Gaslighting is a deliberate tactic used by abusers to destroy the confidence, even the sanity of the victim. It can take many forms, but the intent is to leave the victim doubting their own memory, judgement, ability to chose, and sanity. There are lots of good articles out there, so if this is an unfamiliar term, hop on a search engine. At time of writing, the Terry Gilliam interview I’m talking about is also easy to find.
In a recent interview, Terry Gilliam criticised the #MeToo movement in a way that to me says ’gaslighting’, so I’m going to take some of the statements he made and look at them closely.
He told us that this is the price you pay – a night with Harvey in return for career opportunities. First up, this is an attempt to normalise the abuse, to treat it as just a regular thing that happens. Secondly, it suggests a trade; that it is a fair price to pay for a career. It normalises the idea that men with power can demand sex from women who have no power and that we shouldn’t see a problem here. Women who protested just didn’t get as good a deal as they wanted, or are capitalising on the attention now that can do them more good. We are to understand that women are the manipulators here, Harvey’s just a regular guy, doing nothing weird, unfair or creepy at all. The implication is that the abuse was no big deal, and the victims are making a fuss about nothing. This approach encourages victims to think they shouldn’t have imagined there was a problem or made a fuss.
Gilliam describes that’s happened as ‘mob rule’. Women who have spoken up about sexual abuse are explicitly compared to the kind of torch and pitchfork gang that turns up to deal with Frankenstein in movies. This is an image that suggests both power and violence. Mob rule, says that the gang is incharge here, making the decisions. What we’ve seen are women being heard and taking seriously and people not wanting to work with abusers. That’s not mob rule in my book, it’s healthy and necessary. But, cast it in a different light, make those who protest sound powerful, violent and the certainty about who is a victim and who is a perpetrator is supposed to be less clear.
The line of logic goes: Victims are not victims. Victims are a mob. Mobs are bad. Mob rule is bad. What’s happening is bad.
Following on from this theme of re-imagining violence, he said that Matt Damon was ‘beaten to death’. Matt Damon was criticised for saying something uninformed, and when he realised, he apologised. This is not quite the same as being beaten to death. But again, we have the violence and power of the mob rule than can kill a man. Now, this suggestion goes further than the others. It hides behind the possibility of being a metaphor while telling victims something happened that did not happen. If a person raises it, Gilliam can say that of course he wasn’t talking literally, you silly women. What’s wrong with you to take that literally? What are you trying to prove? This is what gaslighters do if you call them out – they blame you. Or they say they never said it. Why would they say something so ridiculous? Of course they never said that, you imagined it. You’re making things up just to get at them.
A one off like this just looks crazy. But, if you hear this kind of thing every day, it does (trust me on this) really destabilise your sense of reality. Nothing seems firm, or certain, or reliable, including you. This makes a person easier to abuse because after a while you can abuse them, and tell them they imagined it, and that they’re having disturbing fantasies and ought to get help, and they wonder if you’re right.
This is probably the only time we’ll hear from Terry on the subject, but he’s reinforcing what Liam Neeson said, and what a lot of guys have always said to hide abuse. In a society that lets men respond to abuse accusations in this way, we create a culture of gaslighting. Mistrust the victim. Blame the victim. Make the victim doubt their own judgement. It is an evil thing to participate in.