If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. - George Bernard Shaw
The Scapegoat in a family system is often the one who tells (or acts out) the truth in the family, the elephant in the living room that no one is talking about. It is this act of truth telling that makes them the target for family rebuke and this is why they are often the first person the therapist wants to talk to.
Juanita was molested by her father as a child. Her father also molested both of her younger sisters. Juanita told her mother about it when it was happening, but her mother called her a liar and denounced her as a "slut". Juanita was 9 years old at that time. As Juanita grew up, the molestation continued until she ran away from home at the age of 16 with her boyfriend. Juanita developed a drug habit as a result of trying to numb her emotions and memories about her abuse. She moves from relationship to relationship acting out the sexual abuse in her adult relationships that she experienced as a child. Her family will have nothing to do with her, citing her sexual promiscuity and drug addiction as the reasons for her banishment. They deny knowing anything about the molestation that she describes at the hands of her father and say that she is "making it all up".
Nathan grew up in a household with a father who drank heavily and was very abusive. Nathan's mother has always denied his father's drinking for fear that she will lose him and the financial stability which he provides. Nathan's father always keeps his drinking in the home where outsiders cannot see it. When his drinking gets out of control or he becomes abusive, Nathan's mother covers for him. Nathan's father is a pillar of the community and well respected by his colleagues and friends who never see him drunk or violent. Nathan sees the hypocrisy and despises it. Nathan secretly began drinking at the age of 14. He is now 26 years old and has a serious alcohol problem. He has never held a job longer than 6 months and moves from place to place living with friends or roommates. Nathan is frequently seen in bars, heavily intoxicated and often starts brawls with other drinkers. He has two assault charges and one DUI on his record. He tries to tell anyone who will listen about his father's drinking, but no one wants to hear it. Nathan's family has ostracized him because of his behavior and his refusal to keep quiet about his father's alcohol problem.
Both Juanita and Nathan are the Scapegoats of their family. They both tell the truth about their family dysfunction and act it out in their own lives. Their families denounce them for exposing this truth. Therapists refer to truths like this as "the elephant in the living room". There is something huge here that no one is talking about, except the Scapegoat.
If a family enters into therapy, it is often the Scapegoat they bring to be "fixed". The Scapegoat will be what therapists call, "the identified patient". A young Juanita or Nathan might have been brought to therapy to "fix" their promiscuous behavior or drinking. But an astute therapist knows these are the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.
If you are the Scapegoat in your family, take heart. A trained therapist will see your truth. However, your family may never be willing to face it. And if you continue to speak of it, they may continue to disown you. This leaves you a choice to make; be silent and live with the hypocrisy or walk away.
If you try to step out of the Scapegoat role in your family you may also meet with resistance. The Scapegoat is also the target of the family. The Scapegoat draws all negative attention to themselves and away from the family. The family can then stand back and look horrified at what the Scapegoat is doing, as if they have never witnessed such behavior before. (They have. Where do you think the Scapegoat learned to act that way?) The Scapegoat exists because the family needs one. If you decide to resign your role you will find enormous pressure being brought to bear for you to get back into character. Even if you sober up, hold a job, get married and have a family of your own, they may never let you forget you are the "screw up" or the "black sheep" or the "problem child" of the family. If not, you have a choice to make. Stay - or go.
If you are the Scapegoat you may also recreate this role in your other relationships. Juanita may cheat on all her boyfriends. Nathan may show up at work drunk and start a fight with the boss. If Juanita gets married and has children, she may molest her own children, or try to date her daughter's boyfriends. Nathan may become the drunken violent father he despises. If Juanita has female friends, she may sleep with their husbands. Nathan may get violent with drinking buddies and assault them when drunk.
The good news? With awareness you can stop playing this role. How?
1. You have to realize you are in it.
2. Look at what you do to recreate the role in other relationships. Do you sexually act out? Do you drink too much and get too aggressive? Do you insist on cramming the truth down people's throats instead of letting things go and letting things be? Do you go on crusades against people, situations or issues? Are you righteous, judgmental or intolerant of people or situations? The Scapegoat role can be recreated in many ways, but it requires that you make yourself a target. Look for ways in which you do that - and stop it.
This second one is the hardest part to face. You have to take responsibility for doing to yourself what was originally done to you. But you can do it. You are the truth teller. You are the one who had the guts to face what was really going on in your family. You did it then and you can do it now. Only this time, you will be doing it for yourself.