Episode 29: Gaslighting with Maisie Breit from the NYC Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, and Karen Wang, NYU Presidential Scholar
Maisie Breit from the NYC Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence returns to the You Matter! podcast to meet with Karen and NYU Presidential Scholar Karen Wang to discuss gaslighting: how to understand the signs, and the resources available in New York City that can help those affected.
Intro Voices [00:00:05] Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Intro Voices [00:00:31] This is “You Matter”, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman [00:00:37] Hi, everyone, and welcome back to “You Matter”, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host, Karen Ortman, Assistant Vice President of field operations at the Department of Public Safety and a retired law enforcement professional.
Karen Wang [00:00:59] And I'm your co-host, Karen Wang, a senior undergraduate student here at NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences and a presidential scholar. If any information presented today is triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999 or NYU’s Department of Public Safety and their Victim Services unit at 212-998-2222.
Karen Ortman [00:01:25] Today, our guest is Maisie Breit, training and curriculum specialist at the New York City Mayor's Office to end domestic violence and gender based violence. Maisie is going to talk about gaslighting, a term that comes from the 1938 stage play Gaslight. Thank you so much for joining us today on “You Matter”.
Maisie Breit [00:01:45] Thank you. Hi, Karen and Karen.
Karen Ortman [00:01:50] So, Maisie, can you share with our listeners what you know about the 1938 play Gaslight, its relevance to present day domestic violence survivors and how that term has lived on since 1938?
Maisie Breit [00:02:05] I most recently watched the 1944 movie since I couldn’t just have a play-stage production appear before me. The movie was based on the play and actually won a bunch of awards when it came out, including some Oscars. And I believe it is the exact same story, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Bouygues. And so it was really good. I was surprised that it held up. And yeah, the idea behind both the term and the story is that a woman meets someone and they end up moving, getting married quite quickly, which is relevant to the plot. And when they move into this apartment in London, he, the partner, the husband, pretty quickly starts to isolate her, but does so under a really intentional premise, which is that she is sick and not well, and that she's going to basically embarrass herself and make herself worse if she goes out and then simultaneously is convincing her that she's crazy and like really, really, really directly, it's not even subtle.
So, yeah, there's moments where things go missing and he tells her that she's lost them. And how could you do that? One instance in the latter half of the movie where he loses his pocket watch when they've actually gone out, which she had to convince him that she needed to do. And he was very disappointed by that. And he has slipped the watch into her purse so that, you know, then he tries to convince her that she stole it. And it's like doing these things unconsciously but consciously, and that she's crazy and that she's
doing all these horrible things. And then, of course, the whole plot of the movie, which I hope I'm not spoiling, is that there's a reason he sought her out, this woman, to have her fall in love with him because he had previously murdered someone in the apartment that she used to live in, the floor right above her. And so he knew that she had vacated this apartment. He wanted her to fall in love with him, get married, move him back to England so that he would finally have access again to the apartment where he had previously murdered this woman because she was the possessor of these very expensive jewels.
And so once they've moved back to England, the thing that I think a lot of people are familiar with, which is where the term comes from, is that he secretly goes to work, quote unquote, and is going upstairs to the apartment above them and turning on the gas light, which dim the lights in her house as well as like stomping all round the floor. And he's telling her that she's imagining the lights dimming, that she's hearing things when she hears people on the floor above her or him on the floor above her. And he's hired a bunch of maids and servants, who he’s basically enlisted to lie with him. And so they're also telling her that she's crazy. And so it escalates really quickly where he has used all of these things in order to completely isolate her, make her question herself and all under the guise that he's doing it for her own benefit. Right. If she goes out, it will cause her or other people more harm.
Karen Ortman [00:05:40] Yeah. It's really an attack on her psyche, too, like a systematic attack, which is so relevant to domestic violence survivors of today, where that sort of behavior is very present in abusers as we know them.
Maisie Breit [00:05:59] Right. I mean, that's exactly the point of what he's doing, is to make her not trust herself, because that's the way that he can have more control over her life and what he wants from her. And so it's not just that she can't go out and he can find these tools, although, you know, that is specific to the story. But the fact that she thinks that there's something wrong with her which deeply impacts her ability to function and to function independently
Karen Ortman [00:06:28] As a training and curriculum specialist, as you are for the New York City mayor's office, it's interesting that this play and movie has stood the test of time where it's absolutely relevant today. Are there any comparable sorts of stories that tell the same tale in the present day that is similar to this play or movie?
Maisie Breit [00:06:57] Yeah, I mean, I could give you the example that we often give in training. And I mean, firstly, I would say yes, absolutely, gaslighting is something that is a behavior that people who cause harm in relationships use all the time. It's very, very, very common and it's common outside of also abusive relationships in general. But it's just sort of like a harmful behavior to convince people that they don't know anything or that they're crazy. But, yeah. The example that we give in training all the time, which is a little bit more, I guess something people might connect with, is the idea that usually as a trainer, I would ask someone in the audience if they'd be okay being part of the example. So I could say to either Karen, whether it’s Karen Wang or Karen Ortman, are one of you okay with being my partner for this example?
Karen Wang [00:07:49] Yes, I am.
Maisie Breit [00:07:54] Right. Thank you. Thank you, Karen. Okay, great. So we're partners. And Karen, I am so bad at keeping track of my keys. It's something that is incredibly frustrating and I really want to get better at it. So what I've decided to do is that
we live together and I'm going to build this hook right inside our doorway so that every time I get home, I can hang my keys on the door, on the hook. And so I do that. And I put my keys there and I got this, finally, everything, I'm on top of it. And every time I get home, I hang my keys on the hook. And then every time you get there, you take my keys off the hook and you hide them. And I get home and I'm like, I don't understand. Like, I'm sure I put my keys here. I know that I'm doing this. I am so positive. I recollect this. I know that I've done this. And Karen, your response to me might be something like, “What's wrong with you? You can't even keep track of your keys. How can I trust you to keep track of our finances, of taking care of our household and taking care of our children? You obviously are totally irresponsible and incompetent.” The whole idea is that it's purposeful and intentional, absolutely.
Karen Ortman [00:09:03] So does a profile exist of the typical gaslighter, as we might know this person today?
Maisie Breit [00:09:10] I want to be hesitant with questions like that. Because, you know, I think that anyone can experience abuse. Right. Anyone, regardless of who they are. And I think that it's hard to say. I only say that because I don't want to introduce the concept that there's someone to look out for because that sort of also implies the idea that there's something you could do to prevent this from happening to you. But yeah, I mean, someone who uses these types of behaviors, the only thing that I would say is that they are probably controlling in other ways. Right. They are probably trying to reduce that person's freedom and autonomy in a multitude of ways. And so I don't think gaslighting is probably an isolated sort of experience and that's something that someone is experiencing in their relationship. But it is often, I would say, it could be a precursor to some more severe physical forms of violence.
Karen Ortman [00:10:10] OK. Thanks. I think that was a good answer.
Karen Wang [00:10:14] So my question will be, are there any signs or red flags that can kind of help someone recognize that they are a victim of gaslighting?
Maisie Breit [00:10:24] Again, that sort of is inherent in the concept of gaslighting or the experience of gaslighting, I should say, is that you start to question yourself. Right. You start to lose touch with your own sense of reality and think that you're going crazy. And because that is the whole intention in an experience of gaslighting, identifying that it's happening to you is that much harder. That's sort of part of the experience and that you don't trust yourself anymore. So, yeah, it would be something where even someone who talks about gaslighting all the time and is an expert in intimate partner violence or abusive relationships, when something like that starts happening to you that you might totally have no awareness and not be able to identify it because that's sort of what the behavior is doing. So I guess it's not really answering your question, but, you know, I think that it's hard to trust yourself when the whole idea is that you need to stop trying to convince you to stop trusting yourself. But recognizing that even that feeling is happening, right, and trying to ground yourself in some of the self awareness you have about who you are. And I would say definitely in that instance, reaching out to people whom you trust, who might be able to tell you that you're not crazy. But yeah. It's something that would be really, really hard to identify on your own, about something that's happening to you.
Karen Wang [00:12:00] Now what about in situations where someone who is gaslighting is not aware that they are doing so?
Karen Ortman [00:12:06] Is that even possible?
Maisie Breit [00:12:09] Yeah, that's a good question. I think what is possible is that someone is doing it and not completely aware of the harm that it's doing or even mostly aware of the harm that it's doing. I also think it's possible that someone's doing it and not completely in touch with why they're doing it, but they do know sort of the impact of like, yeah, I guess the impact of what they're doing. I mean, those are kind of contradictory statements. So I would say that in relationships and in our society and culture, right, there are a lot of expectations that people are taught from their family or their community or growing up or whatever it is. And so sometimes some of these behaviors might be something that someone is expecting or thinks is normal. Whether that be the person who is exhibiting those behaviors or not. I mean, the thing about gaslighting, it's not just being in control. It's really intentionally trying to make someone think that they're crazy. And so that would, I would say, would make it a lot harder for someone to be doing that unconsciously. That being said, I think that someone telling someone that, you know, that they're overreacting could also be a form of gaslighting. If you always tell someone that, you are wrong to think that a relationship should be equal, right, or you are wrong to think that these expectations that you have for a relationship should exist. And then all of what you understand of how people should be partners is wrong. That person might not be intentionally trying to make someone feel like they're crazy, but they are trying to get what they want out of that relationship and dismissing someone else's needs, which is exerting absolute power and control, even if it's not like I am intensely gaslighting you, right. And they're doing it to get what they want out of the relationship. And the impact then is still that this person thinks that everything they thought they understood about how relationships should work is wrong, which very quickly could make someone feel like they are crazy or don't know anything or are stupid and have been taught all these wrong lessons their whole life and that they better listen to this person because clearly they know better. And so all of those impacts could then be just the same, even if it's not someone saying, I want to gaslight this person in order to, you know, to make sure that they feel horrible about themselves and crazy and so I can control them. The ways that relationships work in our society are much less like “I am intentionally, directly causing harm in a lot of these instances” and more like “I am intentionally, indirectly, trying to get out of this relationship what I want, which is what I think I deserve, which is what society has told me is expected,” which often then is causing harm and controlling and limiting someone else's autonomy.
Karen Wang [00:15:06] So what guidance can be offered here to help survivors break free from these types of relationships that you were previously describing?
Maisie Breit [00:15:15] Yeah. That's important. Again, right, I think unique to these situations is that it's really hard to know necessarily that you're experiencing it and you've already lost so much confidence in your understanding of yourself and what's happening. And I think that this is a really key moment where other people can reassure someone that they are not crazy. Right. This is something that we always say, but it's even more important in this situation to believe someone. Right. If someone is telling you about something that sounds like it could be gaslighting or like someone is trying to make someone feel like they don't understand what's happening to them, really just saying “No, I believe you. The feelings that you are expressing are valid.” And even if it's playing out like, “I'm really upset by these behaviors but the person tells me that I'm overreacting or that I shouldn't be so upset about this,” like even just saying, “No, it sounds like something that is really legitimate to be upset about and that makes sense. And you are not
overreacting.” So in this instance, really believing someone can be really, really, really helpful.
Karen Ortman [00:16:28] Yeah, I agree with that. Yeah.
Maisie Breit [00:16:31] And I think that, you know, something that we talk about in one of our training about risk assessment and safety planning is the option of reality-checking someone, which is hard and can be difficult. And you never, ever want to tell them what to do. Right. And you never want to define someone's experience. So you don't want to say to someone, “It sounds like you're being gaslighted” or “It sounds like you're in an abusive relationship” or “It sounds like your partner is an abusive person.” You would never want to say that. But if someone is describing behaviors to you, A, obviously, validating their feelings, but also, B, you can, it is okay to say to someone, based on what you've told me, I am concerned about these behaviors or I am concerned about your well-being, without saying to them that this is a label and I think that you need to do anything. Just saying that, “What you've told me is concerning for me and I want to be available to you as a resource or help you talk through any of it if you’re interested.”
Karen Ortman [00:17:35] You mentioned safety planning, someone listening to this who maybe isn't ready to disclose that they are experiencing this behavior, and yet maybe there is a level of concern for their physical safety and all the other safety's, emotional, mental. Where could someone go to talk about a safety plan that doesn't require them to report to the police, for example?
Maisie Breit [00:18:05] Definitely the domestic violence hotline, at least the New York City one, which is 1-800-621-HOPE, that hotline specifically is really great for referrals and also for safety planning. And so that's one option. And then the ENDGBV, my office, also has worked on a portal which is specifically to consolidate all of the city resources about intimate partner violence and domestic violence. And that also has one of those things that will delete your history if you need it and it gives you that automatic escape button. And it's the NYC Hope portal. And so that has all your resources in one place. And then, I mean, in the instance you described, someone might not also feel safe walking into a family justice center necessarily or ready to. But all of the family justice centers are also available for people who are experiencing these types of behaviors or harm. And no one is ever going to say to you, “You have to leave.” There are people who just give you free therapy or counseling or safety planning or case management, all of that happens onsite. And the family justice centers are - this is always what we say, but free, walk-in, confidential and will serve anyone regardless of their age, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. So those are a really great option when someone has the opportunity to go walk somewhere and there's one in each borough.
Karen Ortman[00:19:52] Really good information. Thanks for that.
Maisie Breit [00:19:54] Oh yeah, of course.
Karen Ortman [00:19:55] Do you think that law enforcement is adequately trained to recognize these behaviors and investigate these sorts of crimes? Well, gaslighting in and of itself is not a crime, but it is certainly an element of something that leads to a crime or could lead to a crime. Do you think that there's sufficient training for this?
Maisie Breit [00:20:17] Yes. That's a great question. And I mean, before I answer it, I would like to say that what you just said is so key. Right. These behaviors are not illegal, all of these behaviors that are not physical harm or that are not just, but that are exerting emotional trauma on someone or are abusive and harmful and controlling in other ways. They are not equal. No one is committing a crime. So that makes it so much harder for someone to come forward and say that they're experiencing something or for there to be appropriate steps to help them, whether that be by law enforcement or anyone else. No. People are not adequately trained in understanding the impact of and identifying the behaviors that are gaslighting or that are controlled in other ways, that are emotionally abusive or mentally abusive. Right. It would be very hard even to explain to someone, if you go to law enforcement and say, you know what, what is your story? If we're talking about Gaslight the movie. You know, I think that I'm seeing light change and I'm literally hearing things in my apartment. Right. It's behaviors where because you are already being made to think that you're going crazy, it's like, it sounds like you're crazy. It sounds like you're paranoid. And then make you look like - something I should have said earlier, but that when we add in layers to identity. What if we are talking about someone, for instance, who has any sort of either documented or diagnosed mental health concern?
Karen Ortman [00:22:01] Right. Right. Very true.
Maisie Breit [00:22:02] You add that onto the story we just gave and of course, people are just going to totally write you off and say that you're crazy. Oh, these are just paranoid behaviors. These are symptomatic. They are not indicative of someone's actual experience. So what if we add onto that that you're in a same gender relationship. Right.
And then the reaction or understanding of that by society or law enforcement, is that there's nothing, you know, there's nothing going on. People are of equal, you know, strength or whatever, you know, totally, totally biased and in false stereotypes and assumptions about people who are in same gender relationships. That they can't - there's no way someone could be abusive. It's just, you know, equal footing. I mean, or if one partner has, of course, like immigration that’s undocumented, you're not even going to go to law enforcement. And you certainly don't want to present as though you are crazy or in any way not reliable because then the harm might be even worse. And then, of course, there are people of color who have a huge amount of very legitimate concern with even accessing law enforcement, period, let alone if they are feeling like they can't trust themselves or the person that they are with or, you know, any of the experiences that they're having now. So I'm sorry that my answer is sort of like a pessimistic one. I think that there is a lot of training happening and there are people who do respond well and do understand. And at the same time, there needs to be a lot more and there needs to be a lot better training. And I think also sort of the ongoing larger problem is that it's not taken seriously, like the issue of domestic violence is not taken seriously, period, in society, let alone by people who are, you know, set up to provide resources and protect it.
Karen Ortman [00:24:05] Right. Well, that's the goal of a podcast such as this, to get this information, these subjects out there to those who are interested so that there is an awareness, we can talk about it where others are reluctant to or uncomfortable. You know, this is the purpose of what it is we're doing as far as I'm concerned. So hopefully it matters because everybody matters.
Karen Wang [00:24:33] Well, thank you for that, Maisie. Is there anything else you would like to add before we conclude today's episode?
Maisie Breit [00:24:38] I am really happy that Karen ended it on a more positive note. And I think that, yeah, it's also helpful for me to hear that despite the amount of work that remains to be done right and how much improvement is needed, here we are, gaslighting is like a term that's part of our vernacular now and that says something, right? And that there are people who are interested in talking and learning about these behaviors, and the training team for ENDGBV does exist. So yeah, I think all of those things are really positive steps and slowly but surely this will be hopefully, as you said, Karen, something that people do take seriously. And meanwhile, we can provide these resources. So yeah, thank you for that.
Karen Ortman [00:25:31] Well, thank you. Thanks for joining.
Karen Wang [00:25:38] Thank you to our guest, Maisie, and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of “You Matter”. Please share, like, and subscribe to “You Matter” on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify.