It wasn't until I recently gave evidence at the trial of a paedophile, my schoolteacher, that I realised the devastating impact of 'gas lighting' and its connection to my personal experience of child sex abuse. I was also able to see how the psychological damage caused by 'gas lighting' at a crucial time in my development continued to reoccur throughout my adult life, becoming a hallmark of both personal and professional relationships.
Gas lighting, a term coined from the 1938 theatre play Gas Light and made famous by Ingrid Bergman's Oscar winning performance in the 1944 Hollywood film, is a subtle form of psychological abuse in which the perpetrator deliberately manipulates their victim into questioning their own reality. (Bergman's on-screen husband repeatedly dims the house lights to make her think she is going crazy.) In a modern day context, gas lighting describes a manipulative power play within relationships, designed to create confusion, self-doubt and insecurity.
When I think back to the 1970s when I was gaslighted by my schoolteacher, I am catapaulted to a social climate hardly recognisable. Imagine a society, for example, in which women were unable to secure a mortgage in their own name without a male guarantor. Growing up as a girl, and being a woman in the '70s, was very different to how it is now. And guess what? Attitudes towards child sex abuse were very different too.
Florence Rush, a psychiatric social worker at the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) received a standing ovation at the conference of New York Radical Feminists in April 1971 for her speech entitled 'The Sexual Abuse of Children: A Feminist Point of View'. Rush was the first to challenge publicly the prevailing Freudian paradigm of child sexuality, where children were regarded as sexual beings capable of seducing adults, which she called the 'Freudian Cover Up'. She had observed numerous incidents of incest and child sex abuse and concluded that a gross exploitation of power by male adults over young girls was at play. Rush's speech marked the beginning of a movement that considered children the victims of sexual power and exploitation, rather than the instigators.
In Rush's later work Sexual Abuse of Children: The Best Kept Secret, Rush specifically discusses 'gas lighting' used by the abusers 'to destroy another's perception of reality.' (Rush, 1980). This was certainly happening to me. After repeatedly molesting me for an entire year my schoolteacher then told my parents I had been 'seeking his affection in a way that was highly inappropriate for an 8 year old girl'. When questioned about it, not only was I bewilderingly confused, it triggered such a deep sense of shame that by the time Rush's book was published in 1980, I was having my first emotional breakdown at only 11 years old. This was only the start of a repetitive cycle of depression, low self-esteem, addiction, suicidal thoughts and crippling anxiety around relationships (both intimate and professional) for years to come.
So where is the light? Well I'm happy to say it shines ever more brightly since I found a path of healing and recovery 15 years ago. It is a journey that I describe as a 'spiritual adventure', where I have engaged the power of spirit to heal what was so brutally crushed emotionally, physically and psychologically. I have changed my core life condition from despair, loneliness, and shamefulness to one of optimism, hopefulness and self-love. For me, a Buddhist philosophy was the foundation, followed by experiential therapeutic work, a regular yoga practice, and engagement in communities of like-minded people, being of service, making a contribution and so on. And the rewards have been incredible.
I never expected to face my childhood abuser in court 40 years later. Yet one day the police got in touch with me, out of the blue, during their inquiries. At the time I was going through a painful break up with a man who had left me for one of my close friends. Not only had he denied his infidelity he had urged me to seek psychiatric help for my deluded thinking! Everything was serendipitously coming to light. This year I was able to give evidence and see the schoolteacher sentenced to 10 years in prison. Not only has this been a victory I never imagined possible, it has been life changing.
It is so important that the UK's national child abuse inquiry takes place. With many victims yet to benefit from the reality changing, life affirming process that I have been through, I pray that our society recognises the gross abuse of power that has gone before us. For my fellow survivors, I pray for your unconditional happiness. Regardless of how long the system takes to achieve justice we cannot rely on bureaucracy for peace of mind. Rather a collective rising of consciousness that will bring about the changes needed to address all injustice. With or without society's support, we must find a way not just to survive, but to thrive.
Ruth PhypersSuggest a correction