Picture of Rosemary Johnsen
Rosemary Johnsen, Ph.D.

Did you know the University of Minnesota Crookston has an expert on the concept of “gaslighting?” Rosemary Johnsen, Ph.D., professor and division head for business, arts, and education, is an expert on Patrick Hamilton whose 1938 stage play Gas Light created the label for the concept, and Johnsen had an essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2017 when gaslighting became a frequently discussed topic. In the beginning of her essay she suggested it was an “early contender” for word of the year, thanks to the “new administration in Washington, D.C.,” a status it has now reached.

Just recently, Merriam-Webster announced that gaslighting is the word of the year for 2022. They said, “in this age of misinformation – of “fake news”, conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deepfakes – gaslighting has emerged as a word for our time.” Merriam-Webster made mention that 2022 saw a 1740% increase in lookups for gaslighting and brought up its “colorful” origins and Hamilton’s play.

“When the whole thing about gaslighting came up, I thought, wait a minute, nobody is talking about Patrick Hamilton,” Johnsen explained when asked what led her to her essay topic five years ago. “I had previously published with The Los Angeles Review of Books, so I pitched a story about Hamilton’s play as the original source. I wrote the first North American dissertation on Patrick Hamilton’s fiction. He was highly regarded in his own time and made a fortune from his plays Rope and Gas Light.”

The definition of gaslighting, Johnsen wrote in her essay, is “the process of driving a person to question their own sanity through deliberate psychological manipulation” though the term’s origin has been “muddied by misrepresentation.” Merriam-Webster defines it similarly, adding that “over an extended period of time” it causes the “victim” to “question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories, and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem” and causes a “dependency on the perpetrator.” They’ve added that, in recent years, the word’s usage has become simpler and broader, frequently used simply to mean “grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.”

Johnsen noticed that people often use the term gaslighting in vague terms and felt that a better understanding of the origin and its context, and the nuances of gaslighting, would be helpful.

“If it’s a word that a lot of people are using and you only use it in the way you’re familiar with, it would be helpful to be better informed,” Johnsen offered. “I used the essay to talk about how this information can be relevant to you, and how Hamilton recognized that if people understood gaslighting, it can help them resist it. If gaslighting is really working, they don’t know.”

“And, by the way, the play is so much better than the movie,” Johnsen asserts. 

Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton

Hamilton’s play Gas Light premiered in December 1938, just weeks before Time magazine named Adolf Hitler “Man of the Year”, Johnsen wrote. It featured a middle-aged man, “Manningham”, who has returned to the scene of an old crime and tries to convince his wife that she is going insane while he searches for valuable rubies he failed to secure after a murder he committed 20 years earlier. The man isolated his victim for better control over her, and he played games with her such as hiding her personal items and claiming she lost them. Later, the man threatens his wife with involuntary committal to an asylum.

“These actions are all part of what we would now call a gaslighting campaign,” Johnsen’s essay detailed. “Eventually (in the play) Manningham’s crimes are exposed and the rubies are recovered. Significantly, Mrs. Manningham is able to turn the tables on her husband and contribute to the resolution.” 

Johnsen feels that the 1930s period shares “parallels” with our own times and believes Hamilton made a powerful contribution to personal and political discourse through Gas Light.

“It’s not just something that happened in 1938 and then went dormant,” she added. “It shows you the enduring power of Hamilton’s play, but it became especially relevant once the phenomenon of gaslighting itself became part of popular discourse.”

Read Johnsen’s essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Story Contact: Rosemary Johnsen