“Gaslit” Nation

Rodney Clough
8 min readApr 15, 2024
Making “Martha”: video still of Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts) with journalist, Winnie McLendon (off camera), Episode 5, the 2022 docudrama miniseries, “Gaslit.” Video screenshot by author, courtesy of Prime Video.

Transcending conspiracy from Martha Mitchell to Stormy Daniels

One among many synchronous connections between Watergate and the Trump-fueled insurrection of January 6 is that the primary whistleblowers — to a person — are women.

Consider that both Martha Mitchell and Stormy Daniels, publicly sought for corroborating conspiracy and obstruction in “high places,” are victims of “gaslighting.”

My partner and I recently revisited “Gaslit,” a 2022 TV miniseries (1) on the Watergate break-in coverup from the personal trajectory of Martha Mitchell, wife and career partner of former Attorney General John Mitchell. This re-viewing was triggered by my partner reading a mention about the series in a recent New Yorker expose of exposing poseurs, “So You Think You’ve Been Gaslit,” by Leslie Jamison. (2)

Mitchell was cast publicly as a petulant, headline hoarding drunk. Fast forward and Daniels is being cast as a porn star looking to advance her career. The public is confused — Martha… What’s a little break-in… and weren’t the burglars tried and convicted?

Stormy Daniels… Didn’t she comply… didn’t she… what’s really criminal about a fling… and the other one, Karen what’s her name…haven’t you even thought about that?

Mitchell was tried and vilified in the court of public opinion, which didn’t prevent hubby from serving time and which harmed her physically.

Daniels and Karen-what’s-her-name have yet to fulfill her (their) role as gaslit victim. The criminal trial hasn’t begun and already the stakes are misrepresented as “about hush money paid to a porn star.”

Huh? No, that’s not what’s on trial here. That’s the evidence which was used to coverup a campaign financing violation, which under state and federal campaign laws is illegal.

Is this big stuff? Yeah, if one believes in election integrity and the meaning of casting a vote for a candidate, it’s big stuff.

If you’re working with whistleblowers, and alleged victims of gaslighting, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ is a high bar for a jury to convict. The People v Trump trial will be a legal slog, and America will be assaulted by Trump appearances before and after each day’s proceedings.

Wednesdays we can take off.

“Gaslighting” is defined in psychological terms as “… a version of a phenomenon known as ‘projective identification,’ in which a person projects onto someone else some part of himself that he finds intolerable. Gaslighting involves a ‘special kind of ‘transfer’… in which the victimizer, ‘disavowing his or her own mental disturbance, tries to make the victim feel he or she is going crazy, and the victim more or less complies.’” (3)

Its derivation is from theater and film, originally the George Cukor film “Gaslight, “…from 1944 a noirish drama that tracks the psychological trickery of a man, Gregory, who spends every night searching for a set of lost jewels in the attic of a town house he shares with his wife, Paula, played by Ingrid Bergman. (The jewels are her inheritance, and we come to understand that he has married her in order to steal them.) Based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play of the same name, the film is set in London in the eighteen-eighties, which gives rise to its crucial dramatic trick: during his nighttime rummaging, Gregory turns on the gas lamps in the attic, causing all the other lamps in the house to flicker. But, when Paula wonders why they are flickering, he convinces her that she must have imagined it. Filmed in black-and-white, with interior shots full of shadows and exterior shots full of swirling London fog, the film offers a clever inversion of the primal trope of light as a symbol of knowledge. Here, light becomes an agent of confusion and deception, an emblem of Gregory’s manipulation.

Gregory gradually makes Paula doubt herself in every way imaginable.” (4)

Citing University of Indiana Professor Kate Abramson who has written a recent study, “On Gaslighting”, Jamison points out, “gaslighting” is a sought-after word these days:

These days, it seems as if everyone’s talking about gaslighting. In 2022, it was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, on the basis of a seventeen-hundred-and-forty-per-cent increase in searches for the term. In the past decade, the word and the concept have come to saturate the public sphere. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Teen Vogue ran a viral op-ed with the title “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” Its author, Lauren Duca, wrote, “He lied to us over and over again, then took all accusations of his falsehoods and spun them into evidence of bias.” In 2020, the album “Gaslighter,” by the Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks), débuted at №1 on the Billboard country chart, offering an indignant anthem on behalf of the gaslit: “Gaslighter, denier . . . you know exactly what you did on my boat.” (What happened on the boat is revealed a few songs later: “And you can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat / That she can have you now.”) The TV series “Gaslit” (2022) follows a socialite, played by Julia Roberts, who becomes a whistle-blower in the Watergate scandal, having previously been manipulated into thinking she had seen no wrongdoing. The Harvard Business Review has been publishing a steady stream of articles with titles like “What Should I Do if My Boss Is Gaslighting Me?”

Ironically, ‘sought-after’ is part of the phenomenon, in that ‘gaslighting’ is on one level based on observation and its alter, blindness. On another level, ‘sought-after’ is a challenge to one’s confidence and sanity, which while ‘gaslit,’ are arrested:

“Don’t you see what you are (doing)?” “That’s not what happened, why can’t you see that?”

“That’s what all women want. Didn’t you know that?”

A fault line runs between ‘gaslighting’ and ‘repression.’ “Gaslighting” involves removing or subverting trust in one’s observations and judgments. “Repression” dismisses one’s observations and judgments “out of hand.” Telling someone they don’t know what they are talking about (repression) is different than telling someone they are incapable of seeing what is going on, what ‘everyone’ sees or knows. (gaslighting).

The distinction is noteworthy:

“… gaslighting is best understood as a form of interpersonal interaction rather than as a feature of social structures. To put it a bit starkly, people gaslight, social structures don’t. That doesn’t mean that there are no important links between social structures and gaslighting. Certain pernicious social structures — such as those involved in systematic racism and sexism — can play specifiable and significant roles in gaslighting. In fact, once we see just what those roles are, we will also be able to understand why some have found it so tempting to (mistakenly) think that it's the social structures themselves that, as it were, ‘do the gaslighting.’

A crucial reason to get as clear as we can about all of this is that in being a distinctive interpersonal phenomenon, gaslighting is also a distinctive moral phenomenon…” (5)

In the series “Gaslit,” the life ring that is tossed the victim comes in the form of a journalist confidante, Winnie McLendon, who answers Martha’s call for validation and gets it published. (6) In a memorably orchestrated subplot, Maureen Dean, “Mo,” serves as reality seeker to hubby and alleged Watergate coverup conspirator, John Dean.

Martha demands John quit his Nixon dotage; Mo paves the way for John to abandon his puerile loyalty and turn himself in to the Federal prosecutor.

In “Gaslit,” the women savants rule the day. (7)

Not that the public likes a whistleblower. Let alone a woman whistleblower.

In the public realm whistleblowers don’t have much of an afterlife. “Martha” was an exception, the whistleblower-in-progress. The public, eager to breathe fresh air, jumped on her revelations. Other whistleblowers like former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and Trump aide Cassidy Hutchinson testify that we as a nation have work to do. (8)

Who wants to hear that?

Where is a life ring to a nation?

Presumably, at some point in the People v Trump Campaign Financing Trial, Stormy Daniels will take the stand to testify. She will be cross-examined. Consider her testimony akin to that of a whistleblower.

She will be, for a brief time, a life ring for public accountability.

For the citizens of New York. For the nation.

April 15

Stormy Daniels. Photo courtesy New York Magazine.


1- “Gaslit,” an 8 episode TV miniseries, aired in 2022, directed by Matt Ross, starring Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin. Created by Robbie Pickering, edited by Uzoamaka Maduka, also contributing Amelia Gray. Currently streaming on Starz; available on Prime Video.

2- Leslie Jamison, “So You Think You’ve Been Gaslit,” April 1, 2024, The New Yorker

3- The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1981, cited by Jamison, ibid.

For a more pragmatic definition, see Kate Abramson, “On Gaslighting,” 2024, Princeton University Press:

“…Very roughly, the core phenomenon that’s come to be picked out with that term is a form of emotional manipulation in which the gaslighter tries (consciously or not) to induce in another not only the sense that her reactions, perceptions, memories, and/or beliefs are so utterly without grounds as to qualify as “crazy,” but also the sense that she isn’t capable of forming apt beliefs, perceptions, reactions, and so on. Furthermore, the gaslighter aims make it the case that the target’s sense of herself in these respects is, in some sense, tracking a reality. In aphoristic form, the gaslighter is both trying to make the target think that she’s crazy and actually trying to drive her crazy.”

4- Jamison, ibid

5- Abramson, op cit.

Comment: I would add that it is precisely moral conviction which drives whistleblowers to do what they do. For Martha, it was her family and her husband’s career; for Stormy Daniels, as we shall see, it is “setting the record straight.”

6- Winzola “Winnie” McLendon, “Martha,” published May 12, 1979, Random House.

7- Comment: In a poignant scene in episode 8 of the series, Winnie apologizes to Martha, that like others, she doubted the veracity of Martha’s convictions about a conspiracy to cover up “what was really going on.” Through Winnie’s attempt at redemption, the audience reimagines Winnie’s character and grasps the extent and pervasiveness of “gaslighting.”

8- Former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, testified before Congress during the House Impeachment Hearings (2017). Cassidy Hutchinson, former Assistant to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testified before the January 6 House Committee. (2021–22) Both have appeared numerous times on CNN and MSNBC, retelling observations from their tenure during the Trump administration.



Rodney Clough

Refuses to nap. Septuagenarian. Cliche’ raker. Writes weekly.