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Gaslighting: How Family, Friends Feed the Flame of Abuse

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Tylinsa Hall, 18, was only weeks away from giving birth. The Atlanta Technical College student said she’s excited about being a mother. She has already named the baby — a boy — Tristan, but she’s raising him without the baby’s father.

“He loved me, but he don’t ’cause the way he treat me — he say mean things to me to hurt my feelings,” Hall said. “It was like when I bring it back up to him, he gets amnesia.”

What seemed to be a loving relationship at first gradually worsened as her boyfriend became verbally abusive. She recalled confronting him, but those conversations led to a dead end.

[Click to hear the audio version of this story on VOX’s Soundcloud.] NeaSaMon

“I’m like, you did it, and you said it, and you hurt me — and now that I’m bringing it back up to you, you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Hall said.

Unable to get through to her partner, she was left questioning whether she was the problem in the relationship rather than her boyfriend. What Tylinsa Hall went through is called gaslighting. According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting is a seemingly harmless yet rather common emotional abuse tactic. It is primarily used by abusers in relationships.

The term comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight.” The film features an emotionally abusive husband who manipulates his wife into questioning her own sanity for personal gain.

Whatever form gaslighting takes, its outcome is often the same — isolate the victim and prolong the abuse. Because the phrases most associated with gaslighting are so commonly used in everyday conversation, friends and family can sometimes unknowingly perpetuate abuse outside of the dating relationship.

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Margaret Lisi serves on the board for the Atlanta-based Partnership Against Domestic Violence. As a child, Lisi heard some of the messages associated with gaslighting. She said her parents were abusive, and she said she even confronted them about it.

“I won’t say they said [the abuse] was alright, it’s fine,” Lisi said. “It was more an act like everything’s normal. That was last night. Today is today. Act like we’re a regular family today. Now, tonight at five o’clock when the bourbon bottle opens up, it probably won’t be alright. But they just set a precedent that it was not to be talked about, and we were to carry on as though nothing had happened.”

The abuse and neglect that Lisi experienced as a child went on to affect her romantic relationships.

“When I started dating, I dated guys who were abusive,” Lisi said. “I was first of all just grateful for the attention. I was grateful to be validated, to be attractive enough to be dated by good-looking guys who were popular. And that they treated me badly was not unusual because that’s the way my family treated me.”

This is the type of story Macon-based attorney Tomieka Daniel hears on a regular basis. Daniel works with the Georgia Legal Services Program, and she often handles domestic violence cases. She said she often hears about complaints of abuse falling on deaf ears.

“[I heard about a mother who] was finally approached about the abuse that was going on with her daughter and she says, ‘Oh, well it wasn’t that bad,’” Daniel recalled.

“It’s kind of minimizing what the abused person feels and what they’re going through,” Daniel added. “Once the abused person gets enough of that they’re going to start to believe it and they’re going to say, ‘Well, gosh, well maybe it really didn’t happen; maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.’”

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Daniel said that even if someone is not sure about an abuse claim, adults can play a critical role in breaking the cycle of violence among teens.

“One of the things that I try to tell the advocates is don’t allow your own judgement to determine that there is no violence there, that there’s no domestic violence,” she said. “I always say let’s take it to the judge and allow the judge to make the determination. That way if we go before a judge and the judge says there’s no violence here, and he [the abuser] kills her, they’re going to look back at the judge’s decision to find out how he made his decision. They’re not going to look back at me and say he didn’t believe her enough to take the case to court.”

Daniel says speaking up about abuse is a matter of what’s right and wrong.

“They won’t be legally responsibly in that sense,” she said. “Morally they’re going to feel really bad, but there is no legal responsibility against them.”

But advocates say we should not wait until court to show support for victims of abuse.

Tylinsa Hall, the pregnant 18-year-old from Atlanta, said that if it had not been for the support from her family and friends, she might have never opened her eyes.

“I used to think everything was my fault because of the things that he was doing until I actually just was like, now I know it’s not me; it’s you,” she said. “My friends don’t like him, my family don’t like him, and it’s like I’m beginning not to like him as well.

As she reflected on her abusive relationship, Hall is focused on the future.

“I’m thankful for my child, but I’m not thankful for the relationship,” she said. “I went through with you, but if it wasn’t for going through that hard time of a relationship, I wouldn’t be the strong person I am today. So, I’m thankful for that also, but I just wish it went in another direction.”

Hall has this advice to those on a similar path: Do not keep the pain of abuse a secret. “If you feel like you need to talk to yourself, talk to yourself,” she said. “If you feel like you wanna talk to somebody else, talk to somebody else. Like if you wanna talk to your cat, talk to your cat. I mean, people [are] always there to actually listen.”

Nea-Sa’Mon Wray is a 19-year-old magical kid practicing studio art at Georgia State University with the intent of conjuring creative, social and political movements. 

An audio version of this story was shared on GPB.org on Friday, May 6, 2016.

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Click here for more of VOX’s coverage of dating violence and healthy relationships. 

Click here for resources for help! This resource guide is published in VOX's spring print edition.

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