Do You Know Who My Family Is?!!
We in South Carolina, but also nationally, have been flooded with the story of Alex Murdaugh, recently convicted of murdering his wife and son and facing, I believe, 99 more counts relative to myriad financial crimes. A big fish in a small pond, this narcissistic psychopath had traded on his families' reputation to escape scrutiny and consequences for decades. His murdered son, Paul, was almost legendary for his avoidance of consequences, the most infamous being his driving a boat while intoxicated, death resulting. While the media focused mainly on the "privilege" aspect of the Murdaugh saga, what stood out to me was the alcohol-riddled undercurrent in virtually all of the family's misdeeds and the stereotyped dynamic. In substance abuse treatment settings, the ACOA is commonplace. The acronym stands for Adult Child Of an Alcoholic. It is a useful concept because there are definite patterns of behavior that exist in alcohol-troubled families. While alcohol use is the most common cause of this patterned behavior, other substance use and physical/emotional abuse can also lead to similar dysfunction in families. The problem centers upon the behavior of the Dependent person, stereotypically the father. His alcohol-related behavior creates all manner of dysfunction in the family. To cover up this reality that the real problem is the Dependent person and his alcohol use, the family adopts their own dysfunctional behavior, roles. The purpose of the roles is to maintain the family system and to draw attention away from the Dependent person.
The first role we'll discuss is that of the Enabler. Stereotypically, the Enabler is usually the spouse of the Dependent. His or her task is to make adjustments and concessions so that the consequences of the Dependent's dysfunctional behavior are muted or avoided altogether. Having dinner WHENEVER the Dependent arrives instead of a set time or feeding the children first are examples of enabling. In the Murdaugh home, Maggie was the Enabler. She covered for Alex and regularly excused Paul's drunken misbehavior while maintaining that he was not alcohol-troubled.
Buster, the older of the two boys, occupied the role of Family Hero. His reputation was that of a good, solid, successful character. He was a child any family could be proud of. That is, until he was expelled from law school for plagiarism. Despite that hiccup and being implicated in the suspicious death of one of his friends, Stephen Smith, Buster was presented to the jury in his father's murder trial as a character witness. The Family Hero brings credibility and pride to the family in the hope of obscuring the dysfunction behind his/her facade. The Family Hero is often the first born.
Paul needs no introduction. Paul is trouble with a capital "T". He was drunk so often and was so outrageous that his friends gave him another name, another persona, when he was intoxicated. If Buster was the son the family could be proud of, Paul was the son it wanted to disown for Paul brought shame and dishonor to the venerable Murdaugh name. Paul's role in the family is that of Scapegoat. The Scapegoat is the reason there is any problem at all in the family. If only the Scapegoat would straighten up and fly right, the family would be golden. The Scapegoat assumes all the blame for the dysfunction in the family so when people think of trouble in the Murdaugh home, they naturally think of Paul. Being a Dependent himself, Paul was also enabled by his mother who saw no evil and by his father and grandfather who helped him escape the consequences of his misbehavior, the most lethal being the death of Mallory Beach when an intoxicated Paul slammed his boat into a bridge. In a vain enabling attempt, his father tried to convince a friend who was in the boat to say that it was he who was driving rather than Paul.
There are two other roles that children can play in a dysfunctional family. One is the Lost Child. This is the kid who is neither seen nor heard. He/she keeps to himself to avoid the chaos and trouble in the family. Often the Lost Child gets "adopted" by another family and can be referred to by that family as their "other" child. The child may eat his meals there and often sleep there as well. The fourth role is that of the Mascot. Often the youngest, the Mascot brings comic relief to the tense atmosphere in the dysfunctional family. He/she is cute and funny. It's their job to defuse the volatility and restore some semblance of normality.
These roles are sometimes fluid and aspects of each can be shared among the children. Paul has elements of being the Lost Child with his reported relationship with the slain housekeeper who is said to have been uber-accepting of him. When sober, Paul is also reported to have been charming and amusing, very much like the Mascot. Maggie did her share of drinking and Alex enabled Paul big time.
To summarize, family members occupy roles in the family system that are designed to obscure and hide the real causes of the dysfunction. While alcohol use is by far the most common cause, it is not the only one. Even functional families can be described in terms of the roles described above and do have the effect of maintaining the integrity of the family system. If you haven't already, try to describe and understand your family using the six roles described above. Do you know who your family is?