Gaslighting: ‘It’s all in your head’


Gaslighting: ‘It’s all in your head’

When Gwede Mantashe indirectly blames poor people for their own poverty, and when Eskom makes us feel as if the energy crisis is our fault because we ‘use too much power', it makes HERMAN LATEGAN think of gaslighting. It is a cunning method used shamelessly by subversive and manipulative poison pills — individuals, companies and politicians — to make people feel as if they are unstable and incapable.


The woman’s yellow cigarette pack

SHE left her yellow Rembrandt van Rijn cigarettes, Filter de Luxe, every day in the same spot. Next to the wireless by the fridge.

When the days on the farm in Namaqualand, just beside the Olifants River, were long and dull, she would grab one and sit outside under a small thatched roof, smoking while gazing at the vibrating heat. At night, when it was warm, she would sit on the stoep and smoke.

One day, the pack was gone. She checked behind the fridge; it wasn't there.

She was addicted to her cigarettes and started to panic. Her husband, a gruff farmer, didn't know where it was either. An hour later, she checked again, and the pack was there. Over time, she began to think she was going senile. Panic attacks followed, and she started drinking more.

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One day, she caught her husband walking down the hallway with the pack. She lived in fear at night. He became angry when she confronted him and even struck her with an open hand.

When she felt a lump in her breast, the town doctor dismissed it as nothing to worry about. Later, at another doctor, a woman, she was diagnosed with cancer. She had to undergo a mastectomy. It was the early 1980s and there was a tremendous stigma attached to it.

Her husband rejected her, banishing her to the spare room, and she spent the rest of her life believing that the attitude of the town and her husband towards her meant something was wrong with her.

She was “unwell". Because she tried to fight back, she was portrayed as even more insane. In her Bible, she underlined a verse from Psalm 3 for her son, something he only saw after her death: “I have so many enemies, Lord! Many are against me. Many are saying about me, ‘Even God won't help him!'"

Fictitious? No, that woman was my mother, Maria.


Where does the name come from?

In 2022, it was the Merriam-Webster dictionary's word of the year. Online searches for this word increased by 1,740% compared to the previous year.

The term “gaslighting" was coined in reference to a 1938 play, Gas Light (which in 1944 was adapted into a more widely known film, Gaslight), in which a man manipulates his wife into thinking she is losing her grip on reality so he can have her committed to a sanatorium and steal her inheritance.

She notices strange things: missing photographs, mysterious footsteps at night, gaslights dimming without being touched. As she struggles to maintain her sanity, it becomes clear her husband wants to convince her she is insane.

This movie shows how malicious individuals can make others doubt themselves, enabling manipulation, often engaging in a sadomasochistic game with a sadistic intent.

The therapist talks

Juliana Coetzer, psychotherapist and author of Bloedvreemd, Oorkant jou and Die kind se naam is Anneke, says: “Yes, I often deal with gaslighting. Nowhere more so than in extramarital relationships: ‘It wasn't me you saw in the restaurant. You're just being sensitive. It's in your head. You're crazy.'

“It's that kind of thing where it's not me, but YOU! Gaslighting is different from lying. The message is: What you think isn't true. What you see is your own lie. You're imagining it.

“So, there's deliberate deception or manipulation involved. It's cruel and ruthless. You then doubt your own mental balance. There's a definite distinction, and one must remember that not everything is gaslighting.

“That's why step number one is to make sure you are actually dealing with gaslighting. Is there deliberate deception, and are you being made the scapegoat? Realise that you won't hear the truth from the one feeding you the bullshit.

“Start trusting yourself and believe in the feeling of discomfort and emotions of helplessness and concern. Trust your gut, in other words, make sure of the full truth. Sit down with someone you trust who can listen with an open mind and help you gain perspective."


Even Freud’s petticoat showed

A piece in The New Yorker of February 16, 2021, detailed how Sigmund Freud allegedly gaslighted women. In 1981, the director of the Freud Archives, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, caused a stir in the world of psychoanalysis when he accused Freud of a moral crime during a talk at Yale.

In the 1890s, said Masson, Freud apparently heard from several female patients that they had been abused as children. He could not believe rape could be so common and attributed his patients' memories to hysterical fantasies arising from repressed desires. Blame the victim and make them think they're having crazy thoughts.

He was accused of acting more like a police inspector interrogating a suspect than  a doctor helping a patient.

This reminds me of my own sexual abuse as a young teenager. When I started talking about it, I often had to hear that I had a colourful imagination, I made it up, I was the seducer (at 13?) and my difficult domestic circumstances made me seek attention.


Unstable childhood = unbalanced

Elon Musk and Charlize Theron are two South Africans who have made a name for themselves internationally. Both are often gaslighted.

Musk is a rara avis, unpredictable, unconventional, and I do not agree with his strange politics. But hell, is it necessary to keep referring to his background?

Endless articles appear about his supposedly unstable childhood; he is apparently on the spectrum (which one?); and his eccentric father plays along heartily to portray the whole family as crazy.

He also apparently suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. How many more labels does he have to get so he can fit neatly into a box of mediocrity?

Even The New York Times falls into populist psychotherapeutic assumptions. Recently, David Brooks wrote: “I've also noticed that there can be something sad about extremely ambitious people — as if they're frantically striving to fill a hole carved in them by traumatic childhood experiences, and they've never quite succeeded." There's childhood again.

Then the coup de grâce: “The story of Musk is one of the oldest in our civilisation: a male hero with an uncertain reputation comes from an obscure place (this would be our country) to save a doomed people (you said it) with daring deeds. This is the story of Moses, Jesus, Superman, John Wayne Westerns, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.”

I rest my case; people are grabbing at straws with which to beat him.

Theron was a difficult individual to gaslight at first; she appeared stable and successful to the haters of success. Then they found out her mother, Gerda, shot and killed her violent alcoholic father, Charles. Ammunition, I hear the crowds scream like toilet germs that see a butt approaching.

The butchers who sharpened their knives got their chance: the Oscar winner announced that her eldest child, Jackson, is transgender. On social media, even now, many people seem to view it as evidence that she is “not well".

Furthermore, what does she know about motherhood, coming from such an unpleasant background? Many Afrikaners have disliked her since the day she refused to speak Afrikaans in her Oscar acceptance speech.

Then she said that only 44 people speak Afrikaans and that Al Debbo was her favourite local actor. People, is it so difficult to see that the woman is making fun of you?

Then both her daughters are black — oh, the painful thought — and adopted to top it off. I can already see it. Aunt Stienie stands by the garden gate, lights a cigarette, and says, “Yes, no look, Charlize can keep her upstairs, but kômmin remains kômmin, and the jirre knows, something is not right with that woman."

“Poor thing, had a tough time as a child there in Benoni. She should know her place!"


Vrye Weekblad and the bigger picture

In November 1988, another independent Afrikaans newspaper, Vrye Weekblad, appeared. I still remember how I held the first edition in my hands.

Then it began: Max du Preez is crazy. It came like a chorus from the ranks of other Afrikaans journalists. Just because he dared to think outside the box, as a sui generis journalist, to see the bigger picture, he was Mad Max. Mad.

If you don't move with the herd, you're possessed. I still remember how a journalist from a large Afrikaans media house said to me: “Nee kyk, daai mannetjie is nie lekker nie; sy tjank moet afgetrap word.” (That little man isn't well; someone should cut him down to size.)

The venom of schadenfreude, suspicion and gaslighting remains astonishing. It must emanate from the deep, shadowy side of humanity.


Politicians’ transparent gas lamps

After the grapes soured between Pravin Gordhan and André de Ruyter, the public enterprises minister described the former Eskom CEO as narcissistic and self-centred. Projection? In the same breath, he mentioned that he's not a psychologist, yet he portrayed De Ruyter as a headstrong narcissist.

When thousands of poor and hungry people didn't receive their Sassa grants through Postbank, Mondli Gungubele, the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, gathered journalists at a media conference and asked who the people were who supposedly didn't receive their grants; they were all allegedly assisted, he said. The aim was gaslighting, and blame was shifted to the “lies" of the media.

May I just say something here? I had an account with Postbank for 10 years. Because I thought I was patriotic, I started banking with them. I have witnesses. The system was often offline for days; you couldn't withdraw any money. When you tried to call the toll-free number, it was never answered. When I closed my account, it took them three months to give me permission to withdraw my own money.

I can imagine what it must be like for a pensioner in the countryside to arrive at Postbank and not be able to withdraw money. I am white and privileged; I have access to people who can lend me money.

Imagine this: you are in a township and most people have no money. Postbank is offline. Where will you get money to buy dinner? From whom can you borrow money? And all the minister could do was lie at a media conference and portray the media as devils.

Then there's Eskom, which almost wins first prize for gaslighting. The audacity it has to say it's consumers' fault that there are power outages because we use too much electricity. Come again?

Unfortunately, the first prize for gaslighting goes to Gwede Mantashe, who blames poor people for their own poverty. “Get yourselves out of your poverty," he said without a hint of irony.

Is it the gas lamp burning, or is hell calling him?

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♦ VWB ♦

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