Monday, November 14, 2022

The Movie Gaslight, and a Nation in a Narcissistic Grip

Written before the 2022 national election:

For many people, narcissism has a limited meaning: someone who is self-absorbed and caught up in their own image. But start reading about it, and you discover that narcissism expresses itself through a whole suite of symptoms. Some people with narcissistic qualities can have significant and sometimes beneficial roles in the community, but they can also exhibit traits that vary from annoying to deeply disturbing, many of which you may encounter in the workplace or at home, or most tragically in the political world. Narcissism has roots in childhood trauma, is nearly impossible to cure, and ultimately proves emotionally impoverishing for all involved. A familiarity with narcissism's many dimensions can shed considerable light on persistent problems in the public and private realms.

After hearing that Angela Lansbury had died, I watched a Fresh Air podcast about her, in which I learned that she first appeared as a movie actress in Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Gaslight was first a play, then a 1940 British movie, then the classic 1944 version out of Hollywood. We ended up watching the 1940 version because it's free on youtube. The movie is so grim at the beginning that we at first bailed. But I was curious, read about the plot online, and knowing what would happen actually made me more interested in watching the movie. It turned out to be a perfect, if over the top, example of how narcissism can wreak havoc on a marriage.

The male character, Paul in the 1940 version, is the ultimate narcissist. He dazzles a woman in a whirlwind romance, marries her, then steadily works to undermine her confidence. Gaslighting, a term that grew out of this movie, is a classic tactic of a narcissist. He hides things, then blames her for losing them. When the gas lights in the apartment periodically go dim, he tells her it's her imagination. He is harshly critical and controlling. He seeks to isolate her from her friends and family. As he victimizes her, he claims that he is the victim. All of these are classic symptoms of narcissism. Despite his mistreatment, she loves him still, committed to the marriage and not understanding why they can't get back to the happiness they had shared early on.

In some ways, I see our country as being similarly under siege. In politics, narcissistic traits like projecting one's own negative traits onto others can prove highly adaptive, whether it be for an individual or a whole political party. The more pathology a narcissistic politician has stewing within, the more ammunition he has to hurl at his opponent. There's the doubling down on lies (a form of gaslighting), the quickness to blame others rather than reflect on one's own actions, a lack of empathy, false claims to victimhood, and the iron control to maintain party unity. 

Even as the husband Paul isolates his hapless wife Bella from her friends and relatives, in order to expand his control over her, she remains loyal to him. Can we not see the same dynamic occurring in our country, as people remain loyal to a political party bent on dismissing truth and dismantling democracy in order to tighten its grip on power? A nation's cherished ideals are sacrificed to sustain one man and the big lie.

Movies condition us to believe in happy endings. I won't say whether the author of Gaslight, playwright Patrick Hamilton, gave us one. My main concern, as an election nears, is whether a gaslighted nation can escape a narcissistic grip. 

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