Redheads, Mad Worlds and Scapegoating
In spring 1991 Morag, one half of the lesbian couple whose lodger I was in Edinburgh at the time, asked me if I would be interested in acting as a “guinea pig”. The next in a series of seminars in which she was training as a Gestalt therapist was scheduled for Saturday. I could pay £20, sit in for the day and, when appropriate, take part in sessions as a client.
When we assembled, my impression was not favourable. Proceedings were dominated by a sort of elderly guru in an armchair, a man I later heard rumours about, to the effect that he was not at all averse to bedding his female students as and when the occasion presented itself. I had no way of checking the reliability of these rumours. Suffice it to say that when I mentioned them to another of the trainees, she laughed and shrugged her shoulders, as if the matter were par for the course. No cause for concern.
It did not feel like a safe space. This man’s evident authority defined it for me as governed by a brand of patriarchal power I have always perceived as untrustworthy, and what is more, hostile to me as a person. From the very start, almost without thinking, I decided it would be better to keep my mouth shut and give as little as possible away, getting through the day with minimal upset so as not to displease my friend. I briefly considered asking for my fee to be returned but dismissed the idea. When we had to explain what we were feeling at the start of the day, I said I was unsure. On which the guru, over my head, addressing the trainees, asked if they had any experience of “scapegoating”. He had diagnosed my own background with unfailing immediacy.
Morag’s partner Diane came from Tranent, a town east of Edinburgh which locals call Turnent, with the accent on the second syllable, and which is mostly Scots-speaking still today. When she put down the phone after a conversation with her family she would speak broad Scots for about half an hour, then gradually make the transition back to the mixture of Scots and Scottish English she habitually used. From Diane I learned that when Edinburgh people say ‘See you later’ it does not indicate, as in Glasgow, that you are going to meet them again on the very same day. Just that another meeting is in prospect for the not too distant future. I stopped being startled by the phrase.
Diane was a redhead and an enthusiastic footballer. In terms of height she came up more or less to my shoulder. Once I asked if she was not afraid walking home alone in the dark in Edinburgh, not an especially safe location on Friday and Saturday nights when heavy drinking was in progress. ‘Christopher,’ she said, ‘I’ve got “lesbian” written across my forehead’. And when the question of an additional lodger came up, we thoroughly enjoyed mimicking the prejudices gays like ourselves were still liable to come up against. ‘We don’t want any of those peculiar heterosexual people in here now, do we?’ she said with a serious expression and a sneer, after which both of us burst into uproarious, conspiratorial laughter. And in fact the Italian lodger who moved in, Giuseppe, was gay, and had a visit over Easter from his boyfriend Daniele.
The four of us lived in a sane world, which the world of my family definitely was not. Being the designated scapegoat puts you in a peculiar position which infuses everything with an air of madness. Either you are right and they are wrong, or you are wrong and they are right. Statistically, the chances are heavily weighted in your disfavour. Anybody who is not mad will, in a similar predicament, carefully contemplate the possibility that they really could be off their head. In my case, as far as I could tell, my parents and two of my siblings concurred in one version of what was going on. Theirs was a proffered reality which I had to accept, for pragmatic reasons, until I was well into my thirties.
Unfortunately, this meant discounting a whole range of extremely precious sensations and intuitions. Let me give one example. After my first nephew was born, my brother and his wife brought the child round to my parents’ flat in a basket. I still have not forgotten the impression those two brilliant, unfathomable eyes made upon me, staring out from the sea of blankets in which he was swathed. My immediate reaction was: ‘Don’t bring him in here! The air is poisoned, and he will get infected!’ There was nothing I could do or even say with what was, in my judgement today, an utterly accurate assessment of the situation. So I labelled the reaction as “mad”, which drove me further into a lamentable corner of isolation and self-doubt.
The third sibling, a mildly schizophrenic brother, lived in his own quirky and at times disconcerting version of reality. Unlike the other children, he never rebelled against the Catholic religion, but adjusted its dogmas instead, according to his own idiosyncratic lights. Checking his interpretation of any doctrinal issue could be alarming for somebody like myself, with an accurate recollection of everything the Jesuits had instilled into me, following the guidelines of St Thomas Aquinas, a presiding spirit of my Glasgow adolescence.
The decoration of this brother’s bedroom was a miracle of its own. Graphic pin-ups from the third pages of different tabloids jostled with pictures of the Pope and images of the Virgin Mary, without him perceiving any contradiction or conflict between them. I couldn’t help wondering if the Pope depicted there might sometimes crane his neck out so as to peer round and gauge the statistics of the ample breasts displayed on a faded page of newspaper print just next to him. Once, hilariously, when the television in the sitting-room could not be persuaded to work, my sister, my father and I retreated to this room to watch a video recording. No one made any reference to the vivid collage surrounding us, behaving as if it were not there. That gave the whole experience a surreal tinge. But then, pretending that what was going on was not actually happening was the guiding principle of life in that family.
Michael’s gullibility meant that he was not always treated as honestly as he deserved to be. One summer, the guest of my sister and her family in Manchester, it turned out on the last day that an important part of his holiday had been omitted. As a convinced Scottish nationalist, Michael had expressed the wish to set foot in Wales, the other area of the shared island that was not England. So they got into the car, drove him to a point in the hilly country close to Derby and announced that this was Wales. Michael got out, took a photograph, and was perfectly contented to return to Manchester and then Scotland the next day.
It is extremely difficult to talk about the experience of being a scapegoat because it involved accepting, and putting up with, a whole range of unfair, demeaning and cruel behaviours, while raising no objections. Part of the indoctrination was that such treatment was appropriate and deserved, given who I was. Or should I say, the role I had been cast in. It proved very difficult to shake that training off in adult life. In retrospect it feels shameful to admit that you allowed it all to happen. Another troubling issue is that having been the scapegoat clings to you like a smell. Even decades later, certain individuals will sniff it on you, like trained hounds, and do their level best to push you back into the position that was yours as a child. It is an uncanny and frightening phenomenon, because the old, helpless defencelessness can so easily take hold of you once more. You feel powerless to block the old situation from recreating itself.
Being the scapegoat has a further connection to madness because of the paradoxes of your position. On the one hand, it is made abundantly clear that the other family members wish for nothing more than to see you off the premises as swiftly as possible. Winning a place at Cambridge meant I could conform with their wishes when I was not yet 18 and, as the French so elegantly put it, “foutre le con”. But the message about the best thing for them being your absence – even, your non-existence – is contradicted by the huge importance of the role you have been forced to assume. Whatever they cannot confess to, including the fact of your victimisation, everything they must deny as if their psychological survival depended on it, is loaded on to you. Your collaboration in accepting and carrying that load will determine the survival of the reality by which they live. If you threaten it, the very basis of their lives is threatened. Such a contradiction imperils the sanity of the scapegoat, because there is no way of reconciling the two opposing halves.
The question at stake is what is actually going on. With an exaggeration that is comical only in part, I wonder at times if everything might not have been simpler had my mother one day grabbed the carving knife, tugged my father’s head back and slit his throat while the remainder of the family looked on. That way everything would have been out in the open. No one could have denied the truth any longer. She would have done us all a service. Actually, one of the many restless nights I spent beneath that roof came after she had insisted on being given an electric carving knife for Christmas. I found it hard to understand how any of us could sleep sound in our beds with such a threat hanging over us. And my mother adored electrical gadgets!
If you have been the scapegoat, you reach for every possible shred of evidence which is not based on your own subjective perceptions. When my mother’s ashes arrived back from the undertakers, my father allowed a few months to elapse before returning them. The undertakers could dispose of material he had no idea what to do with. Several years passed before the occasion arose, and before I summoned up the courage, to ask my brother what they had done with my father’s ashes. I learned they had been treated in precisely the same way.
At a time when I still imagined that a cathartic, honest conversation would sort everything out, I rang my parents’ doorbell, determined to talk openly. My mother was not at all happy, as they were watching the tennis tournament at Wimbledon. When I put my foot down, the television was grudgingly switched off. I started by saying that I had always felt unwanted in the family. ‘I didn’t feel unwanted in my family,’ my mother said at once, ‘I felt unliked’. ‘Stop this,’ my father broke in, ever the bully.’Talking this way upsets your mother. Look, she’s crying.’ ‘But this is how she feels all the time,’ I put in. Upon which my mother turned to my father and said: ‘You taught me how to cry’. That particular conversation got me nowhere. I wanted to talk about my relationship with my parents. The focus shifted without preamble to their own relationship, and I disappeared from view.
The child who is designated as the scapegoat is the carrier of the family secret, which no one wants to admit to. Banishing and excluding him or her conveys an illusory security that the secret can be buried once and for all. For the scapegoat, betraying the secret means betraying the family. At whatever cost to him or herself, it must be kept under wraps. Articulating it will mean losing even the pathetic semblance of a family that was all he or she ever had.
Not long before she died, one of the presents I gave my mother at Christmas was a big blue notebook which I thought was rather beautiful. ‘It’s so you can write down memories about the family,’ I told her. ‘Things you remember about us when we were small.’ Her answer, delivered in belligerent tones, was: ‘Why should I? It’s all bad.’ My mother failed to grasp that even “bad” experiences conceal a blessing. Provided you confess to them, and talk about them openly.