Jessica Jones is a Primer on Gaslighting, and How to Protect Yourself Against It

Jessica Jones has left most everyone I know with a lot to talk about. And there are plenty of reasons, of course–the show is smart, sassy, well-written, beautifully-acted, and features a female lead who is allowed to be as complex as women truly are.

It is also a show that puts female experiences of abuse and trauma under a microscope, and forces us to confront them.

Spoilers for season one of Jessica Jones, of course.

This is not to say that the show refuses to acknowledge other forms of abuse–Kilgrave’s victims are many and varied as human beings, and every single one of them is deeply traumatized by their exposure to him. But this show is about Jessica, and very specifically concerned with the experience of moving through the world as a woman, resulting in a sharp focus. There are discussions cropping up all over the internet; thoughts about rape culture, about privilege, about survivor’s guilt, and they are all fascinating. But one aspect of the show that constantly amazed me was how it chose to highlight gaslighting as a favored play by abusers… and then proceeded to show how one might protect themselves from such an attack.

For those who may not be familiar, gaslighting is a term that traces its origins to a 1938 play titled Gas Light (which was also adapted to film twice), a tale of a husband who uses subtle tricks and denials to convince his wife that she is losing her mind. It became a psychological term in the 1960s, the definition being “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.” It is a devastatingly effective tactic, allowing an abuser to more easily manipulate the subject of their choice.

Jessica Jones’ relationship (and I use that word with a cringe, because nothing so toxic should get such a benign title) with Kilgrave is the primary focus of this behavior because he is a master of the strategy. He is well-suited to this method of abuse; gaslighters are often psychologically labelled as narcissists, sociopaths, or some combination of the two. (And he is certainly the latter.) But what’s more interesting is that Jessica seems to understand the function of this behavior, even if she may not know its technical term. And her methods of combatting it are both realistic and often highly effective.

We know that Jessica has undergone therapy to handle PTSD following her experiences under Kilgrave’s control. That therapy seems to be centered on refocusing her reality—recalling the street where she grew up, and the streets surrounding it, etc. They are concrete places, anchors for her to call on in times of turmoil. Similarly, the defenses one creates to handle gaslighting are also about reasserting reality. One of the most potent things a victim of gaslighting can do (if they are able) is to consistently challenge their abusers lies. And that is precisely what Jessica does, over and over. Every time Kilgrave insists they were happy together, she tells him nothing could be further from the truth. Every time he tells her that she was sexually attracted to him, she counters with the fact that he raped her. Constantly stating the truth out loud is as much for her benefit as it is for his: it reconfirms her reality and prevents him from imposing his own onto her.

There are a series of far more specific tactics that Kilgrave levies against Jessica (and everyone else) as well, his insistence of victimhood being a prime example. Asserting victimhood is a common ploy by gaslighters, an effort to make their own victims feel horrible for taking them to task by asserting that they are the ones being being hurt. When discussing his childhood and the torturous experiments performed on him by his parents, Kilgrave actually says the words, “So who’s really the victim here?” It’s a brilliantly manipulative turn of phrase because it eclipses the people who he has abused; his status as a victim isn’t simply worth note for the sake of allowing others to understand him better, he doesn’t say “I was also a victim of something terrible.” He chooses to effectively erase the abuse they withstood at his hands because his abuse is more relevant. Who is really the victim? he asks… implying that he is and therefore she is not.

Jessica fortifies herself against this by continuing to dig for information. In doing so, she discovers Kilgrave’s parents and learns that he omitted key aspects of his history; specifically, the fact that his parents were doing those experiments on their son in an attempt to save his life. It doesn’t change the fact that he truly suffered as a result, but the lie itself proves that he is attempting to construct the reality he prefers around Jessica.

The most effective form of gaslighting he uses on her concerns the death of Luke Cage’s wife, Reva. When she takes him to task for getting her to commit murder, he tells her that she clearly wanted to because he never told her to kill Reva—he only told her to “take care of her.” This manages to get to Jessica because she has no defense against it; she has clearly learned to stop blaming herself for what Kilgrave did to her, but not to stop blaming herself for what he forced her to do to other people. It is gaslighting because it’s obvious that Kilgrave did intend for her to kill Luke’s wife; he first encountered Jessica when she used her considerable strength to defend Malcolm from muggers. Part of her value to him was wrapped up in her powers, and he made that clear on their first meeting. He knew how she would take the order he gave her, even if it was worded vaguely.

But the place where his tactics fall apart entirely occurs when he tries to assert a very specific reality over Jessica—the moment where he insists that she wanted to stay with him because there were eighteen seconds where he was not exerting his control over her, and she stayed willingly. Jessica employs a defensive measure against him called a “counterstory”: she tells him precisely what happened in those eighteen seconds, going so far as to show him proof with the scar on her ear (which he told her to cut off for not listening to him). Telling the story keeps Jessica’s perception of self clear while completely destroying Kilgrave’s narrative.

There are other cases of gaslighting used on the show as well, often employed far more subtly than Kilgrave’s brand. Simpson’s behavior once he starts taking the combat drugs falls into this realm once he starts insisting to Trish that the behavior he’s exhibiting is all down to the drugs themselves. “It wasn’t me,” he tells her, when he shows up unannounced and uninvited to her workplace. The fact of the matter is, regardless of how the red pills are affecting him, he still is responsible for his actions while using them. In addition, he was the one who made the decision to take too many of them, against the instructions of his doctor. Trish defends herself against this by never falling for his placations after he gets violent in her presence; he gets one strike, and following that, she never truly trusts him again.

Trish’s mother, Dorothy Walker, is clearly adept at using gaslighting to remove blame from herself. When she comes to visit Trish (something she is not supposed to do at all), she arrives with a gift: files dealing with Jessica’s past and powers. She does this to gain goodwill, an olive branch toward regaining a relationship with her daughter, a relationship that she claims they could have reformed a long time ago if Trish had simply given her a chance. She’s reframing their narrative, placing all the blame on Trish for their lack of contact when she is solely responsible for that due to the abuse she subjected her daughter to in childhood. And this form of gaslighting, pointedly, nearly works on Trish—until her mother brings up the possibility of Trish acting as a sponsor for their old neighbor’s bottled water company.

“I’d nearly forgotten how good you are,” Trish says to her mother. By bringing up the sponsorship, Dorothy has revealed that the “gift” she came with was never a gift at all—it was a lure to regain some control in Trish’s life. And because the abuse that parents enact on their children can be such a difficult cycle to break, the first season of the show leaves it open-ended as to how much Trish’s mother has succeeded and bridging that gap between them. We know that Trish has accepted her offer for all of the files on Jessica, indicating that at the very least, she is continuing contact between them.

That Jessica Jones has managed to tackle such a difficult topic on more than one front has allowed for a deft and multifaceted portrayal of a serious problem that victims of abuse face. But what truly lifts the show above and beyond is its plain refusal to take a backseat view—Jessica Jones is a show about fighting for your reality and truth, about refusing to be silenced by people who would have power over you. And the way that we see its central characters defend themselves against continuous abuse serves as a powerful lesson to anyone who is looking for a way out.

It’s hard to think of a more valuable thing for a piece of fiction to do.

Emily Asher-Perrin needed a show like this ages ago. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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