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What is Gaslighting?

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

By Shannon Firth

In Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain plays "Maya," a CIA officer who, at one point, treats a detainee to a sumptuous dinner to reward him for sharing critical information that she says saved American lives. The thing is, the detainee doesn't remember telling his captors anything. But weak in mind and body, after several sleepless days and nights of torture, he accepts what Maya says as the truth. This is gaslighting.

The term itself was popularized by the 1944 film Gaslight, an adaptation of the 1939 play Angel Street. In the film, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, "Gregory," played by Boyer, maintains that a gaslight his wife "Paula" (Bergman) sees growing dim then brightening is in fact steady. This small deception is followed by countless others. Paula initially protests her husband's accusations about her "forgetfulness," but in time she questions her every action and memory. In reality, her husband Gregory is plotting to have her committed to an asylum so that he can take her inheritance.

In the book Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis, the late forensic psychiatrist Theodore Dorpat defines gaslighting as a situation in which one individual "attempts to exert control over the feelings, thoughts or activities of another." According to Dorpat, the gaslighting behavior itself is covert — neither "directly hostile" nor "intimidating."

"In order to be effective, gaslighting depends on first convincing the victim that his thinking is distorted and secondly persuading him that the victimizer's ideas are the correct and true ones," writes Dorpat.

In every gaslighting situation there must be a gaslighter, the agent of the abuse, and a gaslightee, his or her target. "Over time you [the gaslightee] begin to feel like you don't know your own mind or you don't know your own reality. Worse than that, you've allowed someone else to define it for you," says Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect and a research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

In the 2001 French film Amelie, the film's namesake conceives a plan to gaslight a neighborhood grocer for bullying a mentally challenged employee. First, she sneaks inside the grocer's home. Then she replaces his slippers with duplicates in a smaller size, reverses door handles with knobs and swaps his toothpaste with foot cream. In a final triumphant act, she resets the speed dial button on the grocer's telephone to dial a psychiatric institution instead of his mother's home.

Of course, more subtle and prosaic instances of gaslighting abound. In a typical example, one friend makes another friend wait for over an hour every time they meet for drinks. When the person waiting shows that he or she is upset, the tardy friend asks how someone can be so sensitive.

When gaslightees defend their own feelings or character they are dismissed by their gaslighters as crazy, irrational, or uptight. "It's like a magic trick, a sleight of hand. Let me focus your attention here rather than there," Stern told me. "Maybe you are sensitive, but what does that have to do with the other person being late?"

The first stage in gaslighting is disbelief. At this point, a gaslightee views any disagreement as minor, silly, or forgettable. In the second stage, defense, the gaslightee has begun to second-guess himself. The third stage is depression. The gaslightee actually wants to prove the gaslighter right. Then at least he or she can find a way to earn the approval of the gaslighter.

In Stern's experience, the gaslightees are more often women and the gaslighters are frequently, but not always, men. "The women rather than saying 'you can't talk to me like that' will try harder. 'Let me make that meatloaf again. Let me put my outfit together again.'"

Common signs of the gaslight effect are feeling bewildered or confused, suffering from fitful sleep or nightmares, and an inability to remember the particulars of situations involving the gaslighter. Avoiding speaking about a particular relationship with other friends and feeling a loss of happiness are also strong indicators of a gaslighting relationship.

At the core of the worst cases is the idea that individuals feel respect, love, or admiration for their gaslighters. "When we idealize the gaslighter — when we want to see him as the love of our life, an admirable boss, or a wonderful parent — then we have even more difficulty sticking to our own sense of reality," says Stern.

The more conscious gaslighting victims are of these power plays in their early stages, the easier it is to disengage or even to end that relationship. Each case is different, but the first and most important step is to stop trying to gain the gaslighter's approval.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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