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27 May 2020

Helen Lewis’s Diary: Political gaslighting, learning to write in American, and linking the past with the present

Why gaslighting is not so much about outright lies but obfuscation and sleight-of-hand.

By Helen Lewis

It’s odd that a play from 1938 has given the present moment one of its most useful concepts. In Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, a husband makes his wife doubt her own memory and senses by denying that the light in their house is dimming. And “gaslighting” is exactly what Dominic Cummings has done since the allegations that he travelled to Durham during lockdown emerged. 

On 22 May, when the Guardian and Mirror published the story, a “friend” issued an identical quote to several journalists calling the story “fake news”. But it wasn’t fake, as the aide’s bizarre press conference confirmed. Cummings also asked us to believe a series of unlikely claims: that his family drove from London to Durham without stopping (they should donate their bladders to medical science) and that he drove to Barnard Castle with his family in the car to “check his eyesight” for the long trip home. Supporting this absurd story a few hours later, Boris Johnson told the daily press conference, “I have to wear spectacles for the first time in years, because I think of the likely effects of this thing.” Please tell me about these eyes you can get where needing glasses goes into remission in middle age. 

Gaslighting is not so much about outright lies but sleight-of-hand. (Both the abusive partner and the lying politician ask: why are you getting so upset about this? You’re over-reacting. You’re hysterical.) The Specsavers Road Trip will stick in the public memory, but my favourite obfuscation was Cummings’s frequent references to his 2019 blog entry on pandemics, which he made to position himself as a prophet. Yet the archived versions show it was edited in April to add references to coronavirus (rather than Ebola and avian flu). Hmm. It’s quite easy to be prophetic in hindsight. Give me half an hour with the NS archive and my old columns will make Cassandra look like a dilettante.

This matters – as it does when Donald Trump warps and denies reality in favour of his preferred mythology – because gaslighting is coercive and disorienting. The triumph of truth over narrative isn’t just a journalistic fetish; it’s vital to our collective psychological health. 

A genius performance

The Durham story was enraging, but not surprising. Cummings has always been contemptuous of rules. The question that has always intrigued me about him is this: Is he really “brilliant” or merely good but also eccentric and demanding? Our cultural scripts around geniuses often focus on their oddness: from school, I dimly remember the story of a Renaissance artist – was it Raphael? – so dedicated to his work that he never changed his socks. (They eventually had to be peeled off.) I’ve heard several variants of the story about a decadent writer – was it Oscar Wilde or Gérard de Nerval? – keeping a pet lobster and taking it for walks. 

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Cummings has cultivated an equally compelling, if less crusty or crustacean, mythology around himself, with his epic blogs and his “OODA loops” and his references to Sun Tzu and his refusal to wear a suit. He might be brilliant but none of that stuff proves it. It just makes good copy.

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Reconnecting past and present

Who’s the idiot who spent three years working on a book, and then published it three weeks before all bookshops shut their doors, all literary festivals were cancelled, and Amazon decided to pause deliveries of “non-essential” items? I am that idiot. While Difficult Women has reached fewer readers than I’d wanted – fingers crossed that an asteroid doesn’t hit the Earth as the paperback lands next year – it has still made the kind of unexpected connections I had always hoped it would. 

Not long after publication, I got a message from Labour’s former Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, who had read the “Love” chapter – about the first openly lesbian MP, Maureen Colquhoun. Kez, who came out in 2016, said it had made her cry – and made her feel ashamed she hadn’t known about Maureen before. Like me, she had assumed that the first openly gay MP was New Labour’s Chris Smith. In fact, he was the first to come out voluntarily. Maureen was outed by the Daily Mail in 1976.

Maureen is now 91, and she recently lost Babs, with whom she had shared 45 years of her life. Through Maureen’s family, I put Kez in touch with her, and they are now “coronavirus pen pals”. I’m thrilled. One of the joys of writing a history is reconnecting the past to the present.

A whole bunch of stuff

In case you’re wondering how I’m getting on at my post-New Statesman home, the Atlantic is wonderful, for many of the same reasons that this magazine is. It’s non-tribal, thoughtful and interested in the world, preferring to ask questions rather than dictate answers. The only painful thing is learning to write in American. But someday soon, I’m going to file this sentence and not even blink: my mom’s letter to a patronizing lawmaker about people eating eggplant on the subway is headed straight for the trash can. 

I got the phrase “bums on seats” into a piece a few months ago, and I’m still flushed with triumph. Though perhaps some readers were just left wondering why theatres are so desperate to cater to the homeless. 

What unites us, what divides us

One postscript to the story of Kezia and Maureen. In 2017, Dugdale reflected on coming out, saying that there was more surprise her partner was an MSP for the Scottish National Party than that she was female. “People weren’t in any way bothered that it was two women together,” she told the BBC. “They were more intrigued it was two people from different political parties.” 

That matches up with US survey findings that voters were more relaxed about interracial marriages than 50 years ago, but less relaxed about their children marrying someone from a different political persuasion. We are getting more, and less, tolerant.

This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak