What is Gaslighting? | The Girl on the Train

In Shelby Dougherty by Shelby Dougherty1 Comment


If you’re looking for a Friday night date movie, stay far away from The Girl on the Train. This film showcases every unhealthy behavior you could never want in a relationship. Affairs, lying, manipulation, stalking, gaslighting…

Wait, what was that last one?

Many people aren’t aware of gaslighting or the severe effects emotional abuse can have on a person.

As defined by The National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which a partner causes the victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity.

The victim is unable to trust their own reality which places lots of power in the hands of the abuser.

The plot of The Girl on the Train is driven by Rachel’s inability to trust her memories. The audience assumes this is due to her rampant alcohol abuse, but the issue goes much deeper.

It’s impossible to discuss the issue in detail without revealing a huge plot twist, so abandon ship now if you wish to avoid spoilers.


In the final scenes of the film, we find out Rachel isn’t the pathetic, hostile drunk that she was initially depicted as. Her alcoholism is a direct result of Tom’s manipulation both during and after their marriage.


He repeatedly pressured his wife to drink until she blacked out. The following day, he planted false memories in her head when she woke up. The kicker here is that it didn’t just happen one time – it was a gradual process of manipulation. She begins to truly believe that she’s a terrible person capable of committing heinous crimes.

Rachel began to rely heavily on Tom during their time together because she was no longer able to trust her own reality. After their divorce, she struggles to piece together her memories due to both alcoholism and her “unreliable” memory. The flashbacks shown on screen are given a cloudy filter, which is a very clever visual cue for viewers.

You can’t tell if what you’re seeing on screen is the truth or a fabrication of Rachel’s memory, and it puts you on edge throughout the film. This sense of unease and distrust is just a small taste of what victims of gaslighting experience.

Gaslighting causes a person to constantly second guess themselves. Victims feel confused, anxious, and alone. They repeatedly apologize even when they don’t understand why. Rachel attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in one scene. She shares that she always apologizes for things she did while drunk, even though she can’t remember what she did. She loved and trusted Tom, so she had no reason to doubt him when he recounted the events of the previous night. By the end of the film, we understand that Rachel was apologizing for actions that never actually occurred.

Gaslighting is not the only abusive behavior depicted in The Girl on the Train, so let’s take a quick moment to break those down as well.


Stalking is not as simple as following someone around or showing up uninvited to their home – although we see that in this film. Stalking in the modern age also refers to cyberstalking, which is accessing a partner’s text messages, e-mails, or social media accounts in order to gain information and power over them.

In the film, Megan reveals that she changes her passwords on her computer regularly, but her husband always figures them out. She argues that it’s not emotional abuse if you don’t care, but that’s not the case. In a healthy relationship, your partner should respect your privacy.


Throwing objects, smashing things, threatening to hurt children or pets – these are all intimidation tactics used to control a person’s behavior. Even if a partner never lays a hand on you, it’s still abusive if they’re physically aggressive and threatening you.

In one particularly haunting scene, Tom places his hand on his baby’s arm. He knows what he’s doing – he’s showing his wife, Anna, that he can hurt the baby at any time. Threatening children is sadly a very effective form of control and prevents many women from leaving abusive relationships.


At one point, Tom compares Rachel to a dog who keeps coming back for love after it’s been kicked. He calls her disgusting and makes her feel worthless. Emotionally abusive partners regularly use degrading comments like this to put down their significant other. When their partner has low self-esteem, it’s easier for the abuser to manipulate them.



Kudos to The Girl on the Train for creating such complex characters and a story line that portrays how taxing abusive relationships can be on both the mind and body. Emotional or physical abuse is very serious, and it’s not always easy to recognize. It’s a pattern that occurs gradually over time.

If any of this behavior sounds like something that’s happened to you, I encourage you to reach out to The National Domestic Violence Hotline for support. 1-800-799-7233

Please note – this is an intense film. If you’re a survivor of an abusive relationship, it could be especially difficult to watch. Remember to take care of yourself

Shelby Dougherty
Emerged bleary-eyed from a four day Battlestar Galactica binge and never looked back.


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