Scapegoating in Families

Greeting Card by J.C. Duffy (c) 1981
Greeting Card by J.C. Duffy (c) 1981

I bought this greeting card back in 1981, when I was 25. I didn’t buy it to send to anyone. I bought it because the woman in the picture looked like I felt: shocked, exhausted, raw.

I was reminded of this picture this week, when I came across multiple blog posts that described my family-of-origin with eye-popping completeness and specificity. In just the last 5 years, the toxic dynamic that shaped my life has become recognized and understood by enough people that it can be googled.

Mean Girl Times a Million

Everybody knows about “mean girls”, and how they bully and torment their targets. Mean girls are narcissists (or, more technically, suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, NPD). They have an exaggerated sense of their own worth, and think that their chosen minions can do no wrong because they chose them. Conversely, they view those they deem unworthy as legitimate targets of libel, slander, gossip, derision, contempt, ostracism, and worse. Mean girls don’t feel bad about hurting people’s feelings because narcissists can’t empathize. They can feign it, but they don’t feel it. Narcissists don’t actually recognize the existence of other human beings as such. Other people matter only insofar as they impact the narcissist’s own life. Character traits like loyalty, responsibility, and integrity are not part of the NPD world. Only what the narcissist wants, needs, and feels matters. Ironically, if you try to assert your own wants, needs, or feelings with a narcissist, you’ll be called “selfish”. How thoughtless of you to consider your own needs above those of the narcissist – or at all, for that matter!

Mean Girls

Mean girls are popular because the confidence of narcissism can be very charismatic. When a narcissist smiles upon you, you can feel you’ve been blessed by a higher level of being because that’s the narcissist’s own self-opinion. Narcissists enjoy the power this gives them over others, and they use it. They like having people to ostracize and exclude, and they like having the power to turn others against someone they’ve deemed unworthy. They enjoy being at the center of these mini dramas.

These qualities are why mean girls can make high school a nightmare. But that nightmare can’t compare to what happens when the mean-girl dynamic plays out within a family.

Imagine your own mother is the mean girl, has designated you as unworthy, and has turned your siblings – her “golden children” – against you. And this doesn’t just go on for the few years of high school. This goes on your whole life, from childhood into adulthood. Even after your mother dies, your siblings and whoever else she (or they) recruited as followers – the “flying monkeys”, in the lingo – continue the abuse. That is a nightmare of soul-murdering proportions.

Who Gets Scapegoated

I don’t know if it’s possible to make general statements about why a particular child is singled out as the family scapegoat. Several of the blog posts I read said it’s the truth-teller, the one who could not be controlled. Maybe. I was rebellious and outspoken even as a child. One article said it is the child that is most like the mother – she scapegoats the child because deep down she hates herself. That, too, is plausible in my case. I am more like my mother in interests and abilities than either of my siblings. Plus we had an emotional simpatico – similar vulnerabilities. We understood each other.

Despite all the bad things she said about me, I was always the one my mother called when she was in trouble. She confided in me about her love affairs. When she had a brain aneurysm, I was the one she called from a hospital gurney at 6:30am, though I was 200 miles away and my brother was much closer. She knew I’d come instantly, and I did. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she screened her calls and would only pick up if it was me – would not even talk to her other children most of the time. I took care of her when she was dying.

For most of my life, my mother was not there for me, but sometimes she was. Every once in a while, something I was going through would resonate with her because she had felt the same or experienced the same. Then she would talk to me – really talk to me. It’s hard to explain how she could be horribly cold and cruel to me so much of the time, then every once in a while there would be this wonderful connection. I guess that’s why I never cut her off completely, though a therapist I saw in my 40s strongly urged me to do it.


I believe my mother scapegoated me to assuage her guilt over some seriously terrible parenting mistakes. She was just 19 when I was born, and not a mature 19. When I started showing signs of distress from her bad acts, she was unable to take responsibility. So she cast me as “born bad”, and started a smear campaign to bolster her position. That allowed her to discount everything I said as “crazy”, “delusional”. She was always very worried about what I might be telling people about her.

Once when I was in my 30s, we had dinner together at a French restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village, where we both lived. She’d had several glasses of wine and I don’t remember exactly what led up to this, but she said, “I don’t know how you can love me after what I did to you.” And then she started crying, which disconcerted the waiter who had just come over to refill our water glasses. Years later she denied ever having said it, but she absolutely did say it – word for word. I’ll never forget it. And if she said it that once under the influence of a wine buzz, no doubt she thought it privately many times.

My mother’s abuse stopped about 1.5 years before she was diagnosed with cancer (she died 3 months later). I was going through a hard time due to numerous severe losses, and the reactions of my siblings made her realize she’d gone too far in turning them against me. She’d just been talking smack – sometimes because she was mad at me, sometimes because bullying was fun – but they had true contempt for me and she suddenly saw it, as if for the first time. She became kind and loving towards me. She started calling me, which she’d never done before. We had dinner together regularly, went to movies and museums. She was interested, respectful, and supportive. I felt like I had a real mother for the first time in my life.

When Thanksgiving came, my brother invited my mother – but not me – to Thanksgiving dinner, as he had done for years. I wasn’t married or with a partner, so I generally spent Thanksgiving alone. But this year, my mother turned down my brother’s invitation and spent Thanksgiving with me. We had a lot of fun together, though it was just the two of us. She apologized for allowing me to have been hurt like that, and promised never to be party to it again. I don’t think she would have, either, but she didn’t live to see another Thanksgiving.

My mother’s abuse finally stopped, but too late to undo the damage she had done to my relationships with my siblings and – by extension – their families. My siblings’ spouses and children mostly view me the way my siblings do – the way my mother taught them to view me through years and years of her mocking and derision. I tried to explain to one of my siblings that my mother and I were at times very close – that our relationship wasn’t just arguments and estrangement. The response? I was “delusional”, lying to myself to make myself feel better about what a failure I was as a daughter and a human being. You can’t have a healthy relationship with someone who speaks to you this way.

Two Choices: Amputation or Death


My mother’s change of attitude towards me is unusual in a family scapegoating situation. It’s also important to note that the change came entirely from within her. Nothing I said or did brought it about – or could have brought it about. I tried for decades to get her to see and treat me differently, but the more I tried, the meaner she was to me. It finally occurred to me, around the time of her tipsy confession (the one she later denied making), that when I told her how she’d hurt me, it made her feel guilty. And the guiltier she felt, the more she needed to make me wrong and bad in the eyes of everyone she knew. When I didn’t trigger her guilt, she wasn’t as mean to me.

Every article I read about scapegoating in families warns that trying to clear the air does not work, and in fact backfires on the scapegoat through intensified attacks and derision. This is definitely my own experience – not just with my mother, but also my siblings and their families. There is no way to break through. I think, as with my mother, the root of the blockage is guilt – especially with my siblings. My brother and sister have both treated me in ways they would never treat another human being on this earth. They need to believe I deserve it, or they couldn’t live with the guilt.

When you think about it, they were victims of our mother’s narcissism, too. They were just children when our mother brainwashed them into turning against their sister in such a mean and vicious way. How were they supposed to know better? Now, somewhere deep inside them, they live with the knowledge that they have been deeply cruel to an innocent fellow traveler they’ve known since the day they were born, causing lifelong pain and suffering. But they don’t know it consciously and never will. They can’t. Consciously, they think I deserve whatever misery that comes my way. And that’s why it’s dangerous for me to talk to them.

It’s not easy to sever contact with your family of origin – mother, father, brother, sister. For one thing, it’s social unacceptable. Rejecting your parents violates the 4th Commandment, which permeates Western culture even if you’re not religious. Cutting yourself off from family is so unusual that people don’t understand how such a thing could be necessary. Others criticize your decision, and give unwanted and uninformed advice – especially if you’re under 40: “But of course your mother loves you!” “Try talking it out.”

Social pressure aside, it hurts to give up on these relationships. Our parents and siblings are the first people we meet in life, our deepest ties. We’re biologically wired to love them. Cutting them off feels like cutting off a part of ourselves. But when these relationships have been poisoned by the scapegoating dynamic, they almost never can be fixed. And if they can’t be fixed, they must be severed. We can’t keep abusive people in our lives without accepting their view of who we are, and that is the death of our souls.

1 thought on “Scapegoating in Families

  1. Excellent article. Each time I read about the experiences of being abused by NM’s I always find out a new fact about our recoveries or why they did these things to us. Thanks very much for this terrific article.

    brother FM
    sister FM
    brother – sometimes supportive sometimes not

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