Thursday, May 25, 2017

Gaslighting in the Medical Literature

Have you felt that your sense of reality has been challenged lately? That the word “truth” has no meaning any more? Does the existence of alternative facts make you question your own sanity? In modern usage, the term gaslighting refers to “a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim with the intent of making him/her doubt his/her own memory and perception”.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target's belief.

In December 2016, the amazing Lauren Duca1 wrote a widely shared piece for Teen Vogue, Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America. In it, she argued that Trump won the election by normalizing deception. Duca noted that the term gaslighting originated from the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, and explained it in this way:
"Gas lighting" is a buzzy name for a terrifying strategy currently being used to weaken and blind the American electorate. We are collectively being treated like Bella Manningham in the 1938 Victorian thriller from which the term "gas light" takes its name. In the play, Jack terrorizes his wife Bella into questioning her reality by blaming her for mischievously misplacing household items which he systematically hides. Doubting whether her perspective can be trusted, Bella clings to a single shred of evidence: the dimming of the gas lights that accompanies the late night execution of Jack’s trickery. The wavering flame is the one thing that holds her conviction in place as she wriggles free of her captor’s control.

Gaslighting in the Medical Literature

Barton and Whitehead (1969) were the first to report cases where a patient's mental state was manipulated for material (or situational) gain, calling it the “Gas-Light Phenomenon”. If these incidents sound like something straight out of domestic noir or a TV crime drama, you'd be right.

Case 1 48 year old mechanic, married for 10 years, with three children
Mr. A. was admitted one evening to a psychiatric hospital as an emergency. His general practitioner, when asking for his admission, had said he was mentally ill and had attacked his wife. ...

On admission the patient said he had felt tense and depressed for about six months and related this to his wife’s changed attitude towards him. He said she had become "cold", and he thought she might have been seeing another man. He denied he had been violent and thought he had been sent into hospital because of his "nerves".
His wife had concocted an elaborate tale of abuse, saying he had become “irritable, bad-tempered, and liable to unprovoked violent outbursts in which he sometimes hit her and once struck her with a hatchet.” She also claimed his memory was deteriorating, and she categorically denied having an affair. Mr. A was hospitalized for 12 days with no obvious physical or psychiatric disorder and left feeling more relaxed.

However, he returned to hospital two weeks later: “He said his wife had started taunting him, saying he was mad and should be in a mental hospital. His wife said that his mental condition had considerably worsened and that he had attacked her twice.”

Fortunately for Mr. A, his boss overheard a conversation between two men in the local tavern. One of the men was Mrs. A's lover, discussing how the two of them had plotted to get rid of Mr. A using the false claims of mental illness and abuse. The hospital staff confronted Mrs. A with her lies:
She finally agreed that she had plotted with her boy-friend to get rid of her husband, but claimed she had been led on by him and now very much regretted her behaviour. Following some family counselling Mr. and Mrs. A. became reconciled and five years later were still living happily together.

Case 2 45 year old pub owner married for 14 years

Mr. B was admitted based on his wife's story about her husband’s “heavy drinking, erratic behaviour, and aggressive outbursts.”
On admission to the unit Mr. B. gave a history of domestic difficulties and described mild symptoms of anxiety and depression. ...  He agreed that he was irritable but said that he had never been aggressive and did not acknowledge any of the common symptoms of alcoholism. ... recently ... his wife had lost interest in him and had started associating with younger men. She often stayed out all night, and when he asked her about this behaviour she told him not to be silly and accused him of being a drunk who should be put away.
A member of the staff eventually found out about Mrs. B's fabrication and her intent to get rid of her husband, keep the pub, and “then really start living.” Unlike the outcome of Case 1, Mr. B left his wife and was quite happy without her five years later.

Case 3 72 year old widow

This case is unique, because it goes beyond mere mental manipulation. Mrs. C. was referred to a psychiatric hospital because of a "confusional state" and "fecal incontinence" that made her unfit for the old persons' home where she resided. She had moderate Parkinson's disease and slight dementia, but she was fairly well oriented and pleasant in demeanor. She stayed in the hospital for six weeks and showed no signs of fecal incontinence while there. And indeed it turned out that her incontinence had been cruelly induced by large doses of laxatives:
The lady running the home had been unable to develop a good relationship with Mrs. C. and considered "she was a naughty old thing making life difficult for me, my staff, and other folk on purpose".

For some weeks before admission to hospital Mrs. C. had been receiving ’Dulcolax’ tablets one three times a day. This had produced the expected effect with occasional "accidents" due to Mrs. C.’s mobility difficulties. The evidence suggested that Mrs. C. was not wanted in the home and induced incontinence was used as a method of getting her removed to hospital.

Case 4 Another example is an incident reported by Lund and Gardiner (1977), where the staff of the mental hospital conspired to keep a patient there so that one of them could live in her flat. The elderly woman had suffered from paranoid episodes in the past that were successfully treated with medication. But this time “they” were really out to get her:
Miss A., an 80-year-old retired professional lady, was first admitted to a mental hospital in connection with this incident under Section 31 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1960, from her pleasant flat in a residential establishment. The admission notes stated that she had complained that there were people on the premises who had no business there, that they had spoken outside her door saying that they were going to throw her into the river and that she further believed that these people were 'after my flat'...
Miss A was shuttled in and out of hospital several times until the evil plot was finally foiled:
She was admitted for the third time some four months later with a depressingly similar story. Her general practitioner had been called to the home where the patient had allegedly ' barricaded her room'; she had simply put a chair against the door. She was again admitted under an Emergency Order and once more settled down very rapidly, showing no sign of disturbed behaviour. She was generally pleasant and witty, showing some evidence of valuing her independence and mildly resenting the help of the nursing staff, which she regarded as unnecessary interference.

At this point, suspicion about the motives of the staff at the institution were aroused. Discreet inquiries revealed that the rooms which Miss A occupied had been earmarked for a proposed additional member of staff...

[And the rental market has only gotten worse in the last 40 years!! So it's not surprising to see many stories emerging from trendy urban areas (and South Carolina). For starters, you can read these anecdotes of landlord gaslighting and harassment from tenants in New York, San Francisco, Santa Monica, and elsewhere.]

Case 5 Let's conclude with one final report from the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Kutcher (1982) described the sad case of Mrs. N, a 59 year old financially successful woman who was referred to a psychiatrist at her husband's insistence. Marital problems were clearly the source of her distress.
About two years into the marriage she established Mr. N in a business as he had entered the relationship without a secure financial basis. She then noted he would stay away from home, be unavailable when she tried to contact him, tell her he was visiting with friends even though they denied any visits, and so forth. When she confronted him with these issues he denied any extramarital activity.  ...
Mr. N. wasn't terribly creative; his ruse was ripped from the pages of Gaslight. An outside party described him as "a 60 year old Cassanova who thinks he's 25."
Numerous friends often intimated that he was involved with another woman and Mrs. N eventually saw this for herself. When confronted, he denied it, then said it was all over and refused to discuss the matter further. He then complained about her "saggy breasts" and when she had surgery for reduction he ridiculed her. He hid her jewelry and accused her of losing it, often changed times they were to meet without notifying her and berated her for being late; and told their acquaintances that she was "going a little strange."
Unfortunately, Mrs. N's case was not a success story: “Currently she is still in therapy and as yet is unable to resolve the issue.”

Let's hope the U.S. can collectively (and individually) regain its grip on the truth so it will not suffer a similar fate.


1 I think she's amazing for her persistence as a guiding voice on social media despite the grotesque harassment she's received.

Further Reading

On the Origins of “Gaslighting” (by Rosemary Erickson Johnsen)

A Few Notes on Gaslighting (by Tressie McMillan Cottom)


Barton R, & Whitehead JA (1969). The gas-light phenomenon. Lancet (London, England), 1 (7608), 1258-60. PMID: 4182427

Kutcher SP (1982). The gaslight syndrome. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 27 (3), 224-7 PMID: 7093877

Lund CA, & Gardiner AQ (1977). The gaslight phenomenon--an institutional variant. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 131, 533-4. PMID: 588872

Smith CG, & Sinanan K (1972). The "gaslight phenomenon" reappears. A modification of the Ganser syndrome. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 120 (559), 685-6 PMID: 5043219 [although Milo Tyndel (1973) pointed out those cases were nothing like Ganser syndrome].

You can watch the entire film for free at

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Looking for Empathy in All the Wrong Places: Bizarre Cases of Factitious Disorder

Factitious disorder is a rare psychiatric condition where an individual deliberately induces or fabricates an ailment because of a desire to fulfill the role of a sick person. This differs from garden variety malingering, where an individual feigns illness for secondary gain (drug seeking, financial gain, avoidance of work, etc.). The primary goal in factitious disorder is to garner attention and sympathy from caregivers and medical staff.

The psychiatric handbook DSM-5 identifies two types of factitious disorder:
  • Factitious Disorder Imposed on Self (formerly known as Munchausen syndrome when the feigned symptoms were physical, rather than psychological).
  • Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another: When an individual falsifies illness in another, whether that be a child, pet or older adult (formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy).

Since the desire to elicit empathy is one of the main objectives in this disorder, it is odd indeed when the “patient” feigns a frightening or repellent condition. A recent report by Fischer et al. (2016) discussed a particularly flagrant example: the case of a middle-aged man who falsely claimed to be a sexually sadistic serial killer to impress his psychotherapist. Not surprisingly, his ruse was a complete failure.

The case report noted that Mr. S had been a loner his entire life:
 ... He described having anxiety growing up, mainly in social situations. ... Mr. S had a history of alcohol abuse starting in his mid-twenties and continuing into his early forties. He denied any significant medical history. He denied legal difficulties, psychiatric hospitalizations, and suicide attempts. He was single, had never been married, had no children, and reported having only one close friend for most of his life. He never had a close long-term romantic relationship and stated a clear preference for living a solitary life. 

Mr. S had served in the military but did not see combat, and afterwards worked the graveyard shift as a security guard (all the better to avoid people).
One year prior to his admission to the psychiatric hospital, Mr. S sought outpatient therapy for depression and engaged in weekly supportive psychotherapy with a young female psychology intern. His psychiatrist started an SSRI antidepressant and a low dose of antipsychotic medication for “depression with psychotic features.” Mr. S's alleged psychosis consisted of “voices” of crowds of people saying things that he could not make out, which he experienced while working the night shift. He consistently attended his therapy sessions and was noted to be making progress. However, several months into his therapy, Mr. S told his therapist that he had been involved in of military combat and described himself as a decorated war hero. After several therapy sessions in which he [falsely] recounted his combat experiences, Mr. S was queried as to whether he ever killed anyone, to which Mr. S replied, “During the military or after the military?” He then told his therapist that he had followed, raped, and killed numerous women during the 20 years since leaving the military.

He recounted his imaginary crimes to the young female intern:
Mr. S reported that he would follow a potential female victim for several months before raping and strangling her to death with a rope. Although he claimed to rape and kill the women, he did not describe any sexual arousal from the subjugation, torture, or killing of his alleged victims. He refused to disclose how many women he had killed, where he had killed them, or how he had disposed of their bodies. He described having purchased various supplies to aid in abduction, which he kept in the back of his van while cruising for victims. These supplies included rope and two identical sets of clothes and shoes to help evade detection by the police. He described using various techniques to track his victims, as well as evade surveillance of his activities. He informed his therapist that he was actively following a woman he had encountered in a local public library several days earlier. Mr. S acknowledged that he studied the modus operandi of famous sexually sadistic serial killers by reading books. The patient's therapist, feeling frightened and threatened by these disclosures, transferred his case to her supervisor, who then saw the patient for a few therapy sessions. Mr. S reported worsening depression, hearing more “voices,” and attempting to self-amputate his leg using a tourniquet. Consequently, Mr. S was involuntarily detained as a “danger to self” and “danger to others” for evaluation in the local psychiatric hospital.

He was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, single episode, unspecified severity, with psychotic features. His routine physical, neurological exam, and lab work all yielded normal results.
...The inpatient treatment team contacted the District Attorney's office in order to file for continued involuntary hospitalization due to the patient's homicidal ideation and history of violence. Subsequent police investigation and review of records could not substantiate any of the patient's claims of committing multiple homicides in the Pacific Northwest.
. . .

After the District Attorney accepted the application for the prolonged involuntary civil commitment (180-day hold), Mr. S was confronted with the inconsistencies between his self-reported symptoms and objective findings and the failure to corroborate his claims of prior homicides. In response, Mr. S then confessed that he “had made the whole thing up…about the killings…all of it” because he “wanted attention.” He said that he had never followed, raped, or killed anyone and never had an intention to do so. He said that he did not know why he claimed this, other than an “impulse came over me and I acted on it.”

His false identity as a serial killer backfired, and he couldn't understand why his therapist had discontinued their sessions:
He had believed that his feigned history and symptomatology would make him a “more interesting” patient to his therapist. He reported feeling rejected when his therapist transferred his care to her supervisor. He had little insight into why his therapist may have been frightened by his behavior. Mr. S revealed that following his initial fabrications, and despite his initial involuntary hospitalization, he had felt too embarrassed to admit the truth.

His original diagnosis was revised to “factitious disorder with psychological symptoms, and cluster A traits (particularly schizoid and schizotypal traits) without meeting criteria for any one specific personality disorder.” Because of these personality traits, he had no insight into why his therapist might feel threatened by his terrifying stories.

There are at least two other papers describing cases of factitious disorder with repugnant feigned symptoms: one reported a case of factitious pedophilia, and the other reported a case of factitious homicidal ideation.

Thanks to Dr. Tannahill Glen for the link.


Fischer, C., Beckson, M., & Dietz, P. (2017). Factitious Disorder in a Patient Claiming to be a Sexually Sadistic Serial Killer. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 62 (3), 822-826 DOI: 10.1111/1556-4029.13340

Porter, T., & Feldman, M. (2011). A Case of Factitious Pedophilia. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 56 (5), 1380-1382 DOI: 10.1111/j.1556-4029.2011.01804.x

Thompson CR, & Beckson M (2004). A case of factitious homicidal ideation. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 32 (3), 277-81. PMID: 15515916


What are the symptoms of Factitious Disorder?

  • Dramatic but inconsistent medical history
  • Unclear symptoms that are not controllable, become more severe, or change once treatment has begun
  • Predictable relapses following improvement in the condition
  • Extensive knowledge of hospitals and/or medical terminology, as well as the textbook descriptions of illness
  • Presence of many surgical scars
  • Appearance of new or additional symptoms following negative test results
  • Presence of symptoms only when the patient is alone or not being observed
  • Willingness or eagerness to have medical tests, operations, or other procedures
  • History of seeking treatment at many hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices, possibly even in different cities
  • Reluctance by the patient to allow health care professionals to meet with or talk to family members, friends, and prior health care providers

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