Institutional Gaslighting and Systemic Betrayal

Gaslighting has historically been used as a systematic strategy to discredit womxn. In fact, the very conception of the phenomenon and term comes from the play Gas Light, wherein an abusive man manipulates his wife into thinking she's descending into madness. The man sets off and dims the gas lights in the apartment above theirs to search for jewels in the home of a woman he has murdered. When his wife notices the gas lights and remarks about them, he insists that the lights remain the same, making her question her perception of reality.

A sub-type of gaslighting is institutional gaslighting. It refers to "when a group of respected people within an institution are posed as investigating on the victim’s behalf, but in actuality, act to belittle or deny the reality of the harm committed in order to protect the institution’s reputation, the institution can cause the victim to question their own perceptions of reality, feelings, instincts, and even sanity."

In simpler words, institutional gaslighting has often been used as a tactic by institutions, such as the patriarchy or white supremacy, to dismiss victims and whistleblowers, and protect themselves.

To understand how these institutions gaslight victims, it's important to understand 'DARVO'. DARVO refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to whistleblowers. It stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender." The concept was introduced and popularized by Jennifer Joy Freyd, known for her research in the field of trauma. Two types of denial, among others, are: (1) It didn’t happen (an instance)/it rarely happens (an event), or (2) it wasn’t harmful. Institutional DARVO occurs when the DARVO is committed by an institution (or with institutional complicity), such as a courtroom judge attacking the credibility of a victim of assault for her testimony.

Perhaps a textbook example of institutional DARVO is the treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before and during the trial of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for allegations that he had sexually assaulted her under the influence of alcohol at a high school party. The allegations were denied throughout by Kavanaugh, and Ford was attacked in his opening address and by the various Republican senators who presided over the trial. Kavanaugh and the senators then proceeded to express that he was the real victim, not Ford. He went as far as to say that his family and name "have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional accusations", which is something that rings extremely funny now, considering that he went on to win the nomination to serve on the supreme court, directly after the trial. If anything, the trial made him more popular. Senator Lindsay Graham remarked immediately after the trial, "I've never felt better about him being on the bench than I do right now".

Senators also reversed the order of the victim by implying that a "he-said, she-said" situation had been orchestrated, while they were the ones who chose to subpoena only the alleged offender and victim, creating a he-said, she-said clash.

The tactic of DARVO is also used extensively to gaslight victims who share their stories through social media. Their credibility is attacked by making personal and derogatory remarks, their medium of choice to share their story is questioned, and they're accused of ruining the alleged abuser's reputation.

However, activist like Ashley Judd insists that when made aware of the tactic, womxn can help disrupt DARVO. Indeed, even in the play Gas Light, when the male protagonist is tied up and attempts to manipulate his wife into freeing him, she reverse-gaslights him by pretending to be too insane to free him. A real-life example of this was Hillary Clinton questioning Trump’s grasp of reality after his multiple attempts to gaslight her.

To mitigate the probability of becoming an institution that practices DARVO, Dr. Freyd recommends that we "cherish the whistleblower". Employer-employee transparency in offices can be encouraged by making use of anonymous surveys, ensuring that offenders are reprimanded, and being humble and teachable. DARVO flourishes when institutions are too weak to prevent it, Judd says.