Imaginary or Real?

Today’s post is a follow-up to something I said in a recent post about “gaslighting” (manipulating people into questioning their sanity): “If you’re a student of postmodernism, you know that naming these forms of manipulation empowers victims to fight back.”

My purpose today is to draw a connection between gaslighting and Jacques Derrida’s insistence that “there is nothing outside the text.” That quotation from his book Of Grammatology has often been used to show that deconstruction is a silly and irrelevant word game. Postmodern thinkers supposedly believe that the world is just a figment of our imagination.

I’m going to argue that deconstruction is both serious and relevant. Our useful term “gaslighting” is a perfect example.

What Derrida actually said (remember that he was writing in French!) was “there is no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texts). We can’t get away from language because we need words to process our experiences.

Even people who don’t have access to language (think Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan became her teacher) have a system of symbols that serve as words. (For example, Keller used to stroke her face as a sign for “mother.”)

Suddenly Derrida doesn’t seem so nutty!

But there’s more. An important postmodern dictum is that if something doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist. You’re allowed to be skeptical about that – but I’m asking you to at least consider what it means.

Gaslighting is a perfect example. In the original Gas Light play (thanks, Jenna!), Bella Manningham thinks she’s going crazy. The truth, though, is that her husband Jack is manipulating events to make her distrust her perceptions and thoughts. She is powerless.

Fast forward to a modern-day woman or man – “Dana” – who’s being manipulated in the same way by a romantic partner, spouse, family member, or boss. Dana – like Bella Manningham – is powerless.

But then Jackie talks to a therapist who explains the term “gaslighting.” Dana begins to see a pattern: Every thought, word, and action has been discounted by the person in power: “You’re overreacting. “You’re hysterical.” “You’re confused.” Once Dana recognizes the pattern and starts looking for other ways to respond, the game is over.

The same principle applies to many psychological issues. There’s no exit ramp when you’re in the grip of a feeling. It engulfs you. But find a name for what you’re feeling – depression or anxiety, for example – and you can put some distance between the disorder and yourself. Once you find a new vantage point, everything begins to look different.

Talk to any parent, and they’ll say they often tell their children to “Use your words!” What they’re really teaching children is that if you name the problem or feeling, you can classify it and start to deal with it.

Here’s a sad example: the lack of a name is one major reason sexual abuse is so devastating to children. Because they can’t process what has happened to them, the abuse falls into the unconscious and runs rampant, hidden underground where no one can see what it’s doing. But if we teach children that the problem has a name, they can classify it and start finding their way back to health.

I’m also thinking about Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique and its exposure of “the problem that has no name.” Women’s lives were never the same again after Friedan published her book.

Words are more than just a label that we slap on things. They organize and interpret our existence. Let’s be grateful for the gift of language – and for the thinkers who are trying to pull back the curtains on its mysterious inner workings.

A Gas Light

              Gas Light

Instant Quiz ANSWER
Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok
The past tense of lie (a verb that doesn’t take an object) is lay:

The minute I lay down for a nap, the phone rang. CORRECT

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from and other online booksellers. Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go



Here’s a question for you: Is gaslighting a word? It’s a term I first came across in Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington Post. Gaslighting refers to manipulative behavior that makes people think they’re crazy. If you check a current dictionary, you won’t find that definition of gaslighting there.

The term harks back to Gaslight, a 1944 thriller starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten. The movie depicts a villain who marries a beautiful woman and tries to convince her that she’s insane. One tactic is to insist that the gas lighting in their home is working just fine when in fact the lights often dim and flicker.

(Bergman, incidentally, is my favorite actress.)

Before I get into the is-it-a-word issue, I’d like to take a moment to look at the phenomenon of gaslighting. Ask yourself whether this has ever happened to you: You’re having an impossibly hard time with someone who’s behaving badly – but everyone else thinks you’re the one with the problem.

It could be a teacher (she frequently mistreats her students, but parents and administrators insist that she’s doing a great job), a parent (the kids are miserable, but Mom or Dad is highly respected in the community), a relationship (you were supposed to be the perfect couple, and everyone is shocked when you finally break up), or someone you used to hang out with (a charming enemy who spins endless tales about what an awful person you are).

I just read a terrific article that discusses gaslighting and some of the other tactics that social predators use to drive people crazy. If you’re a student of postmodernism, you know that naming these forms of manipulation empowers victims to fight back.

But then there’s my original question: Is gaslighting even a word? The dictionaries don’t list it, and my spellchecker displays an angry red line every time I type it. What do you think?

I’m going to argue that gaslighting is indeed a word, and I’m going to call on the American Heritage Dictionary to back me up. Here’s their definition of what constitutes a word:

A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning….

There’s nothing here about proper grammar, or English teachers, or a panel of experts who bestow word status. And there’s no mention of inclusion in a dictionary. If a sound or a group of letters communicates meaning, it’s a word. (Hello, gaslighting!)

At least once a month I come across a Facebook post or a blog entry declaring that irregardless (or anyways or bestest or some other nonstandard expression) isn’t a word.

I have two things to say about the people who make these pronouncements: First, they’re wrong. Second, they’re betraying their ignorance of basic linguistics.

Just for the record: I don’t like any of those words myself. (I don’t say binky or tum-tum or yukky either.) But they’re all words. (I just thought of something: I hate the word respective. Can I say that it’s not a word?)

We English teachers would be doing everyone a big favor if we taught our students the categories that professionals use to classify words: standard, nonstandard, colloquial, slang, and so on.

Back to gaslighting. (There’s the angry red line again, even though I’ve added gaslighting to my online dictionary.) I’m fascinated that a movie dating back before I was born has been resurrected in our everyday conversation, and I’m wondering what the future status of gaslighting will be.

Will it make its way into a future edition of our standard dictionaries? Very possibly. But that won’t make it a real word. Gaslighting achieved that status the first time someone used it in speaking or writing.

Can we all please stop the nonsensical “it’s not a word” talk? 


Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

The correct word is lose. Loose rhymes with goose and means “not tight.” Confusing these two words is an all-too-common error.

Although I didn’t lose any weight during my trip, I didn’t gain any weight either. CORRECT

What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go


Words and Pictures

“A picture is worth a thousand words” – true or false?

The best answer is probably “sometimes.” Twice in recent months, pictures of young children suffering the ravages of war have awakened a tidal wave of emotion that no newspaper editorial or political speech could create. At other times pictures won’t do the job: It takes words – lots of them – to present a concept or support a controversial point.

Today I want to look at the pictures vs. words issue from a different angle. I just finished making an instructional video that will be part of a large writing project that’s due in October. The process was both challenging and fun.

I started with a PowerPoint (the fun part). Then I inserted the slides into video software (all the time thinking @*#$%! because the software is hard to work with), and added a narration I’d recorded.

While I was selecting pictures for my video, I started thinking about a remarkable article I’d read in the New York Times Magazine. It’s about a professional couple and Owen, their autistic son. Owen is now in his twenties, and he’s gradually learned how to talk and connect emotionally with other people – a remarkable achievement. The article chronicles years of therapy, parental love, and special education classes that eventually opened a whole new world for Owen.

And there was one more thing: A VCR and a pile of animated Disney videos, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Jungle Book. From the time Owen was a toddler, he was fascinated by Disney’s animated films, watching them over and over in the family basement. His parents worried about Owen’s obsession with Disney – there was a whole world outside that basement, and Owen wasn’t interested.

But as the years went by, Owen used those videos to teach himself about language, emotions, and life. Animation was the key that unlocked an important door for him. In the New York Times Magazine article, Owen’s father, Ron Suskind, notes that Walt Disney used to tell his film makers that “the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off.”

That principle – the pictures should do most of the work – needs to take center stage if you’re creating a PowerPoint or an instructional video. If you try it yourself, you’ll see how challenging it is: How do you depict, say, defeat, or leadership, or intelligence? The hunt is on!

I’ve sat through PowerPoint presentations that were nothing more than big blocks of text on a projection screen. Why even bother making a PowerPoint? You might as well just read your paper.

OK, I’ve given you some advice about PowerPoints and videos. But what about plain old writing, like I’m doing here? The picture of Pinocchio below really doesn’t tell you anything about what I’m trying to say. I’ve already written half-a-thousand words, and I’m not finished.

But Walt Disney has something useful to teach those of us who usually stick to words. What do you and I think about when we’re writing: topic statements? adverbial clauses? transitions? Or do we think about unlocking a door for readers who are waiting for what we have to say to them? 

Regretfully, many writing courses skip over the most important aspect of writing: having something to say to someone who needs to hear it.

Owen found a whole new life during the hours he spent with Mowgli, Ariel, and the other Disney characters. What are you creating for your readers?

Pinocchio poster



James Hillman

Four big writing projects are looming. Don’t feel sorry for me: I’m having fun with them. But to escape from the pressure this weekend, I did some recreational reading that had nothing to do with the tasks ahead.

On Saturday I took a break to reread (as I thought) the New York Times obituary of James Hillman, a psychologist and postmodern writer who…quite simply…transformed my life and my brain. Hillman died in October 2011, and I was shaken by his death, even though he was 85 and I’d known he was ill.

The obituary mentioned that a writer named Dick Russell was working on a two-volume biography of Hillman, with Part I due in two years. Let’s see: 2011 + 2 = 2013. How did it happen that a book certain to rock my universe was published three years ago without my knowing about it?

Surely I’d read that obituary back in 2011 when Hillman died. I’m such a maniac that I’ve read just about everything Hillman published. How did I forget that a biography was forthcoming? Ten minutes after I’d read the obituary, I had the Kindle edition of The Life and Ideas of James Hillman: Volume I: The Making of a Psychologist loaded on to my ASUS Transformer. Do you want to guess how I spent the rest of the weekend?

Please note that I’m not encouraging you to read the biography, which is a book that only a Hillman fanatic could love. I’m finding it tough going. Here’s a typical Hillman quote from the biography: “Analysis is the result of the decline in collective culture….It becomes healing and spiritual discipline when it is an individual phenomenon in the protestant model of I, ‘ego,’ who will work on transformation and development and healing.”

Do you know what that’s all about? I don’t.

So – why has Hillman been so important to me? Lots of reasons.

I first came across Hillman’s name back in 1987 when I was trying to finish my doctoral dissertation. After an exhilarating start, I was finding the going almost impossibly difficult. I had fallen into a severe depression, mixed with fears that I might be impossibly crazy and would never get better. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t, and I did.)

While I was grappling with this mess, I came across an intriguing paragraph from a book called Insearchby a writer I’d never heard of – James Hillman – quoted in another book. Something stirred in my gut, and I started checking libraries.  I was lucky enough to find a copy of Insearch in a library in the next town. (Among other problems, my husband and I were so broke that I couldn’t afford to buy any books.) I read Insearch three times through without stopping. What I experienced on almost every page was a voice saying, “You’re not crazy.”

I wish I’d taken notes while I was reading. I have no idea what points Hillman was making that had such a powerful impact on me. What I do know is that I slowly started finding my way back.

I’ve since learned that most doctoral students go through a similar experience, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something archetypal – something far bigger than the typical stresses of graduate school – that causes those crises.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most important lessons I learned from James Hillman: Our problems aren’t always personal. They don’t always hark back to a dysfunctional childhood. They’re not always caused by character defects or relationship problems. Large, mysterious forces swirl within us and outside us, and sometimes we have to fight for our lives to come to terms with them.

Thank you for that, James Hillman.

Here’s another example. In 1992 I was all set to travel to a Shaw conference – my first – to be part of a panel of New Shaw Scholars. I had written a paper about Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that I considered (and still do) the proudest achievement of my life. I had a suitcase packed, and an attractive outfit and makeup ready to go, and an appointment to get my hair done….

I was diagnosed with shingles in my left eye less than a week before my flight to Virginia for the conference. I was a mess – an angry rash on my forehead, an eye patch, and persistent headaches and exhaustion. My bewildered doctor gave me permission to go to the conference anyway. (To his everlasting credit, he never said, “Are you nuts?” and over months of treatment he saved my vision in that eye.)

I presented my paper, attended every session of the conference, flew back home – and spent the next month lying in bed in a darkened room.

Common sense would diagnose overwork (I was juggling an impossible schedule at the time) and overexcitement. But Hillman, I think, would say that the academic gods had thrown down a challenge: Proving that I was worthy to claim a serious place in the world of scholarship. (I was a community college English professor, and people of my ilk didn’t do serious academic work.)

I shook my fist at the gods and dragged myself to the airport.

I hope that everyone who goes through a dark time (and that’s roughly 100% of the human race) is able to find the help they need, just as I did. But I want to veer off in another direction here.

James Hillman knew how to make meaning. I have never – after hours and hours spent reading his books – come across a trivial or banal idea. It’s true that I sometimes hold my head in dismay and wonder what the hell he’s talking about. But that’s a small price to pay for the all exciting discoveries I’ve made while reading his books.

Do you aim for that kind of excitement when you write?

James Hillman


Reflections on My Trip

I’m still recovering from jet lag.

I’m also reliving many experiences from my trip to the Norwegian fjords and the city of Newcastle, England. Some thoughts:

  • Newcastle residents speak a dialect called Geordie, a reminder that travel in Britain used to be a formidable undertaking, and towns and cities were much more isolated than they are now. Result: Wide variations in how English was spoken.
    Nowadays travel in the British Isles is quick and easy – my sister’s train ride from Edinburgh to Newcastle took only 90 minutes.
  • To my ears, the way some Britons say fjords sounds a lot like fields, creating a lot of hilarity on this trip until I finally figured out what was going on. (Some of the conversations probably resembled Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”)
  • The Norwegian language is so similar to Danish and Swedish that speakers can understand one another much of the time. That family of languages is the father of English, and I spotted similarities every time I looked at a sign.
  • Norwegians’ fluency with English is astounding (and embarrassing to American monoglots like me).
  • My sister and I were the only Americans on our cruise. I tried hard to be a good ambassador for the US (not easy for a transplanted New Yorker like me who never quite mastered the art of slowing down).
  • Passengers who saw me on the dance floor asked me where I did my training. (Answer: Florida.) Ballroom dancing developed into an art form in England, which still hosts the world’s most prestigious competition every year in Blackpool. I was proud to say that we American dancers can cut a rug too.
  • My sister and I hiked up a mountain to view the Briksdal glacier in Norway. Signs on the path showed the outer boundaries of the glacier in the 1800s, in 1920, and in 1940. The glacier has receded so much that hikers no longer get close to it. Europeans don’t quibble about climate change: They see the effects all around them.
  • We visited Edvard Grieg’s home near Bergen and – as part of our visit – were treated to a 30-minute live concert by the resident concert pianist. Could other museums and historical sites follow their example?

Norwegian Flag


Fantoft Stave Church

My sister and I set out this morning for a stave church in Bergen – and it was a thrill to see it at last.

And exhausting and nerve-wracking. We followed some bad advice and ended up walking (mostly uphill) for half an hour – it was supposed to take 10 minutes – and no stave church in sight. We flagged a woman driving slowly down a side street and asked if she knew where it was. “It’s too far for you to walk,” she said. “I’ll take you there.” 

And she did!

My thanks to everyone who sent positive energy our way. Bergen gets rain 300 days of the year, and it poured twice today – both times while my sister and I were indoors.



Kristin Lavransdatter

My sister and I are on a ship somewhere off the west coast of Norway. Tomorrow we will dock at a pier in the Norwegian city of Bergen and take a tram outside the city limits to visit a uniquely Norwegian building called a stave church.

I have been thinking about this trip for more than fifty years.

In high school I read – and reread – a novel called Kristin Lavransdatter, written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset. It’s the story of a woman who lived and loved in 14th century Norway.

Undset, the daughter of an anthropologist, researched the historical period so thoroughly that there are endnotes at the end of each of the three volumes. (It’s a long book!) One of those notes describes a stave church that figures in the novel, and that’s where the determination to make this trip was born.

What I can’t explain – not even to my sister, who probably knows me better than anyone else – is why we’re making this pilgrimage.

It’s not that I think I’ll find Kristin and her family sitting inside the church when I open the door. I don’t need to. I already know them on a far more intimate level than I know many of my relatives and friends. No one will ever convince me that the people in the novel – Kristin, Erlend, her parents, and her children – are just fictional people.

Somehow – and I know how crazy this is – I feel an obligation to honor them by spending at least a few minutes in their world – for example, by opening the door to a stave church. 

And I’m far from the only person who feels such a strong connection to this novel. Kristin Lavransdatter won a Nobel Prize in 1928, and Sigrid Undset is such an important writer that she’s pictured on Norway’s currency.

So I’m not going to do a literary critique today. Instead I’m going to make an impassioned plea for all of us to have an encounter with a story, book, poem, or play that we can’t shake off afterwards. It doesn’t even have to be something brilliant or profound. I saw Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers on Broadway, and for a month I was lost in the New York of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom.

I want everyone to have an experience like that, and there’s something else. I want all of you, the writers who read this blog regularly, to commit yourself to making that happen for someone else.

When I taught literature, I used to ask my students to do a presentation about a literary work that moved them. “Literary” could (and did) mean works as diverse as the Star-Spangled Banner, a rap song, a children’s book, or a Hollywood thriller. Some of those presentations were amazing, and I still think about them.

My own contribution was to read aloud (with my New York accent – sigh) Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” We never analyzed it. I just wanted students to hear the words. And for days aftewards I would hear inside my head, again and again, “And I sang in my chains like the sea.” (Some of my students told me that similar things used to happen to them after a class meeting.)

If you can hold tightly onto a line of poetry, or a snatch of a song or a story, you can start to find ways to use words to connect deeply with others. Please think about that – and don’t worry if it seems strange and difficult. On some level the doors will begin to open, and you’ll embark on an extraordinary journey – similar, in its own way, to what I’m experiencing as I wait for tomorrow to arrive.

Stave Church