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Opinion | Was Martha Mitchell ‘gaslit’? Or ‘gaslighted’? Maybe neither?

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Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s managing editor and copywriter and author of “Dreyer’s English: A Completely Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. “

The sweet people on the Starz network – or STARZ as they prefer to shout – have relentlessly promoted in my Twitter feed over the past few weeks a new miniseries about, among others, John Mitchell, a Attorney General for President Richard M. Nixon and Mitchell’s colorful, erratic wife, Martha.

Attempts by Nixon’s henchmen to discredit Martha Mitchell after she talked about Watergate to reporters to defend her husband against scapegoat inspired the title of this production, “Gaslit.” (“Gaslighted,” I mumble to myself with each new push.)

For his role in the Watergate coverup, John Mitchell was prosecuted, convicted and jailed – back then, at least sometimes, it actually happened to officials who committed crimes. Martha Mitchell, of Pine Bluff, Ark., And popularly known as “the Mouth of the South,” tended to give the impression of being frequently angry and more or less embarrassed. But there was also a good measure of defiant heroism in her attempt to tell the truth. The Nixon administration, acknowledging the danger, mocked her in front of reporters as insane.

The subsequent justification of her claims about Nixon’s involvement in Watergate led to the psychiatric term “the Martha Mitchell effect,” defined by the Oxford Reference as “a misinterpretation of a person’s justified behavior as a delusion.”

But was what happened to Martha Mitchell a case of “gaslighting,” as the title of the miniseries suggests? This is where we turn to the famous MGM movie “Gaslight” from 1944, where a kind but threatening man (Charles Boyer) does his best to drive his fragile but delicate wife (Ingrid Bergman) out of her mind, while he is busy searching their attics in search of…

Well, that’s a whole other thing, and I do not have to ruin it if you’ve never had the pleasure (Bergman deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance). Central here is the man’s campaign to make poor Ingrid think she’s crazy about isolating her, storing objects (a brooch, a painting) and then restoring them, all the while presenting herself, lovingly, as the only thing that stands between her and asylum. (The gas light in the couple’s home flickers and dims every time Boyer turns up the light in the ceiling, to great eerie effect downstairs.)

Today, “gaslighting” acts as an eponym: “one for whom or as something is or is believed to be named,” says Merriam-Webster. The English language is positively miserable with eponyms such as “quixotic” (after Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, of course) and “maverick” (after the stubborn 19th-century Texas politician Samuel A.).

George du Maurier’s 1894 novel “Trilby” inspired an eponymous twofer: The protagonist’s first name is Trilby, but when a stage adaptation popularized a short-shaded hat, the headgear itself became known as a trilby; and the name of history’s hypnotic manipulative villain, Svengali, lives on to this day.

“Gaslighting,” to return to the case, is – again from Merriam-Webster – the “psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perceptions. of reality or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty about one’s emotional or mental stability and an addiction to the perpetrator. ”

It is not just deception and anti-truthfulness that “gaslighting” is often used today, and it is a sad thing to see such a rich and complex notion cut down by careless over-consumption to mean something that we already have a perfectly usable term for. for: lying. A similar regrettable decline has occurred with the tasteful term “factoid”, invented by Norman Mailer in 1973 to mean a piece of so-called information that “did not exist before it was displayed in a magazine or newspaper”, but as in day basically means “a nugget of trivia.” There’s another beautiful coin toss for heck.)

As for Martha Mitchell, was she really getting turned on by gas or simply, well, Martha Mitchell-influenced? I lean to the last; The Starz people have clearly made another choice.

Funny trivia: MGM’s “Gaslight” was a remake of an excellent British thriller from 1940 of the same name, which in itself comes from Patrick Hamilton’s stage play “Gas Light” from 1938. After buying the rights, MGM did everything it could in its power to erase the very existence of the previous film, even to destroy the negative and all existing imprints.

It is thus easy to imagine that cinema-goers in the mid-1940s insisted that they had seen a British version of “Gaslight”, but then were unable to prove it, no matter how hard they tried – became increasingly hectic until they began to doubt their own reason.

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