When I am asked if my new novel, Gaslight, was inspired by real events, I answer no. But while the events themselves didn’t happen; the emotional center of the book originated with an incident that happened more than three decades ago.
It was Sunday service like none I had ever experienced. Everything about the way the Pastor walked on the stage that long-ago day telegraphed something was afoot. He sighed, letting us all know how deeply his spirit was troubled.
‘Call out sin,’ he admonished us, quoting from the Bible. ‘You who live by the Spirit should restore gently any among you who is caught in sin.’
And then he named a tall woman who carried herself with a grace I’d always admired. A member of our choir who belted out notes that could challenge the late Whitney Houston. But on this day, as she stepped out in front of hundreds of people, her head was bowed. She folded her hands over her body like she was naked, exposed.
‘Today,” the pastor intoned, ‘I have called out our sister so you can all to pray for her and seek God’s restoration on her behalf.
‘Our sister,’ he continued, ‘has confessed to having an affair with a brother in church.’
The identity of her lover was not revealed because he was married. His confession and the prayers for his redemption were private to protect his marriage while her humiliation was very public.
Shocked by this inequity, I looked around the church. My fellow congregants heaved deep sighs of disappointment in this fall from grace, and yet they reveled in their power to pray another person to redemption. Piety masked righteous glee as hands stretched towards the disgraced woman and prayers rose. In the midst of all that holy judgement, the woman stood there, subdued yet stoic in the face of a dubious interpretation of the scriptures.
When the prayers were over, the Pastor dismissed her and moved on to his next task. Destroy a woman’s reputation: check. Lower her dignity: check. Brand her an adulteress in front of her community: check.
Ensure the man who had committed adultery was saved from shame: check.
As far as I could tell, the double standard was lost on the congregation. After the service, no one questioned the pastor’s right to humiliate a gifted and respected member of the community. In fact, the pastor was lauded for his firm leadership, his courageous commitment to fulfilling the scriptures, and his transparent approach to conflict resolution.
The questions that experience raised in me inspired much of the themes I explored in Gaslight. How was it okay for a pastor to publicly ridicule a woman and be praised for it? How was it okay for the women in the congregation to endorse this questionable display of authority? How could the whole church collude to accept the pastor’s double standards? What happened to the woman? What happened to the man’s marriage?
Later, I learnt that everyone in church knew the choirmaster was the woman’s lover. Even the choirmaster’s wife knew. And yet when the pastor claimed that he was keeping the male adulterer’s name secret to protect his marriage, there was not a murmur of dissent in the church hall. Everyone nodded as if this was the wisest decision anyone could have made. The hypocrisy enraged me further.
Internalized patriarchy is real and, like racism or colonialism, especially pernicious when it is internalized over centuries of believing falsehoods. It becomes hard to see, even in oneself. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when upbringing and collective lived experience push an individual to go with the crowd. A flock of human sheep is not created in a day, or even a decade. Systemic, consistent and unrelenting exposure to a belief system will literally modify the DNA, ready to be passed on to the next generation.
These observations of human behavior in groups fascinate me as a writer. Individual pathologies do not excite me as much as how groups of people collude, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain false belief systems, therefore creating the perfect condition for some of the most heinous crimes against humanity. I believe it is hard for any one person to create havoc, start wars, or overturn markets. As it is with doing good, galvanizing positive change and uplifting lives, it takes a village to wreak chaos.
I have also been asked if Gaslight is an indictment of organized religion as a whole. My answer remains an unequivocal no. It is a cautionary tale. Our very human tendency to idolize, glorify and edify fellow humans is the most existential threat to our survival. It is evident in the way stock markets react to some influencer’s paid-for soundbite. Or the way female voters defend a reality show star turned presidential candidate who is a confirmed sexual predator. Or the way we elevate tech billionaires to god-like status and give them permission to invade our privacy. Or how movie stars can now tell us what books to read, what shows to watch, and what to cook for dinner. It is indeed a sad fact that as we make giant strides in almost all human endeavors, common sense is becoming a rare superpower. As a ‘village’ of collective consciousness, we seem determined to cede our ability to think individually, and act with a common purpose for the good of all.
I believe fiction can change the world by illustrating the danger of allowing mass think to overtake our individual decision making. Character and story have a way of reaching into our consciousness that threats, admonitions, and news stories do not. In crime fiction especially, writers have the ability to present the worst of humanity back to us. The consequences of bad actors are dramatized. The impact on lives, today and even into the future is explored. Through fiction, we can reimagine our current realties, and ask the reader to choose their desired future. It is the most rewarding evangelism I can think of. And like all tasks that aim to create change, it is never ending. Because for as long as it takes a village for change to happen, there will always be readers who look to us to tell stories that inspire action.