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A scapegoat is blamed for the wrongdoings and mistakes of other people with no fault of their own. I grew up in a family dominated by shame. My grandfather on my dad’s side died of alcoholism the year I was born. He was violent, misogynist, and racist. All of my dad’s uncles were alcoholic bullies. One died with syphilis.

Not a pretty picture. My dad quit school in the 8th grade to get a job to help take care of his mother. He got religion in the holiness movement before his kids were born.

My grandfather was an SOB. He would get drunk and terrorize my grandmother and tried to kill her when he was drunk. His behavior convinced my dad to never touch alcohol. He became a teetotaler. When I was young, while watching Cubs games, he would make us turn the channel during the Hamm’s beer commercial. I loved the Hamm’s bear and was always disappointed to have to turn the channel. The shame and violence from my dad’s upbringing were channeled to the next generation through the conduit of secrecy. Dad told us very little about my grandfather or his uncles. What little we knew about my grandfather got very little air time in our family. We kept it all bundled into a secret.

By nature and property, shame needs a scapegoat—someone to incriminate and wear blame. While there was plenty of shame to go around for all 8 of my siblings and me, my older brother Dave vicariously became our family scapegoat. He carried plenty of rage unceremoniously passed to him from the previous generation by my dad and his family. Underneath my dad’s pursuit of holiness, he packed a lot of rage instilled from his upbringing and 2 years of infantry in World War II.  While my dad was a teetotaler, Dave died from alcoholism, secretive to all of us in his family of origin.

I learned all about violence from the countless bloody fights I either heard about or witnessed my brother Dave engage in. His brush with trouble was legendary. When little, he broke his arm trying to jump from the garage with an umbrella, thinking he would float down. His eye was gouged out of the socket when intoxicated he drove his MG sports car into a concrete culvert at a high rate of speed. He was in and out of scrapes with the law throughout his life. No one asked him if he wanted to be the scapegoat. He was just subconsciously assigned. He was never religious. Unspoken, our family needed a sinner to be saved. Dave was it. When he died, my mother and I sat in his hospital room. She prayed that God would wake him from his coma so he could get saved and not go to hell. I prayed that he could know that he was loved in the hell he knew here on Earth. Scapegoat was the way Dave lived and died.

Family systems create scapegoats. Not all addicts are scapegoats, but subconsciously all addicts are assigned some role to fulfill within the family structure. Nothing wrong with roles as long as you get to choose what role you want to accept. A closed family system abhors a vacuum. In these systems, family members play certain roles out of necessity to fill the vacuum. The role of the scapegoat is to symbolically and practically carry out the family’s unspoken shame. When an addict who has been a family scapegoat gets into recovery, he/she must learn to give back the shame to the previous generation or will likely transmit its properties through addiction to the next generation. Giving it back, means taking action with an emotional conversation with parents, sometimes present, sometimes not, identifying the hurtful role of scapegoating. It will require regularly placing the shame to the one who gave it and to the hurtful behavior experienced. It is necessary to create a source for validation with or without parental engagement. Ongoing affirmative thoughts and actions will need to be embraced throughout a lifetime. Addicts who were scapegoated and do this work, experience the freedom from the misbeliefs and dregs of their addiction. 

Social systems can also create scapegoats. Currently, in our country, we are ravaged by the experience of racism toward minorities of all kinds. African Americans are the lightning rod for good reason. Not only because of unrecognized police brutality resulting in the death of George Floyd and many others like him but because of scapegoating. Historically, our society has scapegoated Native Americans and African Americans from early on. History shows that our forefathers have stolen the land from Native Americans and have built wealth on the backs of African Americans through slavery. Years of scapegoating through domination in the forms of lynching, economic inequality, redlining, disproportionate incarceration, etc have fueled racism institutionally for generations. This has been written about by countless minority and majority writers. Today’s protests against police brutality can be transformative. Many wonder what more can a citizen do to heal themselves and our land.

From my recovery from addiction, I offer these considerations: 

1. Recognize the role you have been assigned by your family of origin and society. The role of scapegoating is never helpful and always destructive. If you were a scapegoat to your family, you will need to give back the shame to your parents and their legacy through some of the measures already discussed. If you were not the family scapegoat, it would be helpful for you to recognize the role that was assigned to you and to understand what that role was about. Further, it would be healing to listen to the one who was scapegoated to learn what their life has been about. The same is true societally. To those of us who have privilege (white America), it will be helpful to listen to those who have been scapegoated. This is not only true about police brutality but also regarding the historical scapegoating that has fueled the dynamic of institutional racism toward all minorities in our country. Parents in their role as power brokers often fail to recognize their responsibility in the set up of the scapegoat role in their family system. A reason is because of the invested power and privilege experienced in their position. As a result, they are often blind to it. In society, those with white privilege become blind to the inequality that exists toward minorities because they have only lived in unrecognized privilege. Blindness to privilege is an obvious result. It will be necessary to recognize and better understand the role you play in your family of origin and the one you hold in society.

2. Listen to your heart by researching the historical system that influenced you. Many people have said, “I had a perfect childhood”. When I hear this I am never sure what a perfect childhood means. Usually, upon reflection, it is recognized that none of us have escaped our childhoods unscathed from hurt, disappointment, and loss. By researching the history of your family of origin, you begin to understand the way shame is passed from one generation to the next and the role that you were assigned in your family system. Only when the painful past is real can it be addressed in the here and now. This is a healing way to listen to your heart. It can be also helpful toward understanding those who have been scapegoated in our society. When researching our forefathers it is important to examine both the amazing attributes and sacrifices made and how our forefathers have scapegoated minorities for material gain and empowerment. Regarding family of origin work, many are reticent to look at the ugly side, fearing to “air dirty laundry”. Short of this, we remain blind to our family dysfunction that fuels toxic roles like scapegoating which can fuel addictive behavior. The same is true regarding our country’s history. Being willing to research the ugly in our forefathers can be helpful to listen to the heart of those who are scapegoated in the here and now.

3. Taking back your power will require you to stalk the shame that dominates. Getting free from addiction means facing the toxic role unceremoniously assigned by your family of origin. It will demand that you give back the shame you have carried in your role to your family of origin. You do this by declaring “NO MORE”. You remove the shame from your sense of self to those who gave it to you and the behaviors that were hurtful. Often you will need a skilled therapist and sponsor to walk with and validate you in this journey. 

Societally, stalking the shame of scapegoating will require validating those who have been oppressed and a commitment toward redistribution of equality and privilege to those have less by those of us who have had more. To this end the question is “Will those who have more be willing to have less so that those who have been scapegoated and oppressed can have more”. The answer to this critical question is a crucible toward family and societal healing.