The following is my own true story and has never been told in a public forum.
When I was 5 years old my dad was a superhero. In my eyes he could do no wrong, always had my best interests at heart, knew literally EVERYTHING, was strong in all the ways I was weak, and he kept food in my mouth, toys in my hands, and a roof over our heads. For this reason he maintained his "superhero" status until I was a married man. How was I to know that my "superhero" dad would also double as my "super-villain?" What happened to me, my brother, and my mother took a lifetime to recover from.
Making a new home with a new wife was my first experience living on my own. If I am perfectly honest, although my marriage wasn't a "mistake," maybe the timing of it was. Just barely 21 years old, I simply didn't know myself yet. I was an untested ship that had never once navigated a calm lake, much less the storms and tsunamis life had in store for me on the high seas. There had been no time to discover the realities of carrying adult responsibilities for myself, let alone helping someone else to carry theirs.
What does this have to do with child scapegoats? The answer requires a little background, my friends. My personal superhero, it turns out, had emotional flaws. DEEP flaws.
My "Super-villain" Appears
My father was an intellectually brilliant man. He was a member of Mensa and Intertel, two organizations of and for the super-intelligent. When you're that smart, taking advantage of children is literally, child's play. At this juncture, it is only fair to acknowledge that my papa had also been severely abused as a child. Since it is not uncommon for an abused person to become an abuser themselves, you could say that what happened to me wasn't unusual. This is my way of saying that I don't think dad was entirely aware his actions would cripple both his sons in ways they might never fully recover from.
By now you may be wondering if my father abused me and my brother sexually. No. Dad never abused us physically. Instead, he harmed us in ways that left profound emotional injuries, injuries that no one else could see.
Fear & Guilt
Father was a manipulator. Throughout our entire lives at home, he used fear and guilt on his family like a sculptor uses hammer and chisel, in a clever attempt to sculpt each of us into a form that served his needs. In my case the result was a young child who accepted the burden and blame for all his father's problems while SIMULTANEOUSLY giving HIM the credit for my own accomplishments! This had the effect of
1) making HIM look like a great father and
2) making ME feel hopelessly indebted to him.
It would take a full-length book to tell this whole story but I suspect my experiences are similar to those of many other people. Hopefully, some reader might see their own life in this account and find it cathartic.
Are YOU the abuser in your family? As was stated earlier in this post, my dad probably was not FULLY aware of his actions or the catastrophic damage he was causing his family. Of course, "not FULLY aware" also means "partly aware." Please consider the following as an incomplete list of the havoc my father caused.
Life According to Dad
~ It cost so much for him to feed and cloth me and my baby brother that we lived in poverty. ("below the poverty line" was his favorite phrase, and he used it often. He used statistics about family incomes from The New York Times to prove to us how poor we were.) He said the high cost of my brother and me was the reason he had to work 2 jobs and couldn't get ahead financially. This had the effect of making me feel responsible for my family's poverty. I remember MANY meals where I felt guilty for eating.
~ Kids were the reason he could never take a vacation. Kids were the reason we could never sit down at a restaurant, or go to a show, or splurge on ANYTHING no matter how modest. He spread the blame to my mother quite liberally for her having such frivolous desires like... buying new underwear to replace threadbare, torn ones she always wore or shoes to replace the ones whose soles were separating from the uppers.
~ God is watching us 24/7 and not only sees all the bad things we do but he knows all the "sins" we THINK about committing! Thoughts are sins too, ya know! The church he joined and took us to saw to it that we would never forget that no matter how hard we try to be good, no matter how many good deeds we did for others, ultimately we are sinners who deserve to die in our sins. We deserve NOTHING good and only by the grace of God will we have any chance at all to escape his terrible punishment. Pretty heady stuff for a 10 year old, wouldn't you agree?
~ Dad was a firm believer that the world was full of people who wanted to kill us for no particular reason other than the fact that we are alive! Before you ask, NO, I'm not kidding. He taught me to always keep my eyes scanning the surroundings for potential threats. I learned to favor well-lighted areas and to be careful not to walk too close to a building with an alleyway for fear someone might jump out of the shadows to attack me. My first wife said my walking down the street was a sight to behold; head swiveling almost 360 degrees, watching everything and everybody within a 50 foot radius!
When I was about 8 or 9 years old I was swimming in a very large community pool full of people. Out of nowhere a man approached me from behind and then tried to murder me by wrapping a car spark plug wire around my ankles and dragging me under the water to drown me. I fought him with every scrap of strength I had. His grip slipped for only a split second and I swam for my life. There would be no second chance to escape. He chased me, trying desperately to entangle my legs again. I swam knowing that certain death was 1 inch behind me. That day I could have qualified for the Olympic swim team! I guess dad was right about random strangers wanting to kill me for no reason.
~ As a young man I got my first after school job as what they called a "Page" at the Public Library near home. The job of a Page was to neaten the stacks and re-shelve borrowed books. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I had scored my very first paycheck!
A couple of weeks later dad told me that since I was now bringing income into the household some of my check should go towards family finances. He explained that this would help defray the expense of feeding, clothing and boarding me. The guilt I felt of being a financial burden since birth- and all the joys of life that I had somehow managed to deprive my family of by my mere existence - guaranteed that I put up no resistance to his request. So much for my plan to enjoy the fruits of my own labor! He started by asking me for half of my pay, but that request was very short lived. Dad soon told me that bills were higher than usual that month, could I "loan" him my full check "just this once."
I worked at the library after school for two and a half years. I DID get to keep those checks- but only long enough to sign them over to him. In time I left the Library for a full-time job. Working 40 hours a week at an adult salary represented a lot more money. The prospect of saving money to launch an adult life was now a real possibility. As I would soon discover, however, my new and improved situation did not change the "arrangement" as far as my father was concerned.
The family still needed my "help" he explained. He promised me that each time I signed over my full-time paycheck he would keep track of how much he owed me and would pay me back. He amassed a huge debt to me. After some time, he showed me the long column of numbers that represented my entire pay for every week. He looked me straight in the eye, laughed in my face and declared he would NEVER be able to pay me back. He then turned his attention to something else and said nothing more on this topic. Ever.
Don't Let This Happen to You!
These are but a few examples of a life lived in my father's home. There are many more but I will not burden you with them. Instead, I offer these snippets as a cautionary tale of a situation to be avoided at all costs!
One last note on how my dad made me "contribute" to the family finances. First I should make it clear that it IS appropriate for a son to contribute a REASONABLE sum of money to the family upkeep when he comes of earning age. I just don't think 100% of his pay is reasonable. Secondly, my younger brother saw the result of dad's scam on me and when he got his first job he was prepared when dad came sniffing around HIS paycheck! He refused to fall for it.
How do you think my brilliant father reacted? Dad responded by trying to kill himself and leaving a suicide note that placed the full fault for his "death" squarely on my younger brother's shoulders. This all because he wouldn't sign over his entire check to "help out" financially! No, my dad did not die. Ironically, my brother came home, found him unconscious, called 911, and administered mouth to mouth resuscitation until the paramedics arrived. My brother saved our father's life! That isn't the end of that story but I'll leave it there for now.
"You were a fool. You should have refused!"
Some find my actions incomprehensible. I understand the criticism. Someone who has never experienced those formative years growing up with my father cannot be expected to understand. It is easy to say "I would have done this or that differently." In the same way I myself have read about slavery in America and imagined that I would never have allowed myself to remain a slave. I would have escaped or died trying. I think this way because I was not THERE at that place and living in those times. In actual fact, I HAVE NO CLUE what I would or could have done under their circumstances.
Don't Make Your Child a Scapegoat!
The bottom line is that my father used me as a scapegoat for everything that was wrong with his life.
~ He blamed me for his poverty instead of taking responsibility for having children he could not afford.
~ He rarely praised my accomplishments because they were always more than he himself had ever done. His ego couldn't handle that. I lived without accolades from him because he never earned any himself.
~ He made me, my brother, and my mom carry the burden for all of his missed opportunities, poor decisions, personal weaknesses, fears, and his myriad dysfunctions. I paid the high price for his failures although it was not my debt to pay.
The Last Word On My Dad
I started this post by saying my dad was emotionally abused. That explains a LOT about how he raised me and my brother. From what I've gathered, his upbringing makes mine look like a day at Disney World. It would have crushed a lesser man. My dad was NOT the lesser man. Somehow that makes me proud of him despite his truly toxic parenting. Like those slaves of long ago, I have NO CLUE what it was like to grow up in my father's shoes and there's no way to know if I in his circumstances could have been a better parent.
The bottom line, the entire point of this post is quite simple and can be summed up in these two sentences:
1. If you have been scapegoated take this advice from a fellow scapegoat: REFUSE to accept blame, feel guilty, or pay for the failings of other people.
2. If you are a parent or guardian, take this advice from a fellow parent and guardian: DO NOT EVER,EVER scapegoat some vulnerable person - ESPECIALLY a defenseless child - for what's wrong with YOU and your life.
Finally, we must not scapegoat our PARENTS for our choices as adults either. My father should probably never have had children but when I think of him I also try to appreciate the good that he did or, at least, TRIED to do.
We must all take responsibility for our own lives and play the cards life has dealt us. In hindsight, I've learned valuable lessons from dad and this has made me a successful "scapegoat!"