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

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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

6 Replies to “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.

  3. Kerri Michael says: Reply

    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. Sandy Goodwick says: Reply

    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.

  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.

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