Scapegoating

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The concept of scapegoating comes from Leviticus, the third book of the Old Testament. It contains priestly writing explaining God’s instructions about how to live with purity and holiness.

On the Day of Atonement, part of the ceremony consisted of making offerings for the sins of the people. A steer and two goats were brought into the Tabernacle. Aaron, Moses brother and a priest, sacrificed the steer was as offering as an atonement for his family’s on Yom Kippur. One goat was sacrificed as an offering for the people’s sins. The other was the scapegoat, who carried all the sins of all of the people and took them away into the desert, leaving the people holy.

“Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. Leviticus 16:21 Lev 16:21
“The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. Leviticus 16:22

Today, scapegoat has come to mean a person or group who is blamed for the problems or transgressions of others. “If we could just get rid of them, all would be fine in our society.” Often this leads to severe violence, up to genocide.

This process takes place within families, too. One child becomes the problem child. If the child’s problems were solved, the family would be fine. But the child does not change, and the family does not change, either. The child is pushed to edge of the family, sent to live with relatives or abused, and, in adulthood,perhaps disinherited.  Even if the child moves far away or dies, the family still has problems. And so another scapegoat is chosen.

Sometimes the child chosen to be the scapegoat is vulnerable or weak in some way. They may need more attention, more medical care, more resources than other family members. Although that child does create stress, it is not the cause of all the families’ problems. Parents may hate their jobs (or each other), the adults may have poor communication skills, the family may have to contend with poverty or discrimination. Fixing or getting rid of the kid doesn’t solve everything.

More often though, the scapegoat is the healthiest member of the family. It’s the kid who sees too much, understands too much, says too much. That’s a huge threat in cult families, where secrecy is of the utmost importance.

It’s also a threat in less pathological families. It’s hard to pretend that there is no problem if your fourth grade child has to refuse all play dates because of baby sitting the younger kids. Or when your kid blurts out, “Daddy drank a whole bottle of vodka last night.”

Rather than confronting and doing something about the problem that the kid has put their finger on, the parents try and shut the kid up. And they try and hide behind, “That was just a dream, dear.” “We don’t talk about such things outside the family.” “Stop exaggerating.” “Oh, she has a vivid imagination.”

I was the scapegoat in my family. Part of the reason was that I was the oldest – I got there first. But the main reason was that I was resistant to their demands and I wanted independence. I was thirsty for life outside the family and managed to get out as much as I could, as soon as I could. I wanted to meet as many people as possible and, even worse, I wanted to emulate them.

To this day I remember my father saying, “It is very good that you learn how other people live and what they believe, so that you can see for yourself that we are right.” Oh, really?

And oh, the trouble I gave them. First it was that I was slow to read, then I read too much. I had no friends, then I had friends my parents disapproved of. Not only did I sing off- key, I deliberately taught my brother to sing off-key, too. I didn’t do what I was told, and when I did, I managed to mess it up. I was stubborn and rude and stupid. And very, very selfish! They didn’t catch on, but I was also quite good at being manipulative and getting what I wanted by disguising what I did.

It was a huge relief for them, I am sure, when I finally did get away, thanks to marrying somebody they didn’t approve of. My brother was obviously the next in line, but he was too compliant. So my poor mother inherited the job. Eventually, when the cult disbanded from old age and lack of interest, the need for a scapegoat waned. Or if they found another, I wasn’t around to see who it was .

What’s sad is that in spite of all my resistance and rebellion, I did internalize a lot, or maybe all, of what they accused me of. It makes sense. Little kids take all adults very seriously and soak up their every word. By the time I had enough experience to question their views, my unconscious was full of poison. I built a new view of the world, a new view of myself, and the beginnings of a new life. But what was in my unconscious was in total conflict with my felt beliefs. It was very, very confusing for the longest time.

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6 thoughts on “Scapegoating

    1. Thank you, Elsa. I find pple are astonished to learn that it’s the healthiest family member that is usually scapegoated, as they were always told they were the sickest or worst child.

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