Gaslighting, I learned the term while in the halfway house after prison. I’ve survived it my entire life.
Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.
My mother used to do this thing (and she still does it but she is no longer a part of my life so I’m free of her), where she would harm me and then say I exaggerated. For example, she was convinced one summer when I was nine years old, that I did not clean my neck properly. I have skin discolorations all over my body in weird spots and there is one right on my throat—I’m “two toned” my fourth grade teacher explained.
One evening my mother told my sister to go get and wet an S.O.S. steel wool pad and Ajax. When my sister handed the things to my mother, Claudia (the mother) called me over and said, “You jus filthy n’ Ima have ta do you like my fatha had ta do my sista Delsie n’ clean ya neck.” She pointed to the slight discoloration and told me that my entire neck area should be that color and she scrubbed with the S.O.S pad and Ajax until my neck was raw and the meat glistened through torn and bloodied skin. When finished she said, “Now that’s how ya neck should look.” I did not cry I did not flinch.
10 years later I decided to visit my mother and her new husband in Texas. We sat in a park and she looked at my neck and said, “You still got that spot on ya neck.” I smirked. I looked at her and said—in front of her new husband who did not know that I wasn’t just away at college, but I had been removed from her and placed in foster care (to this day she denies that I was ever in foster care—gaslighting!)—“You remember when you scrubbed my neck raw, down to the meat because you thought my neck was dirty?” Claudia answered, “Now Cookie (my nickname since birth) you always gotta exaggerate. You know you neva cleaned yo’self well especially yo’ neck.”
I smirked. “Really?” I asked her. “So, you think that the way to clean a child’s neck is by using S.O.S pads and Ajax?” She laughed, showing her false teeth (she was only 42, but childhood poverty robbed her of her teeth at age 35). “It worked. Yo neck was clean and it wasn’t that bad. You didn’t cry or flinch.” She ended with, “Why you gotta always be so crazy about stuff. I didn’t hurt you. You were dirty.”
In prison there was so much gaslighting of me by administrators, correctional officers, psychological staff and fellow inmates, that it will fill a chapter in a book and I am too raw right now to go into it. It almost did me in but “I just had to live.”
Once we women return home we are subjected to a different form of gaslighting because we are serving a life sentence. My friend J phoned me the other day in tears because the company where she is working a temporary to permanent job is gaslighting her. She does work that involves medical confidentiality. However, they know her criminal history and although there were enough spots to hire her they intentionally trained the other temporary employees in special areas and constantly gave her random work so that when the time came for applying for the open positions she was not a good candidate because she had not been given a fair chance. She also reported that one of the women violated the HIPPA laws and that woman got the job.
When J spoke wit her direct supervisor and the head of the department they began to play this game and tried to convince her that she was confused. The human resource department became involved and J was told that she misunderstood and that none of the temps were given preferential training. All the other women were hired, but not J. They were all white, unprofessional, but with no criminal history. J is black.
J said to me, it’s a life sentence. Through tears she sobbed, “This felony is my lifetime and my life will never get any better.”
Here is the thing, lying and colluding with others to support your lies is Gaslighting. Just because a shoe fits, does not mean you should wear it!
Mitigating an abuser’s actions towards others assists with the gaslighting. This has been my message to J and to all the survivors of prison abuse and reentry gaslighting in their search for a new life and employment: Document. Document. Document. Gaslighting is an experience that empowers the abuser and causes the victim to feel insane, full of shame and apologetic.
Know who you are and stand on your truth and if no one will listen take a step back, move to the side and walk around and away from those who are aiding and abbeting the Gaslighter. We have survived prison (many unjustly incarcerated), we have survived abuse prior to prison, and we will survive the gaslighters and their supporters as they attempt to make us the problem. We will be the solution. Regardless if we are women formerly or currently incarcerated. Do not be silenced. We know what insanity looks like and too often it goes hand in hand with abuse.
I will “Rage. Rage. Against the dying” of my light and I will not “…go gentle into that” world of silence. Join me in this movement against gaslighting it has no smell but it exist and is deadly.