The Word of the Year Is “Gaslighting” and HBO’s The Vow Can Help Us Better Understand It

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“Abuse is a made-up human construct,” NXIVM founder Keith Raniere asserts to a room of women. Anyone watching HBO’s docuseries The Vow knows those women are likely victims of his abuse. The video clip is labeled “Government exhibit GX 1003” as part of the evidence for his trial. In it, Raniere disputes age of consent like a thought experiment while his followers sit in a circle around him and hang on his every word.

This, of course, is gaslighting. And there’s a lot of it on The Vow. By coincidence, it’s apparently a term on a lot of people’s minds. Merriam Webster called it the “most searched word of 2022,” defining it in short as “to grossly mislead or deceive someone for one’s own advantage.”

The word comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, better known for the 1944 movie adaptation that starred Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer; it took seeing the on-screen portrayal play out for audiences to coin the term “gaslighting” we still use today.

These days, many associate it with red-flag phrases that people sometimes say, like “that never happened,” or “you’re crazy to believe I did that.” But more often, gaslighting is done in the nuanced way The Vow shows—by planting seeds of doubt—until people no longer trust the validity of their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It upends their sense of reality and wellbeing. For anyone who is still trying to understand the manipulation and how it plays out in real life, it may help to look beyond the dictionary and watch The Vow.

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  1. “Gaslighting” is what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls “mystical manipulation” or planned spontaneity. Something seems spontaneous, but is really planned. Lifton identifies this as one of eight characteristics that identify a thought reform program.

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