Recovering from religious trauma: Extinguishing the gas lights

Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light tells the story of a young woman named Bella Manningham whose husband Jack exhibits suspicious behavior. He engages in improper flirtation with the servants and goes out for long periods with no explanation for his absence. Bella notices that the gas lights in their apartment dim while he is gone. Jack assures her that the dimming lights and her fears about his whereabouts are products of an overactive imagination. Jack plants the fear that she is going insane through subtle hints and direct manipulation. A detective named Rough arrives to question Bella and explains that the woman in the apartment above theirs was murdered before they moved in. The murderer was never caught, and the woman’s valuable jewels were never found. Rough helps Bella process her experiences objectively and realize that Jack is the murderer and he is the one causing her to think she is going insane. Jack has been searching the apartment on the upper floor for the jewels during his long absences. The dimming gas light in the Manningham’s apartment was due to the extra gas pulled from the building’s supply when Jack turned on the gas lights in the upstairs apartment. Bella helps Rough capture Jack. When Jack protests her betrayal, Bella cleverly retorts that she’s insane and not responsible for her actions.

Hamilton’s play was adapted twice for the silver screen in 1940 and 1944. Both films tweak the story by giving characters different names and creating a family connection between the Bella character and the murdered woman. All versions feature the theme of using manipulation to convince someone that their sensory and rational faculties are impaired. Manipulation is exercised to prevent the person from discovering a guilty secret by destroying the victim’s agency and credibility.

The verbal term “gaslighting” entered the popular vernacular in the late twentieth century and gained particular notice in the 2010s as a label for narcissistic emotionally abusive behavior where someone tries to cast doubt on a person’s mental fitness and perspectives in their own mind and often in the eyes of others as well. Awareness of gaslighting behaviors was raised in the wake of “#Me Too” revelations and the stories of other abuse survivors which revealed how often gaslighting accompanies all forms of abusive behaviors as a way to keep victims from resisting or exposing the abuse. More controversial discussions have probed whether large groups of people being influenced by conspiracy theories or misinformation could be considered a form of social or political gaslighting.

Religious abuse, like all other forms of abuse, thrives on gaslighting. Gaslighting is exercised as a tool to keep people in place and keep them quiet or discredit them when they step out of place. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has spent the last few decades mired in a “conservative resurgence” that, amid other things, was pitched to adherents as a crusade to protect the family and ensure the doctrinal purity of the next generation. Now two of the major architects of that “resurgence” stand accused of abusive behaviors, one of them of sexually abusing a young man. An epidemic of abuse cases that were covered up by SBC entities has been exposed. While the SBC and other evangelical organizations were warning of “stranger danger” and helping feed Satanic Panic allegations in the 1980s, a real abuse crisis was happening much closer to home within families and churches. Now that these patterns of abuse have been revealed, the response of the SBC has been mixed to dismissive. Victims who have come forward are sometimes depicted as confused, duplicitous, or somehow disaffected persons with an axe to grind despite overwhelming evidence that these abuses are actually happening and the denomination has looked the other way for decades. That means that in these cases, as in so many others, the victims are victimized again as their credibility and motives are run through the shredder of denominational defenses.

The word “bitter” now leaves, well, a bitter taste in my mouth and turns my stomach because I’ve heard it used so often to label people with concerns about religious abuse. It’s very valid to ask ourselves what our motives are when we begin to share stories of religious or spiritual abuse. Bitterness is a real temptation and part of the mix of emotions we have to process. Emotions are raw, especially when the issues at stake are so central to our sense of self and belief in ultimate truths. There is definitely anger, and that anger can take over if we let it; we have to guard against letting it consume us. However, accusations of “bitterness” can also be directed against people who are trying to expose wrongs, not for revenge, but because those things are simply wrong. People will continue to get hurt if those abusive behaviors and structures go unchallenged.

Part of the complexity here is that people emerging from religious trauma and otherwise abusive situations have often been gaslit mercilessly for years, possibly all their lives. Part of the healing process is learning to trust yourself, your instincts, and basic logic all over again, or maybe for the first time. Even when the gaslighting doesn’t completely unbalance you, it can be painful as people question your veracity and competence. It’s worth noting that ordinary people often do the work of narcissists for them once they’ve successfully woven their false narratives. Regular people who have bought into the lie continue to pressure whistleblowers while the narcissist is free to focus on other things. We see this in the animated defenses of the SBC on Twitter or X and other social media platforms that spread outrageous rumors about whistleblowers they never met.

Healthy personalities are open to questioning themselves and their motives, which makes them vulnerable to narcissists or sociopaths who never question themselves. Narcissists proceed with surefire certainty while ordinary people ask themselves if they could be reading the situation wrong or not have all the facts, which are the healthy responses humanity cannot afford to lose. William Butler Yeats summed the problem up well when he wrote in his poem The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst, Are full of passionate intensity.”

We are awash in a sea of broken institutions led by dark and damaged people who should never have been allowed to lead. Amid the brokenness, we are only lost if we let those damaged institutions break us. Voices all around us, maybe even some we’ve trusted for years, may tell us that the gas lights are not flickering. “Nothing to see here. There’s no man behind the curtain.” We should always test everything as the Apostle Paul said and never assume that we can be free from all accountability to others’ perspectives. But once we have done those things, we can’t ignore the evidence of our senses, the logical calculations of our minds, and the conviction of our hearts.

What steps can you take if you are experiencing gaslighting in a religious or spiritual context?

First, you should determine who you can trust and then value them. Their support and company can preserve your sanity. These people are not “yes persons” or someone who always agrees with you. They are people who know you well and love you. Friends who care for you enough to tell you the truth and will believe when you tell the truth. Always weigh what someone has to gain or lose when they question your experiences or shut you down as you try to share. Are they looking out for your welfare and the greater good, or are they trying to protect some institution or agenda?

Second, permit yourself to put some distance between you and people who gaslight you. I found it hard to do this for a long time because I was always taught correctly to forgive completely, and I believed part of that was continued fellowship with anyone who hurt me. We should forgive, and we should never seek to avenge ourselves on those who hurt us. However, there is also no obligation for us to continue close association with people who are emotionally, mentally, or even physically abusive. You are not obligated to subject yourself to manipulative or abusive behavior by continued exposure to people you know are toxic. Wish them well, pray for them, and move on to healthier relationships.

Third, learn to trust yourself and your instincts again. We all get it wrong sometimes. That is a reality of life that we must remember, but our chronic spiritual and social problem in America today is that we live in the Age of the Blowhard. People who get it right and have an earned wisdom that should be heard are drowned out by obnoxious individuals with no experience, no wisdom, and nothing supporting their claims except a mic and a mouth. People of deep wisdom, knowledge, and conscience must resist the currents of our age and assert objective reality with confidence. We defend the truth the same way it has been diminished today, by repeating it over and over again in as many formats as we can until people see the light. Train yourself to resist logical fallacies and objectively access the claims in front of you. Put them to the test. What is possible? What is impossible? What agenda is the outlet telling me this trying to sell? As Arthur Conan Doyle said through his famous detective Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

One obvious logical fallacy is the nonsense peddled by institutional apologists who say any whistleblower who dares to expose the sins of the institution must be motivated by bitterness or delusion. Who can possibly tell the truth about what is going on inside an entity except those people who are or were a part of it? We should see this lie for exactly what it is. A blanket defense by frightened people against any attempt to question or diminish the institutions that butter their bread and give them security. If we accept their premise, we lose the ability to keep powerful religious leaders and institutions accountable.

It’s time to extinguish the gas lights. Any religious movement that relies on keeping people ignorant of particular facts for its survival is not a healthy religious movement. The same is true of any group or individual who consistently urges you to ignore the realities you see right in front of you or characterizes other people in a way drastically different from the way you know them to be in reality.

Read scripture with discernment, listen to your conscience, pray for wisdom, and never believe anyone who tells you there’s no reason when a gas light flickers.

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