“You know that saying; If Momma ain’t happy, then no one is happy? Well, that was true at my house. My mother raised blaming to an art form because she always needed there to be a fall guy if something went wrong. All three of us tried to dodge the bullets by telling on each other and lying if we had to. It’s not a surprise we hardly speak as adults because we never learned to watch each other’s backs.”
“My mother picked on me mercilessly and, eventually, my role in the family became pretty much fixed—blame Gillian for everything. My two brothers could do no wrong and, in my mother’s eyes at least, I could do no right. By the time I was a teenager, I’d given up on trying to please her and shifted into full rebellion mode. In a weird way, I thought if I was going to get blamed anyway, I might as well have fun doing it. Long story short, I ended up in the school’s counselor’s office and she managed to convince me that being self-destructive wasn’t helping, Bless her for that. I went to college and never looked back.”
The most insightful observation I’ve read about scapegoating was written by Gary Gemmill thirty years ago; he pointed out that the existence of a scapegoat allowed a group or family to believe it was healthier and better-functioning than it actually is. The mother who scapegoats can easily come up with an explanation for why life isn’t perfect by simply alluding to the scapegoat and assert that if it weren’t for that individual, life would be perfect indeed. Thinking of her life without Tommy or Lilly permits to cast the rest of her family in a flattering light since the designated scapegoat is seen as responsible for all the family’s woes. In that way, scapegoating facilitates the growth of a family mythology which papers over all manner of dysfunction. That was certainly true for “Julie”:
“I was the reason my mother never finished college and my dad had to slave away at a job he hated. They are no longer 19 and 22 as they were when I was born but that’s still their story, by the way, and I’m about to be fifty. I felt guilty and responsible and it didn’t surprise me that she criticized me constantly. After all, I’d wrecked her life and I believed it was my fault. It was only when I was thirty-five and the mother of two myself that I realized that I was my mother’s excuse for her own choices. She could have gone back to school but, instead, she had another daughter when I was seven and then another when I was nine. But even today, if you ask her why she never fulfilled her dreams of becoming an English teacher, she’ll tell you the story of how I derailed her life. No kidding.”
Keep this story in mind because, often, scapegoating permits the parent to gloss over her or his choices, placing blame on others instead.
Who scapegoats and why
Scapegoating is a way of controlling the dynamics among and between family members and, not surprisingly, mothers (and fathers) who are high in control or narcissistic traits or are combative by nature use it. Again, scapegoating has both the effect of making the family seem healthier in broader terms since one person shoulders the responsibility for everything that’s not okay but allows the parent to manipulate all the members of the family; she or he becomes a ringmaster of all the sibling relationships.
The long-term effects of scapegoating
In families where the scapegoat is a rotating role, children adopt different behaviors in order to cope. Some will learn to get out in front of the accusation, essentially ducking for cover by protesting innocence and blaming others. Others will do what they can do to stay off the parent’s radar by drawing as little attention to themselves as possible, especially with a controlling parent or one high in narcissistic traits. In his book Rethinking Narcissism. Dr. Craig Malkin calls this trait “echoism” because it’s really a reflection of a lack of healthy narcissism; essentially, people with this trait tend to “disappear” in relationships and feel uncomfortable voicing their needs and thoughts.
These adaptations to scapegoating in childhood have an impact on the child’s adult life. The sad truth is that the storm chasers—the kids determined to get ahead of it—often end up mimicking lots of controlling and narcissistic behaviors because they get rewarded for their efforts. They absorb the lesson of what it takes to win in both conscious and unconscious ways. Some will relish the favoritism bestowed upon on them while others will learn a cynical lesson about how love is earned. The echoist stays an echoist and, ironically, because she’s more uncomfortable in the shadows, will be drawn to those who need the limelight and are controlling or narcissistic themselves.
When the scapegoat role is assigned to one child, the damage done is more focused and more extensive and different in nature; because the parent is the figure of authority in the child’s world, she or he is likely to believe what is said about her or him. Alas, these supposed truth become the working model of the child’s definition of self, and make him or her prone to self-criticism, the habit of ascribing missteps or failures to deep seated and unchangeable flaws in character.
The dynamic in adult child-parent and sibling relationships
“I was the scapegoat and am now the black sheep, especially after I went no-contact with my mother. My siblings and Dad all jumped on the bandwagon, reminding everyone who would listen that I was always ‘too sensitive,’ ‘difficult to deal with,’ ‘a horrible snob.’ The snob stuff has to do with the fact that I’m not just the only one to finish college but I’m also an attorney and make more money than either of my brothers. The truth is that I never belonged to these people, then or now. My mother made sure of that.”
Sadly, “Greta’s” story is the norm; scapegoating is a form of bullying and once established as a pattern in family behaviors, it rarely disappears; scapegoats turn into black sheep, to mix up some barnyard metaphors. Those who have bought into the family narrative which underlies scapegoating—that the family would be perfect if it weren’t for this one person—are unlikely to abandon it, even as adults. Patterns of scapegoating often keep going even when a parent dies, as siblings step into the role and continue the thread.
The scapegoated child, now an adult, has the choice of staying or leaving the family fold. It usually takes time to recognize that she or he has been unfairly targeted but when the moment of recognition has been reached, most adults will reach for their running shoes. The good news that once the scapegoat makes his or her escape, there’s a whole world of possibility ahead. For more on scapegoating and recovery, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Photograph by Brooke Cagle. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Gemmill, Gary. “The Dynamics of Scapegoating in Small Groups, Small Group Research (November, 1989), vol, 20 (4), pp. 406-418.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.