A lot of families have a scapegoat. It’s the scapegoat’s job to either take the blame for the deeply rooted problems that otherwise the family would have to deal with, or to be the lightning rod for the structural inequalities the family faces but are powerless to fix. Sometimes both. Often both.
Communities, classrooms, workplaces, and friendship groups also often have a designated scapegoat. Usually for pretty much the same reasons. Often groups of people become scapegoats for entire societies. Shall we spend more money on the NHS or just blame fat people? Should we fix the housing crisis or just blame homeless people and millennials?
I know what it’s like to be a scapegoat. I know how hard it is to confront the fundamental unfairness and illogicality of that role when you’re inside it. Let me tell you a story about my family.
I got a phone call from my youngest brother the other week. He told me about a conversation he had with his daughter. She was bemoaning the messy state of her bedroom and he was telling her that it was ok, that he’d been messy as a kid and that he still struggled with being tidy but that it was worth the effort. My mother was there and she contradicted him (in front of his daughter – so rude) to say that he wasn’t messy at all. She proudly said that both her sons had been super tidy and that I was the messy one. Apparently I’d been in the habit of going into my brothers’ bedroom and making a mess there because I was so upset that their room was tidy and mine wasn’t.
Let me be clear – that never happened. Not only did I not purposely make a mess of my brothers’ room I didn’t accidentally make a mess either. I didn’t go in there unless I was in there with them, unless they invited me, and for the most part they didn’t come into my room unless I invited them in. We were brought up to respect other people’s spaces.
It didn’t surprise me that she’d say that though. It didn’t even surprise me that she’d slander me in front of my niece when I wasn’t there to defend myself.
For a long time I thought I’d been a terrible child because that’s what my mother told me. I’d been defiant, unreasonable and a bad influence on my younger brothers. My middle brother’s outrageous behaviour was entirely my fault. He’d been such a good boy until I told him that he didn’t actually have to do what our mother said. So when he was smashing my possessions, calling me names or threatening me it was my own fault.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first realised that this was bullshit but I do remember the exact shift in perspective. I suddenly realised that if an adult loses a battle of wills with a five-year-old then that is on the adult, not the child. Even if everything she’d said about me had been true it would still be on her.
Later on I began to realise that maybe it wasn’t true at all. The ‘terrible twos’ stage happens because children go through a phase of realising that they don’t actually have to do what adults tell them and they start asserting themselves and pushing boundaries. I’m two and a half years older than my middle brother. I would have been coming out of that phase right as he was going into it. I can see how it might have looked like I was communicating some kind of behavioural contagion to him. But only if you don’t know about kids. If you don’t know that it’s a stage all kids go through. If you’re not, say, a fully qualified children’s nurse with experience of caring for younger siblings and cousins, like my mother was.
I don’t know what she thought she was doing. Maybe she just really didn’t want to admit that there are some bits of parenting that aren’t much fun no matter how much you love your kids. Or maybe she just doesn’t like me very much and never has.
And this is the point at which I realise that I’ve been typing for a while but I don’t actually seem to have a point. Don’t scapegoat people, maybe? That seems like a thing we should agree on. Spend less time looking for people to blame for stuff and more time fixing the things you can fix.