All dysfunctional families are alike.

They all have mentally disturbed parents, one of them serving as the “mentally disturbed parent-in-chief,” and the other, if there is another, serving as the “enabler of the disturbed parent-in-chief.” Sometimes one finds a folie a deux, in which two parents share a psychosis.

These parents then become casting directors and create the roles each child in the family will play. One child, normally the oldest, plays the role of the savant. Others play varying roles that share a common denominator: they all have an accepted place in the family. The final role is the designated scapegoat who must take on most of the family’s anger and is viewed as not really belonging to the family and is therefore an outcast.

The “accepted” siblings are given permission by the mentally disturbed parents to treat the scapegoat any way they want. Scapegoats are demonized by the parents and therefore characterized as children who deserve whatever treatment they get. The siblings are glad to have someone over whom they can feel superior and on whom they can displace the anger that their parents have unconsciously contaminated them with. Nobody in a dysfunctional family emerges undamaged, but the buck stops with the scapegoat, so he or she is the most damaged.

It is hard to survive a dysfunctional family because these parents brainwash their children into regarding them as good parents, and they usually train the oldest children to praise them and stand up for them if one of the other children expresses criticism or anger. Each member of the family’s role is repeatedly described, so that by the time a child reaches adulthood his or her habits, attitudes, and feelings have been so well-practiced that they seem normal. Thus it seems completely normal for an older child to mock, kick, insult and in general treat the scapegoat like an inferior.

Over and over, a child is told who he is and what he believes. After a while, he or she believes that he is actually the person he has been cast to be, and no longer bothers to try to find any real self. This is especially true of the members of the family who have the better roles, such as the one who plays the savant. R. D. Laing, the British psychiatrist, compared this to hypnosis and noted, “How much of what we ordinarily feel is what we have been hypnotized to feel? How much of who we are is what he have been hypnotized to be?”*

The scapegoat is the most likely to wake up from the spell, because his or her role is the most repugnant. However, Laing warns, “If anyone in a family begins to realize he is a shadow of a puppet, he will be wise to exercise the greatest precaution as to whom he imparts this information to.” If the scapegoat, for example, exclaims to any members of the family, and especially to the parents, “This is crazy! This family is crazy!”—the scapegoat will be severely punished. Nobody must ever, ever cast doubt on the family mythology.

This is why families often feel threatened when one of their members goes into therapy. They fear that the family mythologies, which have been so well rehearsed for so many years, will fall like a row of dominoes, one after another. The fear is unfounded. Even when the scapegoat or other siblings with lesser roles in the family wake up and begin to tell it like it is, they are treated as if they are the crazy ones and sometimes are even admitted into mental hospitals in order to calm them down and bring them “back to sanity” (that is, back to a place of loyalty to the family’s mythology).

Indeed waking up and individuating from such dysfunctional families is a lengthy and arduous ordeal. In order to find one’s sanity after having been hypnotized and brainwashed for years, one must first of all have help—either from friends who have made this journey or from a professional who can hold your mind as you utter what seem like profane notions and cry out seemingly traitorous memories about the family abuse. The scapegoats in such family have had their egos crushed and it is extremely difficult for them to assert themselves or think for themselves.

The family and its remaining members (that is, most of the family) will ostracize, mock, belittle, degrade and in other ways punish the one or ones who break away and will try to make the breakaways feel like traitors. They will do anything and everything to prevent such a breakaway, for again it threatens the sanctity of the family and the very identity of those in the family.

The dysfunctional family will never let up and will never leave those who wake up in peace. Eventually, therefore, those who wake up will often need to make a complete break from the dysfunctional family, and even then the dysfunctional family will try in every way to interfere in this complete break or, in fact, initiate it. They will often be rude and abusive to those who break away, so that the dysfunctional family can think it was its idea to send the traitors away.

Therefore the breakaways must often do years of ego building through psychotherapy or another means. They will need to learn to believe in their true selves, as opposed to the selves they were hypnotized to believe the are. They will require years of practice relating in a different way.

Eventually, those members who have awoken will need to fight back. The best way of fighting back is to no longer react to the mocking, belittling, condescending and demonizing of the dysfunctional family. The best revenge is, as they say, living a good life. The breakaways eventually understand and ignore the dysfunctional family, even if a member of the dysfunctional family falls to the ground in front of them and feigns a heart attack, exclaiming, ‘You’re killing me!” It is then they can find peace.

The scapegoat can learn to stop playing their designated role in their adult life, but it won’t be easy. Each new situation in his or her life will arouse the scapegoat response that has been conditioned in them throughout their childhood. It will take years of practice, but eventually the scapegoat can discover who he or she really is, and can begin living a life that reflects their own aspirations rather than their parents’ frustrations.

*Laing, R. D., (1969), The Politics of the Family, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.