasn't sensitive enough - I don't judge entirely for myself now whether this is or is not true, but in part take you at your word. I allow – or don’t take the unnatural step of preventing – my moral sense to be part-calibrated by you. To not do this would involve not being in the kind of relationship which here I'm focusing on. Later in life deep friendship and committed romantic relationships have this quality. Our happiness may be one another's but, as well, our sense of our own decency and desert is partly given over to the other. In this way a close friendship or deep romantic relationship recapitulates the structure of a young child's relationship with her primary care-givers. And it is here that her conscience, sense of self-worth and sense of justice are typically formed. And the two of these - knowing that I've wronged another, my sense of my worth - are typically corollary. We might call this the non-autonomous character of conscience's ongoing (re)formation (i.e. of its enaction). Important to this enaction is that my sense of your moral worth and my sense of my own moral worth are constant corollaries - they are a function of one another - since the fabric of moral sense - of conscience - is itself enacted in the context of this relationship.

vi. bending the soul out of shape

So long as the other is well-formed and well-motivated the partial giving over of one's moral self-definition, this trust, is all well and good - in fact constitutive of forms of relationship we particular treasure. But along with the defeasibility and indeterminacy of the mental, this trust leaves one open to narcissistic abuse. Leaves one open to abuse by those who will urge on one a sense of one’s own badness - of responsibility for a relational badness that has come up between us - and thereby spuriously exculpate themselves. What I in particular want to make clear is the difference between i) somebody pretending to someone that matters are other than they are, when the first person has a well-developed and autonomous conscience and sense of self-worth into which is simply fed, for a moment, misleading data, and ii) the case where someone's very sense of worth and conscience is being consistently bent out of shape, perversely enacted, by a consistent skewing or queering of the pitch of the allocation of blame and reward in the relationship. An image may help here: in the one case a point is misplaced on a graph. In another the 0 axis itself becomes shifted. It is this more fundamental matter of this shifting of the axis of one's morale and moral sense - the disturbance to the formation of the faculties of judgement and not to this or that judgement - to which I'm here drawing attention. In the second diagram below I, the narcissist, have perverted the co-enaction of sense of guilt and being wronged in such a way that we both now allocate to you more moral culpability for certain unhappy incidents that occurred between us.

The narcissistic abuser does what she can to make unavailable to her victim other sources of recalibration. The victim is no longer able to meet with his friends, is ostracised from his family. The victim's friends are fed lies or spurious concerns ('oh his mental health is playing up at the moment so he can't come out'. 'Oh, did you hear what he said about so-and-so, how he treated so-and-so; he's in the dog house at the moment') so they don't make themselves available as aids to help recalibrate the victim's sense of self-worth. Duped 'flying monkeys' and pseudo-friends keep alive the narcissist's image of moral worth and reinforce the victim's sense of low self-worth. Word salad is used to confuse the narcissist’s victim, to get the upper hand, to provoke a preoccupation in the victim of regaining a sense of meaning, as an obfuscating shield, to provoke helplessness, to disturb the sense of the reliability of memory, to control the conversation. Body language and verbal tone is used which in itself may be easily deniable (compared to explicit verbal content) but which serves to queer the moral pitch of the interaction and leave the interlocutor feeling on the moral back foot. At stake in all of this is a distortion of the very moral fabric of the self of the victim. The sense of blame, desert, self-worth and admiration of the other are all thereby skewed.

vii. ontological depths of enactive perversions of conscience

In distinguishing between perversions of the scale itself - the scale which we are in ourselves (an ontological matter), which scale constitutes our sense of self-worth that provides the backbone of our character - and perversions of the perception of the placement of individual points of data on the scale (a merely epistemic matter) I don't mean to invoke an everywhere firm distinction. No doubt the one blends into the other in the way that the conceptual and the empirical do more generally, but most always they exclude one another. But by making the distinction we can preserve the former from being described only in terms appropriate to the latter, and thereby preserve it from being trivialised. This is akin to the importance of preventing delusion from being theorised in terms which are only appropriate for false atypical intransigent belief – i.e. in representational terms. In this way we prepare the way for a phenomenology of the depths of narcissistic abuse, of the way it affects the entire being of the victim, how it spreads out into their entire sense of their own value compared with that of others (in particular that of the narcissist), how it affects their ability to make moral judgement, take apt (not too much) responsibility, allocate blame appropriately (not too little). We can start to understand how someone can really come to think that of course they deserve it if their partner is having another affair, or how someone can come to be so skilled at walking on eggshells without even realising that they're doing so, or what it's like to endlessly receive devaluing disrespectful comments and to be ignored in such a way that one habituates to it so that it becomes the new normal, a new placement for the 0 of the X axis, a new 'normal' which also involves cutting the narcissist far more moral slack than would normally be tolerated.

The narcissist’s tricks work to detach her victim from moral reality and from sources of morale. She degrades the very fabric of his moral being. For when the enaction of the moral subject is perverted in this way, it is not merely prone to mistakes, but prone to distortions which are so off they’re not even wrong. One’s whole moral sensibility thereby gets bent out of shape and meaninglessness starts to take shape in the heart. The black emptiness inside the narcissist inevitably finds its complement. The inhumanity of the narcissist thereby infects the victim who now loses his sense of self, the backbone of his morale; he falls apart, becomes mentally and physically ill, shows signs of trauma. Again it is not simply the victim’s judgements that become skewed, but his very ability to make moral judgement: judgements like 'this treatment is wrong', 'I'm not a fundamentally bad person', etc.. They are in a trance state, a delusion, one that is necessarily blind to its own conditions, conditions which here are being twisted out of shape.

viii. conclusion

Let’s summarise the main points:

Gaslighting does not simply mean making someone feel crazy by lying to them a lot.

It involves a disturbance not only to representation but also to the enaction of morale and the moral sense.

This enaction can be carried not simply by the verbal content of what's said, but by variously subtle or unsubtle communications - the use of silence, selective memory, world salad, paralinguistic communication (an intake of breath, a raised eyebrow) - by forms of communication which provide the embedding sense-providing background to explicit verbal communication. This is 'ambient abuse'.

There are special features of the mental – indeterminacy, particularism, defeasibility, and co-constituted intersubjectivity – which enable the narcissist to gaslight.

The enaction of moral selfhood is co-enaction: who’s to blame for this upset we’re now in? is the fundamental relational question asked in a row, rows which the narcissist will provoke, the normally shared premises of which they will try to pervert.

Narcissism is ontological – it runs deep in the narcissist and its effects run deep in his victim – since it affects the enaction of the very axes of that moral graph, the enaction of the moral spine of the subject, her sense of worth and justice and culpability, and not merely the placement of this or that judgement upon it.


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