I finally watched George Cukor’s classic film noir, ‘Gaslight’. It’s a masterly piece of cinema and, in any other circumstances, I would have watched it with the simple pleasure that comes from immersion in a well-written, well-acted film. It was chilling, as it was intended to be, but I found my sense of unease growing, a creeping, nauseous dread, as I watched the masterclass in manipulation and felt its almost overwhelmingly disquieting resonance with the political scene here in the UK.
Partial spoiler alert! In the film, Charles Boyer’s suave, arch-browed villain systematically unpicks heroine Ingrid Bergman’s grip on reality. He starts by laughingly referring to her little lapses of memory which, of course, she does not remember because they never happened. He prevents her from seeing anybody, telling her she is too ill, too tired and casting himself as her tender carer and protector. He hires a very obviously unsuitable maid (a young Angela Lansbury, relishing every insolent line) and ensures Paula/Ingrid will come to fear and hate her as her enemy. He leaves her ‘alone’ in the house each night, where the waxing and waning of the gaslight throws shadows on the walls and creates chimeras in her mind. After all, the light can only dim if someone else is using it elsewhere, isn’t that so? But she’s alone! The chiaroscuro phantoms are her only companions, aren’t they? And aren’t they just in her mind?
At the same time, Gregory/Charles starts setting Paula/Ingrid up to ‘lose’ precious objects, dismissing the first instance as trivial absent-mindedness, but building up the scam to the scene which threatens to push her right over the edge. In a rare display of her old spirit, Paula insists that they attend a concert given by an old family friend. Gregory has already refused the invitation, citing his wife’s ill health. He is quick to capitalise on the opportunity the outing affords to crush this small act of rebellion. He hints that she has taken his pocket watch and then ostentatiously rummages in her bag to produce it, right in the middle of the recital. He ensures her public humiliation as she wails her denial, giving credence to the story he has put about of her ill-health.
After all, he’s the reasonable one. She’s the hysteric. He’s the patient, loving husband. She is the crazed kleptomaniac. He is the voice of reason. She is the daughter of a woman who ran mad and ended her days in the asylum.
Only, none of these things are true – for him or for her. And yet, slowly but surely, he manoeuvres her into a state where she cannot believe her own reality. She cannot trust herself. She does not know what the truth is, about anything, anymore. It becomes almost comforting for her to believe that she is, indeed, mad.
It hit me hard because I identified with the victim, as hundreds of thousands of us would. Every day we are trolled, abused and gaslit by this corrupt, amoral government. It started with the Leave lies. We were the mad ones for pointing out that there was no upside to Brexit. We were the crazy, unpatriotic minority defeated in the referendum – no matter that only 37 per cent of the electorate voted for Brexit. We were the fanatical zealots, marching in our millions against the will of the people.
It’s a Trumpian tactic or, rather, it’s out of the Bannon/Cummings playbook. Black is white. Up is down. Friends are enemies and vice versa. Trump is the best friend of African-Americans, he was the first to identify the problem of coronavirus, he’s built the greatest economy ever, he’s done more for the poor, the left-behind, women etc. He told us all this in his recent speech at the Republican National Convention. You name it. He’s the hero, the benefactor, the best ever. Biden is the enemy, the nepotist, the racist, the enemy of the state and here’s what will happen under his malign regime! And then, in an act that represents the very pinnacle of his gaslighting operation, Trump shows film of riots… on his watch!
Johnson uses the very same playbook. Everything he and his government do is world-beating, best-in-class, ahead of the pack. Migrants are the evil in our midst; children are safe from Covid-19 under his paternal eye; care homes are cocooned by his protective arms. The lies are so enormous that they should be risible, yet their enormity, their outrageousness is all part of the technique. One can almost hear Cummings saying ‘Just say it. You know it’s a lie. They know it’s a lie but a third of them want to believe it, a third won’t believe anything you say anyway, and the rest will just go along with the herd. What can they do, these little people? Who will call you out?’
Johnson’s supporters, like Trump’s, gladly embrace the lies. They need to believe that their man is their hero, that he will always do right by them. For the rest of us, it is a living hell as we watch the truth being trashed and the lies being gaily promoted by a sycophantic and self-interested media. The more blatant the evil, the more we feel unable to land a punch. The Overton window is daily stretched to what seemed, only 24 hours previously, the very furthest it could possibly go without everyone waking up to the truth.
I don’t know about you, but I can feel my mental health being challenged on pretty much a minute-by-minute basis. It is only my (maybe ridiculous) dogged determination to do whatever small thing I can to help bring Cummings, Johnson, Gove and the whole sorry ERG/BlueKip cabal to justice that keeps me from going under.
Millions of us are bearing the strain of this relentless effort to break us and it feels as if the world has gone absolutely stark raving mad, because we see the truth and we cannot for the life of us really get our heads round why it isn’t blisteringly obvious to everyone that we are being lied to, tricked, robbed, manipulated and blamed by the worst politicians in living memory.
Meanwhile, people in the middle (the ‘shruggers’ as I perhaps unfairly refer to them) are so overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of the schism between the believers and the decriers that they have given up trying to work out who is right and who is wrong and have, instead, decided that no-one is to be believed. Polarisation and division have worked like a dream for Cummings; he must be rubbing his hands in glee.
Not for much longer, I hope.
In the film, when the truth is revealed and Joseph Cotton’s detective proves to Paula that she is not, in fact mad, she is initially relieved, and then devastated. She realises that her life has been a lie, not because she is, in fact, sane but because she believed herself loved. It is the realisation that this love never existed that causes her great pain but ultimately gives her back her power. When she rounds on her tormentor in the final scenes she is a force of nature, no longer under his control.
Back in our all-too-real world, great swathes of the population are still in denial about Brexit, about Covid-19, about this government’s intentions towards them. They will not, cannot believe that Johnson and his cronies do not care passionately about this country and about them. It’s the same for the Trump cult. He told his followers that he represented them, that he cared about them, that he would make America great again. Johnson told the Brexit believers that life could be better, that he would ‘level up’ so that all could prosper, that we would bestride the world like a colossus, that we would be world-beating in every field of endeavour.
It is up to us, by whatever means at our disposal – writing, talking, challenging, sharing – to banish the sinister, phantom-filled shadows and shine a bright light on the corruption and deceit. Post articles on community pages. Write to your local paper. Write to your MP. Tell them that you see only too well what is happening; that you see the cull of top civil servants for what it is, that you see the corrupt PPE deals, the nepotistic appointments, the blame-shifting, responsibility-dodging nastiness of it all. Please don’t say it won’t work – doing nothing definitely won’t work.
So far, the government is getting away with it and seems confident that the Trumpian technique of creating a new, grotesque reality will carry them through, as fans lap it up, opponents are ground down and ‘apathetics’ – the soggy middle – shrug and say ‘all politicians are this way. It is what it is.’
No. No. No. We must resist. We must turn up the light. We need to understand that many of Johnson’s fans (not the out-and-out fascists and haters, of course) felt seen, heard and loved, and they must feel that they have invested too much emotional energy to back down. They’ve been gaslit as much as the rest of us. Will they turn on their exploiter? It could happen.
One key factor will have to be in place. There has to be something to turn to, something positive. Co-dependence between abuser and abused needs to be broken. I fear that for some, sadly, it will be something stronger and darker. The far right will want to corral the anger and direct it at those who will be blamed for ‘denying’ them the manifestation of their lies. Where we are concerned, tempting though it will be to point out that we knew all along that it was nothing but lies and corruption, we will need to rise above that impulse and direct our ire at the perpetrators, not the victims. We must offer a hopeful, inclusive alternative.
The verb to ‘gaslight’ really does have a strong case for word of the year, having already proved itself to be a term of lasting cultural significance. It is our tragedy that it should resonate so powerfully right now. Our challenge must be to consign it to the dictionaries and to IMDb as a very fine example of the film noir genre. I never want to hear it again in any other context.