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.
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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
Rebecca C.Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP, is an internationally recognized expert in Family Systems. She is a psychotherapist, certified complex trauma professional, researcher, author, and media contributor on child psycho-emotional abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She specializes in helping victims of ‘invisible’ family abuse reclaim their life narrative so that they can live freely and joyously as their true self. Rebecca is the author of Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed – the first research-based book on what she named family scapegoating abuse (FSA).