What Is Gaslighting? Why Monica Lewinsky Is Now Claiming the Term
More than 22 years after Monica Lewinsky made headlines for her relationship with President Bill Clinton, she’s once again joining the country’s cultural conversation, this time in response to the #MeToo movement.
In a new essay for Vanity Fair, Lewinsky, now 44, writes about how the stories women have shared about sexual assault and harassment (fueled by allegations against Harvey Weinstein) have inspired her to begin coping with the results of her sexual relationship with Clinton. She began her time at the White House as an unpaid intern in 1995, and her relationship with the president reportedly lasted between 1995 and 1997.
Lewinsky describes herself as living in the “House of Gaslight” since that time. “The reason this is difficult is that I’ve lived for such a long time in the House of Gaslight, clinging to my experiences as they unfolded in my 20s and railing against the untruths that painted me as an unstable stalker and Services in Chief,” she wrote in the essay.
VIDEO: Celebrities React to Sexual Assault Allegations Against Harvey Weinstein
“Given my PTSD and my understanding of trauma, it’s very likely that my thinking would not necessarily be changing at this time had it not been for the #MeToo movement—not only because of the new lens it has provided but also because of how it has offered new avenues toward the safety that comes from solidarity,” she added.
So what exactly does gaslighting mean? According to Merriam-Webster, to gaslight is to “attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation). It’s also described as “manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.”
In her essay, Lewinsky raises the topic of consent, explaining how her relationship with Clinton was reflective of a “gross abuse of power.” “I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege,” she wrote.
“I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot,” she continued.
Ben Michaelis, PhD, a N.Y.C.-based clinical psychologist, offered an example of gaslighting in the workplace to Health. “[Gaslighting] is like someone saying the sky is green over and over again, and at first you’ll be like ‘no, no,’” he said. “Then over time, the person starts to manipulate you into saying ‘I guess I can’t really see what color the sky is.’ It’s just this sense of unreality.”
“Your boss may use gaslighting to hide a mistake or cover up information they didn't mean to share,” he added. “It can also be a passive-aggressive gesture used among peers who are competing.”
The Oscar-nominated 1944 film Gaslight is where the term originally stems from and offers an additional example. In the movie, which is based on a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, a woman named Paula marries a man named Gregory and together they move back into the home she inherited from her aunt, where she witnessed her murder. Basically, Paula begins to lose her cool in the eyes of her husband once they live there, and he confines her to the house, at which point she begins to question her own sanity thanks to his lies. Essentially, he manipulates her into thinking she's insane—which is precisely what gaslighting is.
Watch the trailer above.