News and Tribune

January 10, 2014

STAWAR: Gaslighting your loved ones

Local columnist

— The new year is a time when many of us try to catch up with chores we have been avoiding. A while back, one of the sockets on the light fixture in our kitchen burned out.

This fixture was a white metal chandelier with three lights. Rewiring it was beyond my electrical skills and finding a new one seemed like too much trouble. Although I hated seeing the empty socket, we’ve been making do with it.

A few days ago, my wife Diane and I were at a thrift shop and I spotted what I thought was an identical chandelier for sale. It was so reasonably priced that I couldn’t resist buying it. When we got the thing home, I noticed that it was actually larger than the original and had five instead of three lights.

It wasn’t easy to install and I have to admit that Diane did most of the standing on the table wrestling with screws that didn’t quite fit. After I connected the wires, I was relegated to holding the flashlight and making sure the table was steady.

Once it was up, the light looked pretty much the same as the old one. Diane, however, now has more bright lights shining on her. She says that she feels like she’s being interrogated every time she sits down at the table.

We doubt that our children or grandchildren will even notice the difference, since the two fixtures are so much alike. If anyone asks, I plan to act like nothing has happened. Still it seems odd to have something that is so similar yet different.

I suppose this is not all that unusual, since people often try to replace things they like with similar items. Many of the things I own (wallet, shoes, belts, etc.) are actually imperfect copies of things I’ve owned in the past. When people can’t get an identical item, they settle for something that resembles the original. There are even those stories about people who try to replace dead pets with look-alikes.

Replacing something familiar with something that looks like the original calls to mind the classic science fiction horror story “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in which people are replaced by duplicates who are in reality space aliens grown from pods. The duplicates are not quite perfect, so that you can tell that they aren’t the genuine article. It’s like our new kitchen chandelier was grown in a pod, only they made one mistake and put in five lights instead of three.

“The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” sounds like a paranoid delusion and is often interpreted to represent the fears that Americans had back then regarding the soulless regimentation of communism. Oddly enough there is an actual psychiatric syndrome that is characterized by similar features. The Capgras Syndrome is a delusional disorder in which a person believes that a friend, spouse, parent or other close acquaintance has been replaced by an identical-looking pretender.

Richard Power’s National Book Award-winning novel “The Echo Maker” published in 2006 features a protagonist who develops Capgras Syndrome after a near-fatal truck accident. This syndrome is most frequently seen in people with schizophrenia, brain injury and dementia. It is named after Joseph Capgras, the French psychiatrist who first described the disorder in 1923.

Capgras and a colleague documented the case of a French woman who believed that impostors had taken the place of her husband and several neighbors. Capgras initially called this syndrome, “the illusion of look-alikes.”

People with Capgras realize that faces look familiar, but they are unable to associate certain faces with their usual feelings of familiarity. It is sort of the opposite of the common déjà vu experience — in which something strange seems familiar. With Capgras Syndrome, something very familiar suddenly seems strange.

Sometimes we may feel uncomfortable strangeness because there are real world changes taking place that our conscious mind has trouble grasping. For example, in the 1944 movie thriller “Gas Light” starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, Boyer plays the role of Gregory Anton, a cad who tries to convince his new wife (Bergman) that she is losing her mind. By orchestrating missing objects, he has her wondering if she is unconsciously a kleptomaniac.

When she hears strange footsteps coming from the locked attic and sees the gaslights dim for no apparent reason, she questions her sanity. Anton turns out to be a jewel thief and murderer who is trying to drive his wife mad so that he can search her aunt’s house with impunity for some valuable missing jewels. The term “gaslighting,” taken from the film’s title, is now used to describe a pattern of psychological abuse, in which victims are gradually and subtly manipulated into doubting their own sanity.

A comical version of the gaslight theme is seen in the work of Canadian radio broadcaster and humorist Stuart McLean. He is well known for his CBC Radio program “The Vinyl Café,” which features his popular “Dave and Morley” stories.

One of these is entitled “Kenny Wong’s Practical Jokes” and tells the back story of Dave’s friend — restaurateur and prankster Kenny Wong. When Kenny was 5 years old, his father Henry was plagued by an obnoxious and loud-mouthed bully (Eddie Kawolick) who came to eat at his Chinese restaurant every Friday. A gentle man, Henry did not wish to confront Eddie and offend his other customers, so he began a subtle campaign to rid himself of the bully using gaslighting.

Henry had noticed that Eddie often studied a painting that hung on the wall by his usual booth. It was a summer scene with a tiny figure of a nude girl beside a lake. Henry took out his paints and altered the painting. First, he painted a swimsuit on the girl and then over time he added new details and gradually changing colors, so the painting progressed almost imperceptibly through the seasons of the year. Henry also exchanged the booth’s bench with one that he had begun shaving a quarter of an inch off each week.

As Eddie’s seat was gradually being lowered each week, Henry also increased the amount of food he served on Eddie’s plate by a spoonful or two. As the weeks progressed, Eddie felt more and more uncomfortable being in the restaurant. By now, the girl in the painting was standing next to a frozen lake.

As his seat sank lower and the food on his plate grew, it was as if Eddie were shrinking. After spilling soy sauce on himself and knocking over a glass of water on the now oddly tall table in front of him, Eddie found that he was only able to eat about half of the food piled on his plate. Eddie soon decided to find a more comfortable place to eat his Friday lunch.

I had read about the gradual seat lowering technique before as both an office prank and as a bit of psychological warfare used occasionally in chess matches. Come to think of it, my chair in the conference room at work seems to get lower every time I sit in it. I had always assumed that someone taller than me had been using it, but now I’m not so sure.

As for our uncanny kitchen light, I’ve been thinking that if Diane says that she feels like she’s getting the third degree whenever she sits at the kitchen table again, maybe I can put in some lower-wattage bulbs. That is, of course, if that really is Diane.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at