Growing up, I always felt a deep, peaceful connection to things. Despite being an only child, 500 miles from family other than my parents, and mostly alone, I had a keen awareness that what was going on in my household wasn’t normal. Yet every time I challenged my parents’ unhealthy beliefs, or offered an alternative, or at times found myself screaming red-faced to the point of exhaustion at the pathological neurosis in front of me, my father would point at me screaming, “You’re delusional. You’re crazy.”
I don’t know what kind of actual mental illness consumes two people when they willingly look at the being they created, and the pain she is in, and keep kicking. I only know that after 30 years, I’ve come to forgive them for these things.
Yet it’s no wonder then that I’ve accepted craziness as truth with the majority of men I’ve been with. No wonder why for nearly the last decade I’ve subscribed to this belief, letting my resulting perceived helplessness produce the kind of behavior to justify my fears or fit the bill. Self-fulfilling, manipulated prophecy.
Those who know me best have spent countless hours telling me I am the furthest thing from crazy. Insightful, intuitive, aware and deeply connected to things. My only fault, then, is this faulty belief. The belief that somehow, despite the grace and gratitude I feel for my perspective on things, I am still a defective human being.
Which is why I’ve since removed ‘crazy’ from my vocabulary.
A few years ago I wrote a column about this misguided notion that women’s emotions are ‘crazy.’ I came to the topic again through my recent obsession with the Fitzgeralds: their incredible love story, laced with tragedy, has fascinated people for nearly a century. Scott and Zelda were icons of the 20s; passionate lovers hopelessly dedicated to each another through mental illness, alcoholism and infidelity. The short version is that Zelda was much more than Scott’s muse, him often lifting diary entries and direct quotes from her to write his now iconic stories. Zelda spent the majority of her later years in various mental institutions, said to be bipolar or schizophrenic, while her husband paraded other women in front of her and documented his plans to orchestrate her breakdowns. "Attack on all grounds. Play (suppress), novel (delay), pictures (suppress), character (showers), child (detach), schedule (disorient to cause trouble), no typing. Probable result — new breakdown."
Modern psychologists have since deduced from this information, coupled with the context of the time period, that was Zelda most likely not in fact “crazy,” but severely depressed, wanting desperately to be heard and assert her independence and identity. Eccentric, full of life. And the victim of decades of gaslighting.
Writer Yashar Ali has devoted himself to this topic in his book, A Message To Women From A Man: You Are Not Crazy —How We Teach Men That Women Are Crazy and How We Convince Women To Ignore Their Instincts.
You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting. Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out! You’re crazy! I was just joking, don’t you have a sense of humor? You’re so dramatic. Just get over it already!
Do you ever hear any of these comments from your spouse, partner, boss, friends, colleagues, or relatives after you have expressed frustration, sadness, or anger about something they have done or said?
When someone says these things to you, it’s not an example of inconsiderate behavior. When your spouse shows up half an hour late to dinner without calling — that’s inconsiderate behavior. A remark intended to shut you down like, “Calm down, you’re overreacting,” after you just addressed someone else’s bad behavior, is emotional manipulation, pure and simple.
And this is the sort of emotional manipulation that feeds an epidemic in our country, an epidemic that defines women as crazy, irrational, overly sensitive, unhinged. This epidemic helps fuel the idea that women need only the slightest provocation to unleash their (crazy) emotions. It’s patently false and unfair.
I think it’s time to separate inconsiderate behavior from emotional manipulation, and we need to use a word not found in our normal vocabulary.
I want to introduce a helpful term to identify these reactions: gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a term often used by mental health professionals to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.
The term comes from the 1944 MGM film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman’s husband in the film, played by Charles Boyer, wants to get his hands on her jewelry. He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and hauled off to a mental institution. To pull of this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker off and on, and every time Bergman’s character reacts to it, he tells her she’s just seeing things. In this setting, a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim’s perception of him or herself. …
It’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it. We continue to burden women because they don’t refuse our burdens as easily. It’s the ultimate cowardice.
Whether gaslighting is conscious or not, it produces the same result: It renders some women emotionally mute.
These women aren’t able to clearly express to their spouses that what is said or done to them is hurtful. They can’t tell their boss that his behavior is disrespectful and prevents them from doing their best work. They can’t tell their parents that, when they are being critical, they are doing more harm than good. …
No wonder some women are unconsciously passive aggressive when expressing anger, sadness, or frustration. For years, they have been subjected to so much gaslighting that they can no longer express themselves in a way that feels authentic to them.
They say, “I’m sorry,” before giving their opinion. In an email or text message, they place a smiley face next to a serious question or concern, thereby reducing the impact of having to express their true feelings.
You know how it looks: “You’re late :)”
These are the same women who stay in relationships they don’t belong in, who don’t follow their dreams, who withdraw from the kind of life they want to live.
… this concept of women as “crazy” has really emerged as a major issue in society at large and an equally major frustration for the women in my life, in general.
From the way women are portrayed on reality shows, to how we condition boys and girls to see women, we have come to accept the idea that women are unbalanced, irrational individuals, especially in times of anger and frustration.
Just the other day, on a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a flight attendant who had come to recognize me from my many trips asked me what I did for a living. When I told her that I write mainly about women, she immediately laughed and asked, “Oh, about how crazy we are?”
Her gut reaction to my work made me really depressed. While she made her response in jest, her question nonetheless makes visible a pattern of sexist commentary that travels through all facets of society on how men view women, which also greatly impacts how women may view themselves…
I don’t think this idea that women are “crazy,” is based in some sort of massive conspiracy. Rather, I believe it’s connected to the slow and steady drumbeat of women being undermined and dismissed, on a daily basis. And gaslighting is one of many reasons why we are dealing with this public construction of women as “crazy.”
I recognize that I’ve been guilty of gaslighting my women friends in the past (but never my male friends—surprise, surprise). It’s shameful, but I’m glad I realized that I did it on occasion and put a stop to it.
While I take total responsibility for my actions, I do believe that I, along with many men, am a byproduct of our conditioning. It’s about the general insight our conditioning gives us into admitting fault and exposing any emotion.
When we are discouraged in our youth and early adulthood from expressing emotion, it causes many of us to remain steadfast in our refusal to express regret when we see someone in pain from our actions.