August 6, 2020 Reading Time: 6 minutes

You’ve heard it before: you’re the victim of political gaslighting. Depending on the news source, the villain might be President Trump, or Governor Cuomo, or Senator Sanders, or Gambian President Barrow. But gaslighted you are. 

How are you “gaslighted?” A narcissistic leader and his supporters have persuaded you to believe what you know to be false. This is not just politricks as usual: it’s an assault on your sense of reality. And you know that because journalists have told you so.

You hear it so often that you might even suspect you are being gaslighted into believing you are gaslighted. After all, many of these articles are hit pieces on politicians, not defenses of your right to transparency from government servants. 

But the danger is real, and if we are truly concerned that Americans are being gaslighted, then we need to move beyond partisan bickering to face the most tragic, widespread instance in recent memory: the federal government’s mishandling of the pandemic. 

Nothing illuminates our peril more clearly than the inspiration for this trending concept: George Cukor’s film Gaslight (1944). Its heroine, Paula, is gaslighted by the husband sworn to love her into believing she is insane and must be locked up. And now we, the American people, have been gaslighted by the government elected to protect us into believing that we would all die unless we were locked down. 

The dangers Paula faces in her own home dramatize those we face in our national house: the loss of current freedom and future wealth. And to understand how we got here, we have only to trace her winding path from confusion to resistance to passivity.

“I must get out of this house:” Locked Up

Gaslight opens by presenting Paula (Ingrid Bergman) as particularly vulnerable because it was she who discovered her aunt, the prima donna Alice Alquist, murdered in their London home. Traumatized, Paula departs for Italy, where a decade later she is persuaded to marry a man she has known for just two weeks: the suave Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). 

Gregory manipulates Paula into settling in the London house, where she shows him a painting of her aunt in the role of Empress Theodora, which was the favorite of her admirer, the Russian tsar. To avoid distressing Paula with reminders of her aunt’s murder, Gregory moves all of Alice’s things into the attic, which he has boarded up.

And then the torment begins. Gregory tells Paula that she is inclined to lose things, that she has become forgetful. Initially she demurs: she doesn’t lose things! But he makes sure that she does, stealing away the pendant he has just given her, creating doubt. 

Then Gregory says she is too ill to leave the house or receive visitors. He will care for her. Paula tries to go for a walk, but the saucy maid (Nancy) that Gregory hired intimidates her, slyly inquiring, “S’pose the master asks where?” Paula stutters and retreats. And every night Gregory sends her to her lonely room while he goes out to “work.” 

In a last burst of rebellion, Paula declares that she will go to a musical party: “I must get out of this house, meet people, and see all that’s going on in the world.” So he acquiesces. And during the concert, he “discovers” that she has placed his pocket watch in her reticule. Paula breaks it.

Tormented by isolation and lies, it is no wonder that Paula doubts her own sanity. And so she is ready when Gregory declares his intention to have her locked up for good.

It is chilling to trace her journey—confusion, fear, resistance, defeat—especially because we’ve just been through it. Like Paula, we’ve been isolated and subjected to arbitrary rules at the behest of those supposedly looking after our interests. And the results are devastating.

“Flatten the curve:” Locked Down and Up

Consider: our government said that COVID-19 was dangerous, and we must be cautious. Millions could die. But masks were unnecessary. Put those down, the CDC said. Just practice social distancing. Wash your hands. A lot, they reminded us. And then put on your mask. What do you mean, what mask? How could you forget your mask? The CDC recommends them. Many states require them. Shame on you. 

Is it any wonder that we, like Paula, felt confused and afraid? 

And so we followed orders. Our government said to stay home, to stop working, to avoid people while they leveled the curve. And we did, although with some hesitation amidst the pressure. After all, our federal government had our best interests at heart. 

And if we resisted, there were governors to protect us from the dangers of buying seeds, and mandates to place infected patients back in nursing homes. 

You’ll object, of course, that our government’s motives differ: Gregory is narcissistic, while our government has good intentions. That’s true to an extent. But those intentions are powered by elitism and hubris, which render the government far more dangerous. Because they believe they know best, they will never stop “fixing” things. And so they lie to themselves as well as us.

The results are evident. The CDC’s initial testing kits were flawed. Deaths in nursing homes exploded. Domestic violence surged. Mental health issues from the lockdown skyrocketed, including increased suicides. 

Like Paula, we wanted to get out. We began to feel not so much locked down as locked up.

And we began to wonder if we’d been gaslighted into ceding our rights to a power as arbitrary as it was fallible.

Dimming the Gaslights

What should now be clear to us as well as Paula is that we’ve lost control of our own house.

Worse, those we’ve chosen (married or elected) along with those we have not (the household servants, the career bureaucrats) not only limit our freedom of movement: they assume increasing powers over our present and future wealth. 

Gregory’s financial motive surfaces only in the last third of the film, when we see him sneaking into the attic to search Alice Alquist’s things. His goal was always to acquire Paula’s house so that he could find the crown jewels the Russian tsar gave Alice—jewels for which Gregory murdered her a decade ago. 

This is when the physical gaslighting occurs: every night he turns up the gaslight to search the attic, so the gas is diverted from Paula’s bedroom. She sees her lights dim, but the treacherous maid who is loyal to Gregory denies it. And so Paula is psychologically gaslighted, betrayed into doubting what she sees.

The redirection of the gas from Paula’s room to the attic also symbolizes Gregory’s goal of diverting her inheritance to himself. Once she is in an asylum, he obtains all. The original gaslighter’s motive was always the oldest of all: greed.

Fortunately, the film’s hero, Scotland Yard Detective Brian Cameron, suspected something was wrong. He visits Paula on the very night that Gregory realizes the jewels were sewn into Alice’s famous Empress Theodora gown, which was right in front of him all along. And now they are restored by Detective Cameron to Paula as her rightful property.

How our Government CARES

If we are outraged by Gregory’s theft, we should be more so by our government’s handling of the pandemic. We may not see a literal gaslight dimming, but we can spot evidence of resources being diverted or dissipated by poorly designed programs, such as the CARES Act.

Using that act, our government said it would take care of the financial distress. And so our experts mailed relief checks to Americans, often boosting incomes above what they had been before the lockdown and creating disincentives for some to return to work. For other recipients, chiefly the million dead people, the checks provided no benefits at all, except perhaps the exercise of spinning in their graves. 

To be fair, in some cases, the jobs that citizens were forced to leave either no longer exist or are on the verge of being eliminated, as more businesses file for bankruptcy due to the lockdown.

Meanwhile, government spending is driving up the national debt, which could “crater” the economy, Nick Gillespie warns. And the Federal Reserve is expanding its focus to include fiscal policy. As Alexander Salter argues, “Its new interventions threaten to undermine the integrity of financial markets for years to come.”

Do you see your financial future dimming yet? Even now, our government is planning additional programs that will waste money, encourage corruption, and endanger our future prosperity. Our well-intentioned experts refuse to see the limits of their own knowledge. 

How is this all to end? In Gaslight, Paula obtains the jewels and confronts Gregory. Posing as the insane woman he tried to create, she pretends she could kill him with impunity. But she doesn’t. She turns him over to Scotland Yard. Detective Cameron muses, “In the morning when the sun rises, sometimes it’s hard to believe there ever was a night.”

Like Paula, we can reject gaslighting and insist on regaining our rights, though whether we will forget this nightmare is debatable. Punishing our persecutors is certainly beyond us. 

A pity.

Caroline Breashears

Caroline Breashears

Dr. Caroline Breashears is a Professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Caroline received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and specializes in eighteenth-century British literature. Recent publications include Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the “Scandalous Memoir” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and articles in Aphra Behn Online and the International Journal of Pluralistic and Economics Education.

She was recently an Adam Smith Scholar at Liberty Fund, and her current research focuses on Adam Smith and literature. She teaches courses on fairy tales, eighteenth-century British Literature, and Jane Austen.

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