On February 20, 1962, John Glenn was strapped into the spacecraft he’d named Friendship 7 and launched into space where he went on to orbit the earth three times as part of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. It was a triumphant day for the United States, and the nation swelled with pride. The goal of the space program, both literally and figuratively, was to push against the unseen boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere and find opportunity and recognition in what lay beyond. The irony was, of course, that the greatest limitation that existed in America in 1962 was not located at the edge of the atmosphere, but could be found 50 miles beneath it where both blacks and women struggled every single day in their own search for opportunity and recognition. In the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, we learn the stories of three black women who made phenomenal contributions to the space program during this time period. Mary Jackson was NASA’s first female engineer of any background, Dorothy Vaughn was the first black supervisor, and Katherine Johnson’s trajectory computations for the Mercury mission were so precise and significant that John Glenn would not launch that February day without her reviewing what the new IBM computer had generated. All three women went on to have long careers at Langley where the success of their work helped to dismantle both racial and social boundaries. Johnson lived to be 101, dying just two years ago after she’d received the Presidential Medal of Freedom back in 2018.
I have to admit that when the word “gaslight” came up in conversation about nine months ago, I wasn’t sure of its exact definition. It’s a term that’s been fairly prevalent in the media for the last few years, and I had a vague idea as to what it meant, but I needed to do some research to find out for certain. Urban Dictionary tells us that gaslighting is “a form of intimidation or psychological abuse, sometimes called ambient abuse, where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity.” The ambient abuse part of the definition refers to subtly changing a person’s environment by moving objects around, for example, and responding to the victim’s subsequent reaction by suggesting that it must be their imagination. Once we allow these definitions to sink in, the injuriousness of gaslighting becomes even more apparent. Our memory, reasoning, and perception are among the most powerful, yet often fragile, parts of our being. The idea of forgetting things, or not being able to think through a situation properly, or getting something dead wrong when we were sure we had it right can spark a kind of fear that can definitely unmoor us. The fact that the person stoking this fear is often someone very close to us places this behavior even higher on the loathsome scale. To discover the etymology of the word gaslight, we need to turn our attention to the 1944 film of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The basic plot line is that Bergman’s character Paula is a rising opera star who falls in love with and marries Boyer’s character Gregory, who only wants her inheritance. In an attempt to gain power of attorney, he tries to convince her that she is going insane. The gaslights literally dim in the film for what initially seem like unexplainable reasons, and thus we arrive at the origin of the word.
Because I spend so much time with three little ones five and under, the subject of things that are scary comes up quite often. Topping the list are nightmares, the dark, certain dinosaurs, if they were still alive, and strange looking or very large bugs. Nora loves to tell me, “Freezie, I wouldn’t want to see that thing walking around.” In most cases, nether would I. In fact, I’m sure I said that to her first. And then there are the monsters. I’ve noticed that a lot of their “scary guys” come from shows that they watch, like the evil villains in Spiderman, for example, which makes perfect sense because it certainly happens that same way for adults. We have our monsters too. Tapping into what is often totally uncharted territory, horror and science fiction writers possess a certain level of genius that manages to convince us of things that defy reality. And they scare us. They get inside our heads and take up residence there alongside whatever monster they’ve created. Stephen King is a personal favorite of many readers, as he was for me, until he killed off the greatest character ever in Bag of Bones, unnecessarily I might add, and I couldn’t read him any more. Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, and Peter Straub are also well known horror writers, but if you allow me to make a personal recommendation, I will tell you that Transgressions by the amazing Sarah Dunant still creeps into my consciousness late at night when I’m lying awake. None of these authors, however, would be writing in this genre that they’ve popularized so very well without the early pioneers of horror and science fiction that wrote centuries ago. Names like H.P Lovecraft or H.G. Welles come to mind immediately, but it is actually Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1817 when she was only eighteen years old, that is recognized as being the first true work of science fiction. While the first horror novelist was a man named Horace Walpole, Shelley is also regarded as the first female writer of that particular genre.
The subject of personal truth is one that I’ve written about a number of times on this blog, especially recently. In Midwinter in Our Souls, I considered the idea of New Year’s resolutions and measuring ourselves against various standards of worth. In Journal Prompt, I suggested that the five year-old child that lives within each of us has little to no issue with the idea of authenticity, and in Love Storm, I offered the reminder that our most important relationship is the one we’re in with ourselves. The common thread that runs through all these posts is that they refer to a truth that belongs to us, and not to someone else. Whether that truth is whispering quietly or in a full on shriek, the decision to acknowledge or confine it is, for the most part, ours alone. This process of keeping our truth silenced by choice differs vastly from the kind of external constraint that Maya Angelou, one of America’s great female writers, speaks about in her poem Caged Bird. By contrasting two metaphors, one of a free bird that “leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream till the current ends,” and an imprisoned bird with clipped wings that “stalks down his narrow cage [who] can seldom see through his bars of rage,” Angelou perfectly captures the agony of race-based oppression. Although this is a subject to which very few of us can personally relate, the power of Angelou’s writing, especially as it pertains to the differences between the two birds, invites us into that enlightened space where empathy can begin and understanding can follow.