The following article on the phenomenon of the scapegoat child was written by Leigh Byrne, author of two best-selling memoirs: Call Me Tuesday and Call Me Cockroach. This post was originally published on Leigh’s blogger website, Sometimes On Tuesday. I am reposting it here, in its entirety, with the author’s permission.
SCAPEGOAT by author Leigh Byrne
While being the victim of a parent’s fury is bad enough, being the only child in a family singled out to receive it is many, many times worse.
There came a point during the writing of Call Me Tuesday, when I felt the need to somehow impart meaning and purpose to what had happened to me as a child, to make my story, at least in my mind, something more than a pointless reflection of human suffering.
I spent hours on the Internet combing through newspaper articles about abused children, searching for one similar to mine. After days of reading heart wrenching stories about children who’d been brutally killed by one or both of their parents, I ran across an article about a four-year-old girl who’d been beaten to death by her mother. Reading on, I found out that in the years before her death, the little girl had been severely abused over an extended period of time, whereas her five brothers were never harmed. In the article, she was referred to as a “scapegoat child,” a term commonly used by social workers.
Wanting to know more, I typed “scapegoat child” in the search box of my computer and found many stories just like mine of children who were the only ones in their families abused. Turns out the phenomenon is surprisingly common nationwide and well-documented among child welfare experts, but hard to detect because it’s often covered up by the family members and sometimes becomes an accepted function within the family system. And like with all cases of child abuse, we don’t hear much about it until the death of one of the victims makes the papers.
The expression, “scapegoat” dates back to Biblical times. It’s written in Leviticus 16 that, on The Day of Atonement, two goats were chosen for a ceremony to rid Jerusalem of its sin. One goat was offered to God as a sacrifice, the other, after having all the sins of the people symbolically placed upon it, was sent out into the wilderness to fend for itself. The second goat, the bad, now sinful goat, because it was allowed to “escape” with its life, became known as “the scapegoat.”
Today, the word scapegoat is used to describe someone unjustly blamed and punished for the wrongdoings of others. Just as the riddance of evil was transferred from the Israelites to the Biblical goat, so do some people, instead of trying to understand the uncomfortable feelings within themselves, unconsciously project them onto another person, who then becomes the reason for all their problems.
Scapegoats are often the weak and powerless among us, making children likely targets for troubled parents seeking refuge from their guilt and other unwanted feelings. The child chosen from a sibling group—usually the most passive—is deemed bad and punished merely for existing. After being beaten, berated, and tortured for years, like the scapegoats in the Bible, they are then sent out into the world alone carrying with them the burden of their families’ rejected pain.
I now know I was a scapegoat child. Everything my mother thought was bad in her, all her guilt and discontentment, she projected onto me, and once she made me into a replica of everything she hated about herself and her life, she lashed out at me physically and castigated me, not because she hated me, but because she hated who she was.
Scapegoating is not limited to children, and it’s not always noticeably severe. People are scapegoated every day in the workplace, in peer groups, as well as within our families. Every time we make fun of, or belittle someone to make ourselves look or feel better, we’re making a scapegoat of them. We are, albeit subconsciously, relieving the burden of our obscure feelings of self-badness and inadequacy by dumping it onto someone else. Scapegoating a child—or anyone for that matter—has the potential to be one of the most psychologically damaging forms of abuse we can inflict on another person. Please—don’t do it.
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I am grateful to the author of this post for her gracious permission to share this information with my readers. Leigh Byrne’s kind, deeply caring heart and her great insight into the phenomenon of “scapegoating” is priceless.
Comments are closed here, please visit Leigh’s original post: Scapegoat.
Also, do yourself a favor and check out her extraordinary memoirs: Call Me Tuesday and Call Me Cockroach. I highly recommend both books. Not only are they very well written, Leigh writes with an amazing level of honesty, vulnerability, and insight. Although her trauma was extreme, her stories are ultimately validating, healing, and very encouraging for anyone who, like me, barely survived a severely abusive childhood.
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