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I Know What Gaslighting Is and This Is Not It

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

This week, Drew Barrymore made headlines for her candid interview with Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, whose alleged sexual abuse by Allen is recounted in the new HBO documentary “Allen vs Farrow.” Barrymore drew heat for commenting to Farrow that she, like most of Hollywood, was “gaslit” by Allen, as an excuse for having agreed to star in his 1996 movie “Everyone Says I Love You.”

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Barrymore’s misuse of the word “gaslit” was unfortunate in what I perceived to be an otherwise honest acknowledgement of feeling some shame at having been sucked into the stratosphere of the career making opportunity to work with Woody Allen in spite of the allegations against him by Dylan Farrow. What she experienced wasn’t “gaslighting.” Assuming you believe the allegations, which as I have previously stated I do, she was lied to and, like many others, she chose to look the other way because she knew the power he wielded in the movie industry. This is problematic because it diminishes the actual meaning of and seriousness of “gaslighting.”

The term “gaslighting” comes from a play and movie by the same name from the late 1930’s and early 1940’s respectively. It refers to a type of psychological manipulation that makes the victim doubt themselves or completely out of touch with reality. Having experienced gaslighting in numerous instances, I can assure you that the ramifications of this kind of abuse go far beyond being lied to. 

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline there are five basic forms of gaslighting:

Withholding: “You don’t want to hear this.”

Countering: “You aren’t remembering things correctly.”

Blocking: “You’re being brainwashed.”

Trivializing: “It wasn’t that bad.”

Forgetting: “I don’t recall saying that.”

What all of these accomplish is to make the victim question their sanity, feel insecure, reinforce their sense of disconnect from reality and above all, shame them into believing that they are not only wrong but that their errant recollection of facts is somehow a product of being inherently flawed. It is particularly egregious when there is already a power differential between the perpetrator and the victim, keeping the victim trapped in an abusive situation in spite of what the victim knows to be true. 

In this story, the person who was, in fact, gaslit, was Dylan Farrow. She was invalidated and questioned about the verity of her accusations at every turn from the time she was a little girl. This is a common occurrence with children who have survived sexual abuse and it’s devastating. They are basically traumatized twice, once by the abuse and a second time by being disbelieved or otherwise having their truth negated and dismissed.

Shame feeds off of gaslighting and the only remedy is the validation and acknowledgment of the memories of the survivor by safe others. Words matter, and in this case they really matter. What Dylan Farrow deserves more than anything is the recognition of the ways in which others were complicit in propping up her abuser in spite of the evidence against him. Barrymores apology was acknowledged for what it was intended to be by Dylan Farrow, but it’s important to call her out in order to educate others on how to be better and more supportive allies to sexual abuse survivors.

Lead image via Georges Biard

Originally published: May 20, 2021
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