Black Sheep in the Family

National Post - Oct 2009

National Post - Oct 2009

Long before he picked up a metal bar and bludgeoned his aunt and uncle to death, Terry Colbourne was considered the black sheep of the family. The middle of seven children and the only boy, the 45-year-old parolee remembers getting in trouble as far back as grade school. And not for doing things such as pulling a classmate’s pigtail. Young Terry liked to steal, vandalize and light fires. Older Terry liked to take drugs, commit armed robbery and beat the crap out of people.

Colbourne would be the first to tell you he deserves to be branded the black sheep forever. You kill a relative or two, there’s bound to be long-term family backlash. But what about the folks whose transgressions are nowhere near as severe as Terry’s? To be assigned the dark, eternal label, what did they do?

Everything and nothing, as it turns out.

A few facts most experts agree on: The definition of the black sheep is the person in the family who is the centre of negative attention in everyone’s mind. He or she may be banished, treated with contempt and hostility, picked on, barely tolerated or politely ignored. In any case, the person deemed the black sheep almost always knows it — being aware of your lowly status distinguishes you from being the village idiot, say. Black sheep come in different shades: As mentioned, you don’t have to commit a crime to get the title. Studies suggest, however, that typically boys are pegged because they are troublemakers. The downfall of girls usually has to do with some form of sexual taboo. Sadly, either gender can become the black sheep of the family for reasons beyond his or her control.

Take the case of Lisa, who begged us not to use her last name for fear of yet another family fallout. She claims that she is, was and always will be the black sheep of her family -- for the things she didn’t do.

“I wasn’t born first, I wasn’t as pretty as my sister and I wasn’t as girlie as my mom,” she says. “As a kid, I remember my mom and sister walking ahead of me holding hands and I’d be by myself trailing behind.”

Lisa’s story is familiar in black-sheep flocks. Although you’re not necessarily doomed if you have an older, highly thought of sibling, you are more susceptible to being the black sheep if you’re born into a family where the bar is set sky-high.

Such is the plight of Jack Davidson (not his real name for reasons similar to Lisa’s). He’s the middle of three children and describes the oldest as perfect.

“My parents thought the sun rose and set around my sister,” he laments. “They still do.”

Jack doesn’t blame Miss Goodie-Two-Shoes for his un-desirable behaviour, however. He blames it on the fact that as a kid growing up in the 1950s, he was running around like a lunatic with undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder. Despite spending most of his early adulthood in and out of trouble with the police, Jack turned out to be a productive, law-abiding citizen. Still, he holds the title of black sheep of the family to this day.

Some people wind up with the black-sheep status for a mish-mash of small infractions rather than one terrible deed or trait. Tanya Evans, a single mother of two, says as the youngest of five, and with seven years separating her and the next sibling, the age difference alone sets her apart from the rest of the family. She also feels that physically she doesn’t live up to her mother’s ideals. Plus, she challenged her parents at every turn.

“My parents believed in the whole virginity-until-marriage thing. I was the first of the kids to live with a guy before marriage — when my mother found out, she was sick in bed for five days.”

Being branded a black sheep, or Identified Person, to use con-temporary psycho-lingo, involves not living up to some expected value, says Dr. Eliana Cohen, a psychologist with a practice in Toronto’s Yorkville area.

“It may be as simple as a mother thinking all her girls are pretty except one, so that child is a perceived failure.”

Or it may be as simple as being lousy at sports in an athletic family. Or being a dreamer in a family of doers. Or being the middle-born or the wrong sex. Studies show that the favourite is less likely to be the middle child and more likely to be the only girl or the only boy. It may even be as simple as being a colicky baby. Infants labelled as difficult often maintain the reputation long after

the condition passes.

“Assigning roles to family members is a natural process and that’s how you end up with the difficult one, the impulsive one, the crazy one, the responsible one and so on,” Cohen says. “There may be just a grain of truth to it but because the family hangs on to that role, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

While most people buy into the notion that if you tell little Johnny he is bad, he is more likely to turn out bad, the theory doesn’t account for why so many black sheep who clean up their act later in life are still saddled with the stigma.

“Families are very rigid. Like any group, they resist change and like to stay with the status quo,” Cohen says. On a more sinister note, it doesn’t help that siblings usually benefit from the black sheep’s situation. “If one sibling is getting all the negative attention, it means the others are getting less negative attention at worst, and positive attention at best,” she says.

Laurence Basirico, the author of The Family Reunion Survival Guide (2003), offers a different spin. In some families, he says, siblings actually vie for the position of black sheep. “A negative identity is better than no identity. If you draw attention to yourself by being bad, it makes you the centre of attention.”

He agrees with Cohen that it is difficult for families to change, and that’s why black sheep often feel pigeonholed at family events.

“People have an image of you in their mind that goes way back, maybe to childhood, and they want you to be that person, to be the same.”

After serving almost 20 years for two counts of second-degree murder (the murders weren’t premeditated), Terry Colbourne was released to a halfway house in Southern Ontario a year ago. The day I interviewed him he was celebrating his first anniversary of freedom. He will be on parole for the rest of his life. Despite his crimes, Terry is in contact with his sisters and speaks to his father several times a week. Four months ago, he wanted to attend his mother’s funeral. Although the extended family knew that his mother had stuck by him through everything, an aunt who had testified against him at his trial let it be known to all of the relatives that she was attending and Terry was not welcome.

“I didn’t want to risk a scene or anything that would disrespect my mom,” he says. He didn’t attend.

Conversely, Lisa recently attended a funeral and no one, including her mother, acknowledged her.

“I don’t understand why I’m treated this way. Is there some-thing wrong with me?”

Take heart, poor lamb. Cohen and other experts agree that sometimes there is nothing wrong with the black sheep. It’s the family that’s pathological.

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