A Tale of Two Goats

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If you ask half a dozen people the origin of the term “scapegoat”, one of them will likely know it’s from the Bible. What they probably won’t know is there are two goats in the story. God tells Moses to sacrifice two goats to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. As with any sacrifice, the goats had to be perfect, that is, without flaw or blemish. The Talmud stipulated the goats be as alike as possible in size, color and value.

Each goat played an important role. Aaron, the priest, cast lots between the two. As a result one goat was chosen for God and the other goat became the scapegoat.

The goat chosen for God was sacrificed as a sin offering. His throat was slit and his blood was carried into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place inside the tabernacle, and applied to the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the altar, and to the tabernacle itself. This goat’s blood cleansed the house of God.

But the other goat, the scapegoat, was presented live to God. Aaron put his hands on its head, confessed all the wrongdoings of the people of Israel over it, and then a man was selected to lead the goat out into the wilderness and release it. The scapegoat carried away the sins of the people.

Note, the scapegoat was the goat that got out alive.

I’m the other goat, the one whose blood was used to clean the house. In the standard list of family roles, the child who fullfills the role of “other goat” is known as The Hero  although I like  Trophy Daughter better. In public, the trophy child is the one parents hold up with pride as a shining example of their good parenting but in private, the trophy child sits on the family shelf, ignored and collecting dust.

Jerri, my sister, is the goat who escaped but not before being blamed for everything wrong in our family.

As kids, the two of us were so alike we were frequently mistaken as twins. Jerri was 18 months older but by the time I was two, I’d caught up in size. Add in our parents infinite wisdom in blessing us with rhyming names, and you get the picture: two goats, as similar as possible.

I don’t know how the decision was made between the two of us, who to blame and who to clean house with. Those who study family systems say the decision is subconscious and can be based on any number of things. They also say the decision is made by the whole family and is not the choice of any single individual. But when I rewind my internal DVR, it seems Mom was the one always pointing the finger at Jerri. They are a lot alike and that would have worked in Jerri’s favor if Mom had a healthy self-image. You see where I’m going with this.

As kids, Jerri could do nothing right. I, on the other hand, could do nothing wrong. She was constantly compared to me. According to Mom, I behaved better, slept better, ate better, made better grades, had more friends, more talent, more coordination, more maturity, and was more responsible. In other words, I was just more. Jerri was less. Jerri, quite naturally, hated me.

Years ago, I ran across an old sketch book from high school and showed it to Dad who’s always had a bit of an artistic bent. Dad flipped through the drawings and said, “Your sister was the one who took all the art classes, but you were the one with the talent.” Waves of pride and then shame washed over me. That’s what its like to be the Trophy Daughter. You’ll do anything for your parent’s approval, even if it means your own sister has to be thrown under the bus.

It didn’t surprise me to learn the scapegoat is usually the strongest one in the family. She has to be. Carrying the guilt for the entire family is a lot of hard work. The scapegoat is usually the one who first identifies the actual source of the negative family dynamics and pushes back. Because of her courage, she is first ostracized by the problem-causer and eventually, the entire family. Jerri pushed back with drugs, alcohol, sex, smoking, and suicide attempts. She was banished from our family at the age of 16. Eventually the scapegoating drove Jerri, quite literally, out of her mind.

And what was the Trophy Daughter doing all this time? Why, cleansing the family name, of course. She was bringing home A’s and making the honor roll and the dean’s list. She was yearbook editor, homecoming candidate, stat girl for the basketball and soccer teams, and treasurer of the youth group. She was in the Pep club, the Chess club, and the marching band. She was graduating 11th in her high school class of 330 and earning a Presidential Scholarship to the college of her choice. And she was pretending that she was the goat who got to live.

About five years ago, Jerri and I reconnected and instead of the addict I’d always been told she was, I found a woman struggling with mental illness and poverty and with little hope of maintaining stability long enough to get her life back.

Now in our late forties, my sister and I are both trying to leave our old roles behind.

What strikes me now, more than anything, is how our parent’s words defined us. Words are powerful. What we say to each other matters:

A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! –The Message, James 3:3-5

Jerri was told she would never succeed at anything. When she decided to take some classes at the community college nearby she was told, “Why are you going back to school? You’ll never finish. You never finish anything you start.” She has been unemployed the majority of her adult life and is barely scraping by on disability. I was told I could be anything I set my mind to. I went on to college, graduate school, and a career at a major pharmaceutical company. We started out the same, two goats equal in size, color, and value. We were not different; we were only told that we were.

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11 Comments on “A Tale of Two Goats”

  1. Lee says:

    ” I was pressured to be the scapegoat in my family of origin and my sister the hero. What is really true is that I left and did better on my own and my sister stayed and is now a very disturbed alcoholic. ”

    By writing this blog what do you hope to gain? Are you assuaging your guilt or are you helping your sister.. for you and her I do hope that is your goal.

    I am/was the scape goat but I was also the eldest, the strong one, the one with the brains. My brother was the “golden boy”. I was forced to do all my brothers homework so that he would do well and graduate. I had a goal of going to college and was always told that I would never make it, it wasn’t my place, and that my parents would never pay for me to go. My brother was told he was awesome his whole life. My father was an alcoholic and continually cheated on my mother, my mother was a narcissist, violent, and more than a scad crazy, and my brother was a big dummy who took my mothers side and beat on me more than once.

    Somewhere along the line I let the negative that my family filled me with be my life. I became what they said I was. At that point I knew I had to get away from them – I was all of 19. I worked, went to school one class at a time at night, and I lived away from them and all of their toxicity. I stumbled a lot. A tremendous amount actually. I drank, I was loose with men, I partied too much. But I always had a job, I always paid my rent, and I got thru school one class at a time.

    I graduated with Honors from a distinguished University at the age of 36. I never gave up my dream. I have my own business, a husband who loves me, two children that are in college, a nice house, a dog, two cats, and I am pretty damn happy. My brother has never held a real substantive job, his wife is a born again whack job, his son has been in and out of jail, and his daughter is quiet and seems caught in the middle. My mother and father divorced, my father went his separate way but he and my brother were the best of buds, my mother gave my brother half of her money which of course he squandered, and moved to be near him yet they don’t communicate. I moved 1500 miles away from them and speak to them every 5 years or so and to my brother never.

    My father is dying and the “golden boy” is nowhere to be found. Yet my father still mentions to everyone that will listen that I was the bad child. Some things never change but some things do.

    My own family will not end up like this and that will be my contribution for change. I will stop this cycle in my generation. My mother, father, or my brother and his family have not been allowed to be around my children as they have grown up and I know looking back that was the absolute best decision I have ever made. Was it hard – oh god yes, but I have etched out a good life for myself and I will not look back with regret.

    • Lee, you puzzle me. You share an amazing story of basically rising from ashes, succeeding against the odds, of courage, and determination. But you start off with a question that is clearly skeptical and feels more than just a little judgmental. “By writing this blog what do you hope to gain? Are you assuaging your guilt or are you helping your sister.. for you and her I do hope that is your goal.”

      I do not write this blog to help my sister. I write this blog to help me and others like me process both what has happened in the past as well as what is happening now in our lives with siblings and other loved ones with brain disorders. I write also because siblings and caregivers of people with mental illness often hide what they experience. They keep it to themselves because of the stigma. They do not want to be judged. They need a voice and need to know there are others like them. I write to give support and to receive support. Do I gain something from this blog? Yes, yes I do. Probably more than my readers.

      As far as “assuaging your guilt”, what is it that you think I should feel guilty for? For being chosen as the hero and not the scapegoat? Do you think I campaigned for that? That I somehow competed with my sister for that role? You obviously assume that having the favor of extremely dysfunctional parents is somehow a a gift. You couldn’t be more wrong. Your brother’s life should be exhibit A. We were children, Lee. You, your brother, me, my sister. We did not do this to ourselves.

      You end by saying “I’ve etched a good life for myself and I will not look back with regret.” And yet you imply that I should look back on mine with guilt. Perhaps the way you need to look back is with compassion.

  2. ko99121 says:

    Wonderful article! The first time I’ve seen this dynamic in print. I was/am the scapegoat in my family. I was the only girl with 5 brothers. From as far back as I can remember, I was told how worthless I was. It was my job to do all the housework, pick up my brothers’ beer cans, iron their clothes, and on and on. Pregnant and married at 17, I went from the frying pan into the fire with an abusive husband. But I survived, got a divorce, my degree, and had a professional career. It all caught up with me, though, in the form of chronic illness. I had to retire, and live a very reduced life now. But I am safe, and answer to no one but myself, which is priceless!

    • Hi Ko99121! The scapegoat thing really makes me mad – I don’t understand how parents, especially, can do this to a child. Well, I understand, but I don’t really get it. I’m sorry you had to experience it but I’m glad you’ve stayed strong and survived. Thanks for stopping by. You are always welcome here.

  3. Sarah says:

    What a great website and this page in particular is excellent. I was pressured to be the scapegoat in my family of origin and my sister the hero. What is really true is that I left and did better on my own and my sister stayed and is now a very disturbed alcoholic. Another brother and I are ‘out of the family,’ and we have really done ok with that, all things considered.

    This brother said to me a few years ago: don’t worry about being the one who is to ‘blame,’ you wouldn’t want to have to pay the price that [sister] did to stay in the family’s good graces. True. My sister who stayed as the hero was sexually abused by my dad and has really been abusive to her alcoholic husbands and her son. It is so incredibly sad to me how these awful dynamics are created and perpetuated.

    My family of origin like to tell me (on the rare times we ever talk) that I am the crazy one, and one time my sister even called me ‘psychotic.’ Wow, how could she know what I am like if she hasn’t seen me in 28 years? Well, she said ‘you have always been psychotic and unstable.’

    I was just speechless, until I found my voice and told her she was an alcoholic and why didn’t she get herself to an aa meeting. She didn’t have much to say after that. Yeah! there’s one for the al-anon side.

    Anyway, many years of good therapy and aa, al-anon recovery have made me feel alot better and I can see now that their comments and attitudes come from not how I am, but how they really see themselves. Again, how sad is that when people try and destroy those whom they are meant to love. Unbelievably sad –

    Thanks for such an awesome post.

    • Hi Sarah! Thanks for stopping by and for the kind feedback on the blog. While I’d never wish this family dynamic on anyone, it is always a blessing to meet someone who’s been there and truly understands. Let me just say I’m genuinely sorry for what you’ve experienced. It is your family–it is not you. How sad for them that they will never get to know the truly amazing and wonderful person you are. Yes, it’s actually a mixed blessing for the scapegoat. You get ostracized but you also get released from the madness. A lot of heros are never able to see the negative dynamic and live their entire lives trapped in the destructive family fiction. I hope your sister will some day also be free.

  4. Marsha says:

    Hi – Our stories are so very similar. I have no idea where you grew up or anything else about your background but change the names and we have so much in common. My sister is bipolar. Our names are similar Marva (she) Marsha(me). She is and was the family scapegoat. I am the other goat who could/can do no wrong according to our parents. We’re in our 40s. We’re at a point now of self acceptance of each other. She’s hated me over the years as much as she has loved me and there were times when I had to do things/ be places/ put my self in situations to help her that i hated her. We never gave up on each other though. We need each other equally. Not her more of me like most people think from the outside. My sister committed a crime due to her illness which finally turned her story to a good one at least for now. After four month prison stay she qualified for many of the programs we tried to get her into from the time she was diagnosed in her twenties. Unfortunately, the system is set up in that way. Fortunately she is doing very well for now. I understand the pain and the subsequent joy we feel as supporters. I will pray for you…thanks for this blog!

    • Marsha, I’m THRILLED to hear from you. I know there are more people like us out there and so much we can learn from each other. I am so glad you and Marva have each other and that Marva is doing well. I’ve done a lot of web surfing and so many siblings in our situation are estranged. It’s not difficult to understand why but it’s such a joy to find someone else on the road less traveled. Thank you for your prayers and I will return the favor! Hugs to you and Marva.

  5. Jan says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to offer, but interestingly enough, I can relate to both goats. I think I played both rolls growing up. I am so moved by your story. You know, I am close to you – if I can help, please let me know. I will continue to follow you. Jan


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