Harper is Gaslit

Kushner uses Harper’s character to illustrate how repressing sexual identity and conforming to a societal or religious expectation of identity is harmful not only to oneself, but to ones partners and family as well. Additionally, this plays into the larger theme of the play which is to acknowledge and attend to ones own pain to empathize with others diverse experiences of pain; each character is uniquely lonely, but they share in common the consequences of a society which stigmatizes gayness and ignores the AIDS crisis.

Kushner introduces the relationship between Harper and Joe from an objective perspective, which depicts Harper’s abuse of Valium and suggests her mental health is harming their marriage. Joe infantilizes his wife and denies her requests for affection and love, as seen in the language he uses to address her: “hey buddy”, along with deciding when they will share an (extremely unerotic) moment of affection: “buddy kiss”. Joe uses shaming tactics to essentially gaslight Harper into believing her problems are separate from their relationship, or that her “emotional problems” impede any potential attraction to her. This causes Harper to be stuck in a cycle of self-loathing in which she turns again to Valium to escape. However, there are moments which Harper interrupts this cycle to defend herself and express her autonomy; “if I do have emotional problems it’s from living with you” (Act I Scene 5). Here it is made clear that Harper does not assume responsibility entirely for her mental health or addiction, nor does she blame it on her upbringing, a tactic Joe uses later on. 

It is made clear that Joe is projecting the pain and shame he carries around onto his wife, who is no longer accepting of this dynamic. During her confrontation with Joe addressing his sexuality, Harper says, “Yes I’m the enemy. That’s easy” (Act I Scene 8), showing that she is recipient of Joe’s frustration, but she knows that she doesn’t deserve it either. 

There are multiple forces acting on Joe which cause him to repress his sexuality, the main being his following of Mormonism. Kushner makes clear the complex dynamic of religion and how it is not as simple as denouncing it (which we might want Harper to do) or ignoring its teachings to free oneself from their harm. After inadvertently confessing to be homosexual, Joe gives a final attempt at blaming Harper for his own shame: “You want to destroy me, but I am not going to let you do that” (Act I Scene 8). Joe now represents Harper directly as the guilt and shame he feels about his sexuality; both due to his lack of attraction to her and her knowledge of this shared “secret”. He believes that accepting gayness will destroy him, but repressing it further will only harm his marriage and Harper’s potential for happiness. 

3 thoughts on “Harper is Gaslit”

  1. I found this idea fascinating: repressing your identity will affect those around you. As an audience, we can sympathize with both Joe and Harper. Even though we know it is hard for Joe to come to terms with his sexuality, especially during the AIDS epidemic, he is dishonest and sometimes hostile towards his wife, Harper. I related Joe’s inability to fully accept himself. As someone has been ‘out’ for so long, I still feel affected by my internalized homophobia at times. However, I have learned to be mindful about expressing it in harmful ways to my girlfriend, so I don’t accidentally push my feelings onto them.

  2. I really like how you pointed out how exactly Joe gaslights Harper and infantilizes her. I think another interesting part of the relationship is despite Joe’s attempt to deny his true self, Harper always points how what he is doing and makes him take accountability. She points out how he truly feels and how badly he treats her at times with his tendency to blame her. A moment in the play that I feel best shows this is when Joe and Harper’s last scene. Harper demands for Joe to stop lying to her and himself. He ends the scene by saying, ” I’m going. Out. Just… Out” (Kushner Act 4 Scene 9) which shows him finally coming to acceptance with his sexuality.

  3. I think your comments about Joe infantilizing Harper and using her problems as a way to avoid showing attraction to her are fascinating and an insightful way to look at their relationship. Joe’s internalized homophobia has not only affected his life but has also affected Harper’s mental health. This reminds me of Saeed Jones’s poems about his own internalized questioning, which didn’t so much have an effect on someone else like the case with Joe and Harper, but had a similar affect on himself.

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