I believe that in 1962, Sylvia Plath experienced gaslighting.
I realise that this is a contentious statement and is probably open for discussion. However, I not only believe that she was gaslighted but that in her usual ahead-of-the-times way, she started to offer us a blueprint of how to deal with gaslighting, how to give the gaslighter a chance, and ultimately how to resolve it.
Gaslighting in many ways is a slippery concept. It is mostly (but not exclusively) done by men to women. It is always destructive but seems to reflect gendered power relations in such a way that bizarrely many men who gaslight are not even really aware that they are doing it. However, the nature of gaslighting is such that it is almost impossible to tell a gaslighter they are gaslighting because…well, they’ll gaslight you about that too.
After reading Plath’s letters and endless psychology reports, it seems there are some common features of gaslighting. First of all, it can take a long time to realise you are being gaslighted – sometimes years. This is because the main aim of gaslighting is to make everything seem it is your reaction to things that is the problem. It is also designed to undermine, to create chronic self-doubt, and to make you feel as though you are being unreasonable towards the gaslighter.
Before looking at Plath’s experience and her response, it might be useful to outline some of the key features. This list has been drawn from about thirty different articles and includes those characteristics that appear in all of them:
- The downplaying and minimising of emotions – suggesting how you feel is an overreaction, invalid or just plain wrong.
- Endless lying, even about meaningless, trivial stuff, as though lying is the default setting. Often the lies will have some kernel of truth but will be slightly twisted. When busted on this there are commonly two reactions from the gaslighter: (a) the decision to lie will be blamed on you because you are so unreasonable they are not able to tell you the truth, or (b) they will persist in the lie and continue to deny the undeniable, even in the face of solid evidence.
- You cannot hold the gaslighter to any sort of scrutiny – if you do, they will compound the lie further, become defensive and aggressive, accuse you of stalking them / being a psycho / engage in ‘diversion’ (i.e. turn it on you and your many faults) / engage in ‘countering’ (blame you instead) / withhold or project (accuse you of the very thing they are doing themselves). According to most psychologists, the biggest flaw of a gaslighter is that they are blatant liars and in that sense are bankrupt in character or integrity. The likelihood is that some don’t care, some will have a bizarre way of justifying it to themselves, and others will get so caught up in their lies they may even become to believe them to be true.
- Forgetting or denying – gaslighters have very patchy memories when it suits them. They can’t possibly remember something that happened two years ago / last week / yesterday, and if you do, then you are just weird.
- Knowledge shaming – as part of the general undermining, gaslighters like to knowledge shame which is a key tactic of humiliation and is always prefixed with something like ‘you can’t possibly NOT know…’ i.e. how stupid can you be? So stupid it bewilders your much better-informed partner, obviously.
- Psychologists pulled together the common phrases that gaslighters use all of which are designed to wrong-foot and undermine but most importantly designed to make you understand that everything is your fault: ‘You’re a psycho’, ‘You’re overreacting’, ‘Calm down’, Stop taking everything so seriously’, ‘Stop being dramatic’, ‘You always want an argument’, ‘You treat me like shit’, ‘You are missing the point’, ‘I was joking’. The purpose of these comments is to not only make you take responsibility for everything but to wear you down. To make you realise that you are crazy, unreasonable, self-dramatising, stupid, and a bad person with no sense of humour. A gaslighter uses faux humour to be especially vicious and then has the double whammy of being able to explain it away with the secondary insult that you are just too po-faced to understand how hilarious they are.
- Play the victim – gaslighters like this almost as much as lying. If they are challenged or scrutinised about anything, however trivial, they will often fall back into victim mode: ‘what have I done wrong now?’, ‘There’s just no pleasing you.’
- They are quite often rude about your friends or family – they will expect you to fully assimilate into their life, but they will not return the favour. There will always be something wrong with your friends, and they will sometimes make you choose between seeing your friends or seeing them and this can be incredibly stressful and upsetting (and dangerous – the obvious extreme end of this is that gaslighting can result in isolation).
- For a gaslighter, nothing is ever their fault; they are never wrong, they never apologise, or they engage in insincere non-apologies that suggest how you feel is the problem not that they caused it (‘I’m sorry IF you feel upset…’)
Given this list, the obvious question to ask is why anyone would go anywhere near a gaslighter in the first place once they reveal these delightful characteristics. But gaslighters are often charming, talented, interesting, so it is possible for people to become sucked in before the more undesirable aspects begin to emerge. Plus, according to psychologists gaslighters know when to pull back – they often counter all of this behaviour with regular declarations of love and tell you just how amazing you are. In fact, gaslighters are very good with words, just as they are very adept at managing people.
From spring 1962 onwards, I would suggest that Plath was subjected to gaslighting. My purpose here is not to indulge in any Hughes-bashing. As mentioned above, he may not have realised what he was doing. There would be an argument that he would have even less chance of realising it back in 1962, pre-second wave feminism when gendered behaviour was much less scrutinised. Plath though, realised that something was ‘off’ with Ted Hughes’s behaviour, but when she questioned him about it, she was told she was pathologically jealous and suspicious (i.e. the ‘you’re a psycho’ line). Of course, the reality was that Hughes was starting an affair with Assia Wevill, but his response made Plath doubt herself and what she was feeling (despite her gut instinct and just knowing). Her emotions were minimised, she was accused of overreacting while simultaneously being lied to. When the affair was exposed, the type of conversations placed the blame on Plath: she was unreasonable, the marriage had stopped Hughes being able to write, she wasn’t physically attractive enough anymore (‘a hag in a world of beautiful women’), she had trapped him into having children he didn’t want, he only married her because she asked him, she was childish and needed to grow-up, she had a death-ray quality etc. A re-framing of their history together made Plath doubt her own reality. On a trip to Ireland in September 1962, Hughes disappeared leaving her there alone, in a move that he had pre-arranged. He organised a friend in London to send her a telegram to say he would be in the city for two weeks and would be in touch soon, but really he had gone to Spain with Wevill. Lying about secret trips with another woman – the ultimate gaslighting move. Plath was distraught.
But what is fascinating, is how Plath mobilised herself to deal with this, because many of the things she did are the exact advice given by psychologists today to deal with a gaslighter. First of all, you have to decide whether you still want them in your life. If not, walk away. This of course is much easier for some than others. If there’s just you and you’re financially independent you can leave at any time, but if you have children, or are in any way vulnerable or dependent, then it becomes much more difficult.
At first, Plath seems to have decided to try and resolve things. Here’s her (and current day) advice on how to handle the situation:
- Trust your gut instinct – don’t let a gaslighter make you agonise with self-doubt. They are accomplished liars. Know this and never doubt it. They will not hesitate to lie to you under any circumstances about big or small things. You have absolutely no obligation to believe them (about anything). Plath’s letters demonstrate a real release of liberation at the point she realises this.
- Gather evidence, observe carefully, keep a note of everything, keep a journal, take screenshots. Regain some of the power that has been taken from you by the lying. Do not reveal to the gaslighter everything you know. Having solid evidence they do not know about can help you judge the extent to which they are prepared to lie to you. This puts the power back into your hands (while they are likely thinking they’ve got away with it). Hughes complained that Plath had apparently employed a private detective (unconfirmed) or got friends to report back to her. He did not like this level of scrutiny and was unsure just how much she knew about his behaviour.
- Speak up – tell the gaslighter their behaviour is unacceptable, let them know you do not believe them, but refuse to take it further. Refuse to argue, say you don’t want to talk about it (you don’t need to – you know they’re lying and you know how they’ll react if you challenge them, but nevertheless let them know you know). According to psychologists this is your best chance of getting the gaslighter to reflect upon their behaviour and change their ways.
- Stay calm. Plath realised this after losing her shit with Hughes. By the time she moved to London in December 1962, they were becoming better friends as she pointed out he had nothing to fear from her now there were no scenes between them. Gaslighters want a reaction, they want you to be angry and upset so they can tell you that you need to calm down and to point out how unreasonable and over-emotional you are being.
- Ask friends or family for advice. A gaslighter will make you think you are a terrible person and that you treat them badly. Repeat conversations you have had, show text messages to a trusted friend or family member (someone you know will call you out if it actually is your fault). Plath’s letters to Ruth Beuscher (and to a lesser extent Olive Higgins Prouty) are perfect examples of Plath doing this – deep analysis of what she was being subjected to, her role in it, what she needed to do, and how she needed to handle Hughes and herself.
- Self-care and belief in yourself and your version of events. Once Plath realised she was being lied to, she had no further reason to doubt herself and much strength can lie in this position. She confronted Hughes and asked him to always tell the truth, however painful it would be and he promised to always do that. Her second devastation came when she discovered that he had continued lying. Having offered him some sort of truth amnesty as a way to resolve matters, being lied to a second time seemed to be the point where Plath decided to leave.
- Leave the relationship. Once you realise gaslighting is part of your relationship, you can as Plath did, try to resolve it. There seems to be a spectrum on how long people give this. In Plath’s case it was months, for some people it is years. The main difficulty is not being able to talk to the gaslighter or reason with them. Ultimately Plath ended her marriage and many psychologists acknowledge that in the end most people do walk away from a gaslighting relationship after years of being lied to, ground down, and disrespected. Although gaslighters are intelligent people, they rarely have the moral courage to confront their own behaviour, listen, and be willing to change. The difficulty is that often a person becomes so assimilated into the gaslighting relationship that they lose a sense of self. Plath’s final letter poignantly describes how she felt she had lost her sense of identity, and that finding it again felt impossible.
Succinctly though, what Sylvia Plath can teach us about gaslighting is: trust your instinct, initially give someone a chance (on the off chance they don’t realise what they’re doing), stay calm, look after yourself, know your own worth, and the point at which it all seems hopeless, if at all possible, walk away.
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