Recently, I caught the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary “The Martha Mitchell Effect.” If you’re not familiar, it’s a compelling look at a woman named Martha Mitchell, how she fits into the Watergate scandal, and how she was abused and ignored when she told the truth.
It got me thinking about the nature of truth and how powerful people today try to tell us not to trust our own perceptions and experience. Martha Mitchell was told her (pretty horrifying) lived experiences were false, and I see the same thing happening today across the country. It’s up to all of us to call out gaslighting and “Martha Mitchell-ing” when we see it and reinforce everything we know to be true.
What Is the Martha Mitchell Effect?
As the documentary explains, Martha Mitchell was the wife of John Mitchell, President Nixon’s attorney general. When the Watergate scandal hit the news, she recognized one of the burglars as her former bodyguard. When she tried to tell the press, she was attacked, kidnapped, forcibly sedated and discredited. Even President Nixon got in on the act by calling her an alcoholic and blaming her for the scandal.
Now, when authority figures dismiss someone as delusional and deny their assertions – even though they’re entirely correct – it’s become known as the Martha Mitchell effect. It’s similar to gaslighting, and just like gaslighting, the goal is to convince someone to trust the gaslighter over their own ability to discern the truth. It’s dangerous. It’s disturbing. And it perfectly describes a trend taking place right now.
It’s Happening Today on a Broad Scale
The Far Right has taken the idea to its extremes. They may not use the term while sitting in a dark room making finger pyramids like Mr. Burns, but the intent is clear – to make people so uncertain of what is true that the perpetrators can say whatever they want and dismiss whatever they don’t like. They’ll call us crazy for questioning the truth in their statements and the sincerity of their actions, and they’ll tell their own followers to ignore what’s right in front of their eyes in favor of a fictional narrative about everything from conspiracies around voter fraud to children being endangered by books. Here are just a few examples of what I’m talking about:
- Claiming they aren’t attacking Black people, women, or LGBTQ people when it’s clear they are.
- Claiming their attacks aren’t as serious as we know they are.
- Claiming they care about education and “parental rights.”
- Claiming vast conspiracies around voter fraud.
- Claiming to speak for some supposed silent majority.
Don’t Let Them Convince You You’re Delusional
What you’re seeing is really happening. I promise. The Far Right is coming after the freedom to vote, the freedom to learn, freedom of expression, and much more. They’re attacking Black people, people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and anyone else they can to rile up their base. And all the while they’re trying to convince us we’re not hearing what we’re hearing.
Martha Mitchell went through the same experience, along with physical and psychological assault. Perhaps worst of all, for much of the history of the fallout from Watergate, her name was absent from the conversation. She was disbelieved at the time and forgotten afterward, and that’s a travesty.
I know this can all make it scary to fight for truth. We’re in an era when the truth is under unprecedented attack and discerning fact from fiction can be harder than ever, but that’s why we need to remember brave people like Martha Mitchell. Even when the President of the United States told her she was wrong, she stood strong. We should all endeavor to have that courage in the face of dishonesty, and we should all remember Martha Mitchell as we fight to expose the lies of the Far Right and champion truth as fundamental to democracy.