DARVO and Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA): When the Abused Are Revictimized by Their Abuser

DARVO and Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA): When the Abused Are Revictimized by Their Abuser

One of the more baffling and incomprehensible aspects of being scapegoated by family is being the target of mentally and emotionally abusive behaviors; reacting to the abuse appropriately (e.g., expressing hurt, confusion, anger, setting boundaries, etc); and then discovering that the person who committed the harmful or abusive acts views themselves as the victim – not the one they harmed.

Now, that’s quite a trick, isn’t it? What’s even more mind-boggling is that scapegoating family are often able to get away with this behavior, as they frequently have the support of other family members. This relates to the Family Projection Process, as discussed in Family Systems Theory, which I describe in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed.

Researcher Dr. Jennifer Freyd (2021) named this tactic ‘Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender‘, or DARVO. You can read more about DARVO here.

DARVO and Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)

Here’s a real-life example of DARVO as related to what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA), taken from one of my FSA case studies:

A married client I’ll call ‘Jake’ was cleaning his home one day and was shocked to find gallon bottles of Tequila hidden in the pantry, and then later, dozens of empty wine bottles hidden in the barn. Jake and his wife had built a new (second) house on their large ranch property, but his wife had never moved into it, leaving Jake to live in their new home alone. He later learned that his wife was involved with a man she did volunteer work with, a man she appeared to be deeply emotionally involved with.

Jake was of course sad and hurt after learning his wife appeared to be in love with another man, but he was even more concerned that she appeared to have not only a drinking problem, but a serious medical issue she was not dealing with – one that could be life-threatening if not addressed, and which was made worse by drinking. Therefore, he felt confused and torn about leaving her and ending the marriage before she got help for what appeared to be alcoholism.

Feeling desperate and not knowing what to do, Jake reached out to his older brother Craig and Craig’s wife Ellen to share what was going on, and communicated his fears and distress. His sister-in-law responded to Jake by saying he was lying – that Jake’s wife couldn’t possibly be drinking because “we’ve never seen it”.

Jake’s brother then followed suit, accusing Jake of lying as well. Because they had never seen this side of Jake’s wife, and because Jake had long been in the ‘family scapegoat’ role, he was not viewed as being a believable or reliable reporter and his concerns were derided and dismissed. Jake told me later he felt genuinely traumatized by Craig and Ellen’s response, as well as (appropriately) hurt and angry.

A few weeks later, Jake learned that Craig and Ellen had texted his wife to let her know that she had their support, and that Jake was mentally and emotionally ill and a liar, “and always has been.” Ironically, this eventually led Jake’s wife to admit to him she had been drinking excessively and in secret, but by that point the marriage was not salvageable for a myriad of reasons.

Jake was initially very distraught, because he was well aware that this idea that he was mentally and emotionally ill was first generated by his mother when he was young to hide her own psycho-emotional abuse of him behind closed doors. He refused to experience more of the same from his brother and sister-in-law, and chose to end contact with them.

Months later, Jake received an email and opened it, not realizing initially that it was from his brother Craig. In this email, Craig demanded that Jake ‘unblock’ and apologize to his wife Ellen because Jake’s not replying to Ellen’s messages (he had blocked her to stop receiving her aggressive, accusatory texts and emails) was “upsetting” her. Somehow, Ellen had managed to cast herself in the role of ‘victim’, making Jake the ‘aggressor’, despite the fact she had attacked him when he had reached out for help months before.

Jake was floored. The thought that his brother would think that Jake was the one who owed Ellen an apology was nearly impossible to comprehend. Jake was the one that had reached out to his big brother in a time of need, and instead of getting support, he was called a liar, and then was maligned by his brother and sister-in-law to his wife. That was a hard one for Jake to wrap his mind around. He wrote Craig back and stated that it was he who was owed an apology, and asked how on earth this had become all about Ellen’s pain, versus his pain as the actual victim of their false accusations and attacks. Jake asked Craig for an apology. Craig emailed back saying, “Sorry, I’ll never say I’m sorry.” And that was the end of that.

While some might feel as confused as Jake regarding how it was that Ellen became the ‘victim’ in the above scenario, if you’re the scapegoat in your family, you probably understand what Jake experienced all too well. What he experienced is a classic case of DARVO, and it happens to scapegoated family members all the time. Has it ever happened to you? Feel free to share in the comments, below.

If you think this article would help others, consider sharing via the social media icons, below.

Freyd, J.J. (2021). What Is Darvo? Retrieved January 06, 2022 from  http://pages.uoregon.edu/dynamic/jjf/defineDARVO.html.

Copyright 2022 | All Rights Reserved | Rebecca C. Mandeville

19 thoughts on “DARVO and Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA): When the Abused Are Revictimized by Their Abuser

  1. Thank you for posting this, Rebecca. It was very much needed. This article explains exactly what I experience with my siblings. When my brother started accusing me of stealing from my mother after she died, I sought support from my sisters, and instead they sided with my brother, and all three of them for the last 5 years have singled me out and targeted me. Most recently, my sister asked for us all to “move forward,” and I complied with the boundary that the targeting needed to stop. Their response to that was to start accusing me all over again of stealing, my brother denying his abuse, and then outcasting me all over again by excluding me from Thanksgiving. All this for simply asking them to stop the targeting.

    When I appropriately expressed my feelings of hurt to them from all of this continued scapegoating behavior, they shamed me for my feelings, they became the victims, and then called ME the abusive one. It’s enough to drive me crazy. I am now keeping very limited contact and pretty much staying away from them. I told my sister about Rebecca’s book, that it explains exactly what’s going on in our family, and she responded, “I will never read that book. Ever.” I know now that I have to accept that this family dynamic with my siblings that reared its ugly head after my parents died will likely not change. “Acceptance” is what will get me on the path to healing from this.

  2. I wanted to add that I too get called “mentally ill,” “delusional,” “crazy.” I’ve heard it all. The most recent was my sister telling me that my “perception of events is distorted.” So, with my siblings nothing I feel is ever valid and anything I experience with them is something I just create in my head or imagine. And I need “major mental help.” I get told that too. It is so hard not to be furious all the time.

    1. You’re most welcome, Kelli. Seems like you definitely have a nasty case of ‘DARVO’ going on. Accepting reality as it is and then doing all you can to live a joyful life, free of all forms of abuse, is how we can create our own form of justice amid the unfairness of it all.

  3. I am so alone and tired of overcoming and being strong. I am the middle child/ family scapegoat/ identified patient and no one in my family has my back or will apologize except my Mother but she says but doesn’t act on my behalf with others in my family. The abuser / my father has passed but my Mom doing nothing was just as bad. I could sure use a friend…someone who understands how hard it is to stand alone.

    1. Hi Kerri,

      So many scapegoated children and adults feel this way, and it is truly heartbreaking. Many of my clients have found support and friendship on forums or in social media groups (in addition to engaging in therapy or trauma-informed coaching). Have you looked into this, by chance? My book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, also lists many resources for survivors of family scapegoating abuse (FSA) – You might read that as well.

  4. I ache in reading this, because scapegoating has been my entire life (literally, from the day I was born) my hidden experience. I have literally spent half of my life trying to untwist the verbal abuse from the first 22 years. I probably have every book on complex ptsd, dissociation, trauma… My siblings grew up as co-conspirators and I know no other relationship. The alcoholism, suicides, overdose, addiction and divorces are so well ignored!

    I just downloaded your book in Kindle, started to read the questions (all yes I think)… thank you.

    1. I do hope you will find my book helpful, Sandy, along with the included resources. The twisted dynamics that accompany family scapegoating abuse are like the Gordian knot that cannot be undone via “normal” means (i.e., we cannot “think” our way out of the complex knot); but it CAN be sliced through via your standing in the truth and releasing the damaging “scapegoat story” that has nothing to do with you, really, and everything to do with family dysfunction (and perhaps intergenerational trauma).

  5. Hi Kerri, I am also the middle child and family scapegoat. I’ll be your friend 🙂
    I’ve been “no contact” with my entire family for several years now. I travel full time in my RV with my 3 dogs. Im totally alone in the world… and yet I’m not alone at all. A few years ago i started a private facebook group called “Scapegoat Daughters of Narcissists” that has grown to about 1000 members now. All adult women just like you and me. I’d like to invite you to join if you are interested. You don’t have to share if you aren’t comfortable… just observe if you prefer. The ladies in my group have been there for me through so much these past few years. Some of them have truly become like family.

  6. I had someone try this with me. The family bought the story, and I have ignored it. It’s pretty amazing that I was able to ignore DARVO, and it took me 25 years to get over the scapegoating and family alienation. I didn’t ruminate and go over and over the DARVO and I didn’t try and try and try with the family members like I did when I was scapegoated. Maybe it was my 25 years experience with what didn’t work that helped me drop this like a potato on fire.

  7. You got this, Sandy. Same for me, all of my life since I can remember. Now, I live my life in a way so that I will no longer be affected by everything that has been said and done or not said and done to scapegoat me. I make choices so there is no more effect of the experiences on me. This is the only way I was able to move forward and continue moving forward. I ask myself,”What can I do healthy, with my best effort, in this moment, so that I’m no longer affected, there is no more effect or less of one?” I keep taking steps towards happy, healthy and vibrantly well, physically, mentally, and emotionally. You can do this, Sandy! You are immensely resilient and gritty with a lot of love in your heart.

  8. Hi, my brother has also managed to convince everyone he is also the victim because i called him an a-hole years ago, because he was/is one to me. My dad keeps trying to get me to apologize to him for that and i wont. I asked my dad why cant i get an apology from my older brother for the years of screaming verbal attacks he has subjected me to in public? He devalued me on that and i just acted hurt because i knew what he was going to say. So showing hurt feeling was only for his benefit, but he confirmed my test. This was a few months ago. My brother is 60! Im not allowed to know anything about him and he forces everyone to lie to me if i ask. Its his loss for refusing to want a healthy relationship with his baby sister!

    1. Hi Kelli,

      This is a classic example of how the FSA survivor gets put into a “double bind”. It is like being in check-mate on a chessboard. No positive movement is possible because you’re damned if you do / damned if you don’t. Honest expressions are not possible. Only certain family members are allowed to act in a dominant manner or display anger. If the FSA survivor shows authentic emotion, it is used against them, no matter that their response is justified and a long time coming. This is why many adult survivors simply stop playing the game…

  9. My brother was in charge of my grandmothers finances which were quite substantial. He told my father I stole it and hated him and my mother; my sisters were too afraid to defend me. This was after a decades-long campaign of lies behind my back about how awful I was. I heard he and his wife were doing this but didn’t believe the extent of it. I was naive. An email couldn’t cover all they have done to smear and hurt my family.

    1. Hi Amy,

      Sadly, yours is not the first story I’ve heard whereby the FSA survivor is accused of stealing money from relatives, including parents and grandparents. Sometimes an influential sibling will tell lies so as to get another sibling removed from a Will. It is unjust, wrong, and immoral. I’m so very sorry that you have had to go through this, and I hope you are finding the support you need to heal from these incidences of family abuse.

  10. At 62 years, I don’t think I’ll ever be “free” but at least I am working out some of the bigger issues resulting from being the scapegoat as well as the physical and emotional abuse that permeated my family. All my life, I was told I was only good for certain things, that I was crazy, etc. as an adult, struggling with clinical depression, suicidal ideation, an abusive, violent partner, I was harangued by my family of origin to “be better.” I’ve never managed to do “better” though I was able to maintain some stability for my kids (who were subsequently traumatized by me). I’m doing so much better now, maybe because I’ve come to see my family of origin has not been able to grow out of these nasty roles, and I’ve cut contact with my siblings. Contact with my mother is minimal. When I was recently scapegoated by both my siblings (2 different issues but arising at the same time), I experienced great confusion and initially acted as I had all my life – apologetic, fawning, but catching this behavior and stopping that train. Things quickly became worse with my siblings. My brother got his wife involved. I blocked my siblings and am still processing, but life is sadly better already. Got your book, still reading, but it is also helpful as is mindfulness and cognitive behavior therapy. Thank you.

    1. Hi Ani,

      Your strength and emotional courage shine through in your comment, despite your having gone through so much – all of it undeserved. As I write in my book, I can’t count the number of people who have told me they were labelled “crazy” by scapegoating family members, despite there being no evidence supporting this accusation. You are clearly on your way to full recovery and healing. Blocking people who abuse you or are detrimental to your emotional and mental health affirms your commitment to your healing from FSA. I hope you find my book and the included resources helpful.

  11. This is exactly what happened to me. Thank you for explaining it in a family systems way.

    I struggled for years to get my sister to treat me as a person after my father died. She could say anything mean to me and it was fine, but if I objected or fought back I was delusional or abusive. I never started any fights. She failed to follow though on executing my father’s (very unequal- I got 5%) will and other financial commitments, using various excuses as to why she didn’t have to. Every excuse was something about me unrelated to the commitment. I was unemployed (until I got two jobs), I didn’t make enough money (I made more than her), I was bad with money (I had no debt, not even student loans), I was blue collar ( so what?), I had a mental disorder (I didn’t, but so what? Lying to mentally ill people is ok?) I had stayed home to raise my child while getting my degree (WHAT?), I was angry (who wouldn’t be at this point?) and then I was delusional, psychotic and abusive. I wasn’t. There was always a reason,and it kept changing. This was about the small fraction of the estate she didn’t get.

    Who the hell gave her the right to pass judgement on my life? Well, our parents had! One was dead, though, and it was time to put an end to this bullshit. I was lied to about my share of the estate, so whatever my father thought was moot. He lost any respect I had for him. I was not going to put up with any more.

    What saved me was the realization that being angry about this treatment was completely appropriate. I had always felt guilty about being mad about anything and always apologized. Anger has a purpose, and is only a problem when it’s triggered inappropriately or causes inappropriate behavior. In this case, it was telling me something. I could either agree that I deserved this treatment, or get mad I decided enough was enough. I was not a bad person and this was wrong.

    I finally won and got her to stop trying to bully me and follow through on her obligations (she told me she only did because of her personal ethics, not for me. Perhaps my lawyer had something to do with it.)

    What I learned was that I couldn’t change the family dynamic myself. It took our mom and my wife to tell her off (the remaining system members). I wish they hadn’t tried to stay out of it for so long (years!). It drove me crazy when I was told that it was both of us causing the conflict. No, it wasn’t. ANYONE would have been mad in my place. My sister was lying about and failing to execute legal obligations! Objectively, she was in the wrong. Even bringing this up was treated as abusive behavior!

    It was absolutely crazy that my sister cared more about what other people, even strangers, thought about her behavior than what I thought. She was angry at me for telling anyone about it, or even that the will was unequal. I told her that if she didn’t want anyone to know she shouldn’t do it. Seriously, I had an obligation to keep her dishonesty secret? Simultaneously, she told everyone she knew about how bad I was. She even said she was afraid of me. This was bizarre, because I lived a thousand miles away and blocked all communication (which was abusive, apparently.) If she was afraid why did she keep trying to contact me? I didn’t want her in my life. I had to accuse her of of stalking to get my sister to stop contacting my wife in an attempt to convince her I was crazy and abusive. My wife was unconvinced this was the case, based on her 20 years of experience with me. This pushed the rest of the family to finally see my point. I can’t get over how crazy it was to email my wife, of all people, to prove I had an abusive personality, and then refuse to stop contacting her when my wife asked. No insight!

    Finally, my sister was constantly telling me her therapist agreed with her. I seriously doubt any therapist would condone anything she did, and I know therapists hate clients doing that. She also bombarded me with pop psychology to prove I was mentally ill. I ignored it because none of the people she quoted were my therapist and I was pretty sure that they wanted to understand mental illness to help people, not to label them so they could be mistreated.

    My sister is not a psychopath or a narcissist and doesn’t have a personality disorder. This behavior was only directed at me and no one else. She would not have treated a stranger like this. I have never in my life had a fight like this with anyone else. We had not been estranged before our father died. It was only after he died and she started lying to me that a serious conflict started. Thr money was incidental and for her insignificant. What I think happened is that she tried to assume the role of family head and I didn’t cooperate. I had no reason to accept another person who disapproved of me in place of our father, especially if money for my family was involved. My father’s opinion of me didn’t matter, because it was wrong and he was dead anyway. For me, it was an opportunity to change things.

    What the fight was really about was that I quit accepting my role. I wasn’t a loser, there was nothing wrong with me, and I could set boundaries and say no. I wasn’t inferior and had to be treated as an equal. This triggered a literally pathological response. I cannot explain it any other way. I am not crazy, I have a job, family, a nice house and a dog. My sister isn’t crazy either, but her actions were morally wrong, irrational, and counterproductive. She didn’t need the money and she lost anyway. It makes no sense except as part of a system.

    The fake victimhood was hard to take. For my part, what really made her mad was when I wasn’t a victim. When my career took off after our father died my sister got progressively more negative about any opportunities I had. I joked that if she didn’t like it I should do it.

    What they don’t want is for you to be happy with yourself. That’s the point. Don’t agree! Also, anger is not always bad. Don’t do anything wrong, but you have a right to be treated with respect. If you are angry and don’t get mad at anyone else, examine why you are feeling it. Think about your actions, but emotions can be a useful guide.

    1. Hi JL,

      I hope everyone visiting this website takes the time to read your lengthy comment, because what you share is invaluable.

      I mention in my book on FSA (Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed) that siblings may begin scapegoating a family member when a parent dies – It is an unconscious way to keep that parent alive. Instead of experiencing relief that the scapegoating is now at an end with an abusive parent’s death, the FSA survivor may discover that a sibling has taken over this particular part in the family drama / play, spouting the same lines, and it can be a shocking revelation indeed as they realize that the scapegoating will still go on via a sibling.

      I rejoice in your finally accessing your anger, as anger lets us know when our boundaries are being violated and is a necessary emotion to be in touch with if we as FSA adult survivors are to fully heal. It is also important to access grief as we move toward ‘radical acceptance’ of our past and the damage done via our being in the family scapegoat role. Fortunately, healing is possible as we release the ‘scapegoat’ narrative and address any issues impeding our recovery, such as complex trauma. I hope you read my book if you haven’t already, as you will no doubt find it helpful. I wish you well on your healing and recovery journey.

  12. Hi Kerri

    I can totally empathise with you. I am the middle child/scapegoat and your story could be mine, exactly.
    I’ve had to go No Contact now with my nm because she tried to poison my son against me. He didn’t want to go round anymore so because they haven’t seen him I’ve been disinherited. I didn’t react to being disinherited so now she has started a nasty smear campaign in the village about me. Now I hardly leave the house. I’m so depressed and can’t stand being on my own. I’ve worked all my life but was actually bullied in my last job, so I left with some severance pay and a gagging order.
    My nm has turned it all round with my sisters and is acting the victim because I havent been round! She would never think of getting in touch with me though. There has always been this unspoken rule that my sisters don’t contact me. They both left home at 18 and only come back on school holidays..
    It certainly is the most horrendous and loneliest life to go through.
    I’m going to write a letter to both of them letting them know everything she has done to me and what I’ve been through with her! I’ve got nothing to lose.
    I have got Rejected, Shamed and Blamed on kindle, I’m going to start it tomorrow. I couldn’t think of a better title. It says it all!

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