Family Outcast: How to Tell If You Are the Black Sheep
Black Sheep: Different From the Rest of the Flock
Woe is the lowly black sheep of the family. He is maligned, misunderstood, and marginalized.
He may also be more creative, sensitive, or risk-seeking than the rest of the family. His lifestyle and values may set him apart, and he may face personal struggles that others do not. But try as he may, he just doesn't blend in.
A convenient focus of family gossip, the black sheep often sparks debate among the rest of the flock:
- Shall we include him in family gatherings?
- Will he finally mend his ways?
- How can we manage him?
Who is the Black Sheep in your family?
The Origin of the Term
The negative sense of the term "black sheep" refers to the culling of lambs with darker, undesirable coat colors: grey, brown, and particularly black.1 Non-white wool has traditionally been viewed as less commercially valuable because it cannot be dyed.
In sheep, white fleece is the expression of a dominant gene, rather than albinism.2 Thus, in most breeds, black lambs are rare; they require that both parents carry the recessive gene. Dark wool is so undesirable that scientists are working to develop a genetic test to identify carriers of the gene for black coats.3
Oh, the Yarns We Spin About the Black Sheep!
You Might Be a Black Sheep If...
Can you say "yes" to several of the following?
Do you have a history of ...
- criminal conduct & run-ins with law enforcement
- substance abuse
- financial problems
- gambling or other addictions
- mental illness
- unstable relationships
- ongoing conflicts with multiple relatives
- long periods of unemployment
Do you differ significantly from the rest of your family in ...
- values or lifestyle
- professional/educational attainment
- religious, philosophical and personal values
- political affiliation
Remember: They're not bad by nature, they're just different.
Every Family Has One
In many cultures, the term "black sheep" has come to mean the outcast, the disreputable or undesirable member of the group, especially a family.
Within human groups, the so-called black sheep often acquires his or her low status from one or two leaders who determine the unspoken values and rules for a family or group.4
Resigned to their status as the odd one out, many wear the label proudly and distance themselves from the group that devalues them.
The "Black Sheep Effect" refers to the psychological phenomenon in which members of a group judge fellow group members more critically than they do those who fall outside the group. Thus, a disliked group member is judged more harshly.5 For example, you'd be more tolerant of your flower child Aunt Suzie if she weren't related to you. We want group members to fit in because their behavior reflects upon our own identity, and family members who don't conform attract negative attention.
When wayward members don't comply with unspoken rules, there can be hell to pay: scorn, ridicule, and alienation are often attempts to bring the noncompliant member back in line with the group's dominant values.
Not B-a-a-a-a-d, But Different
These are the rebels, outcasts, and square pegs in a round-holed world.
Rare is the family that does not have one. From pop stars to presidents to television preachers, even the so-called best must contend with a wayward lamb in the mix.
Here are few examples to remind us that no family is perfect, no matter how famous or rich:
Alice Roosevelt - Alice was the eccentric oldest child of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. She smoked, partied until late at night, and kept a pet snake. (Go, Alice!) Once married, she had numerous affairs and a love child with a senator. Her exasperated father once remarked, "I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both."6
Al Gore III - The son of U.S. Vice President Al Gore underwent drug treatment in 2007 after he was pulled over in his Toyota Prius going 100 mph. The young man pled guilty to possession of marijuana and a variety of medications for which he did not have a prescription: Xanax, Valium, Vicodin, and Adderall.7
Billy Carter - The younger brother of U.S. President Jimmy Carter was known as a "country philosopher" who loved the spotlight.8 His outlandish public behavior embarrassed the White House. Billy once urinated on an airport runway in full view of the press corps and dignitaries. He also attempted to take advantage of his name by endorsing a beer called "Billy Beer" and appearing on late night talk shows. The President publicly distanced himself from his brother after Billy made anti-semitic comments and accepted an ethically questionable $220,000 "loan" from Libya to facilitate oil sales.
Alison Carey - Alison, the older sister of pop diva Mariah Carey, is a recovering drug addict and former prostitute who contracted HIV in the mix.9 She once threatened to write a tell-all book about her famous sister and remains estranged from the superstar.
Vince Capone - How can you embarrass a crime family? Apparently, by playing it super straight. The oldest brother of mafia godfather Al Capone tried hard to disown his Italian crime family identity.10 Vince moved to Nebraska, changed his name, and lost the Brooklyn accent. During the era of prohibition that made Al Capone notorious and wealthy, Vince served as a successful federal prohibition agent, working to shut down illegal distilleries. His service on the right side of the law humiliated his mobster brother.
Noelle Bush - The niece of U.S. President George W. Bush (and daughter of former governor Jeb Bush) was jailed for prescription fraud after she attempted to illegally acquire Xanax. Noelle was ordered by the court to undergo drug rehabilitation, but she violated the terms of the court order when crack cocaine was found in her shoe during drug treatment.
Randy Potts - The grandson of evangelical preacher Oral Roberts is openly gay and seeks to reverse part of the family legacy of intolerance.11 When Randy came out as gay, his parents changed the locks. He was also denied admittance to his grandmother's graveside funeral service. Oral Roberts' eldest son, Ronnie, was also gay but committed suicide in 1982.
How to Cope If You Are the Black Sheep
Suffering the scorn and alienation can certainly take its toll, if you let it. If you struggle with fitting in, here are some tips on flourishing, regardless of the hue of your wool coat.12
- Don't Justify Yourself or Your Choices - A responsible adult does not need to answer to family members for his or her values, lifestyle, political views, or choice of life partners. If you are hurting yourself and others with addictions or abuse, listen to reasonable concerns of your family. Ultimately, however, you must own your behavior and choices.
- Realize Their Intent - When family members overstep their bounds and offer unwanted advice or assistance, consider that their intent may simply be to help you. They may be misguided in their efforts, but their hearts may be in the right place. Respectfully decline their advice and move on.
- Tolerate Other Family Members' Choices - Tolerance goes both ways. Don't seek to change the minds or habits of your family members. You're highly unlikely to change others' deeply held beliefs, anyway. Allow other responsible adults to make their own choices, even if those choices are different from yours.
- Demand Respect - Family members do not have a right to treat you rudely. Even though you are outnumbered, stand up to sarcastic comments, mean jokes at your expense, and eye rolls cast in your direction. Address such behavior in a timely and level-headed manner. Let the offender know their actions are inappropriate and disrespectful. Be consistent, specific, and to the point. Then move on.
- Seek Support - It can be exhausting to have to constantly be on guard among family, standing up for yourself, and trying to fit it. Seek out others who celebrate and accept you the way you are. Rely on them for support.
- Enjoy the Wool Coat You're In - Accept your flaws as part of life's journey, and appreciate the characteristics that make you unique. Learn to accept and value yourself. Don't let family members' criticism create in you an inner voice of ridicule and self-doubt.
♥ "After all, the wool of a black sheep is just as warm." - Ernest Lehman, American screenwriter
♥ "The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never even introduce yourself to, had life not done it for you." - Kendall Hailey, American writer
♥ "Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements." - Queen Elizabeth II, British monarch
♥ "We are all searching for some form of family or foundation— for a place we can feel safe and secure." - Jena Malone, American actress
♥ "Absence is one of the most useful ingredients of family life, and to dose it rightly is an art like any other." - Freya Stark, British explorer
The Black Sheep of My Family
With eleven aunts and uncles and more cousins than I can count, my extended family offers up a number of strong candidates for black sheep of the family. However, they all pale in comparison to our dear old Uncle Amos.
You may imagine that being named Amos — meaning "encumbered, burdened one" — set him up for a life of trouble and turmoil. Ever the optimist, my uncle would tell you that he has far surpassed all early forecasts.
Presidential Bids, Mission Trips, and a Secret Chili Recipe
Depending on how he's feeling, Amos may recruit you to join him in his latest bid for the White House. You could even end up in his cabinet, like me.
Amos might regale you with memories of his friendship with author Pearl S. Buck. Although the memory can be a tricky thing, my uncle recalls clearly that he and Pearl organized Christian mission trips to spread God's good news to the people of Afghanistan.
Amos may also describe the autobiography he's been writing for the last 20 years. It details his escapades as Ronald Reagan's personal attorney. He recently introduced himself to everyone at a family wedding as Reagan's attorney and left quite an impression.
Or, he may awe you with his account of the secret chili recipe that he gave away to a lucky entrepreneur. It is now worth millions. In a matter of minutes, Amos could curse the current government, tell a dead baby joke, weep inconsolably, and uplift you in prayer.
Pulling the Wool Over Your Eyes?
You may think Amos is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. But that's the thing about black sheep: they are often maligned and misunderstood.
A Midnight Run Through the Briar Patch
At times, the weight of a wool coat you're born with can grow mighty heavy.
Recently, Amos feared that the Republicans were after him and meant him great bodily harm. He fled home to safety. Not believing him, his immediate family left him alone while they went out to dinner. (White sheep will do that, after all.)
Amos sensed the Republicans gaining ground on him. He sped away, running over a neighbor's mailbox in the process. Later, after dark, his car stalled out in a farmer's rain-soaked soy bean field.
Police discovered Amos' abandoned vehicle in the farmer's field, along with his shoes, cell phone, and every stitch of clothes he had been wearing. The police dogs later tracked him down near a swamp. Naked, Amos had been rolling in a briar patch in order to hide from searchers' flashlights and avoid any bullets the Republicans might still send his way. As a result of his midnight run through the briar patch, Amos spent some extra time in the shed to recuperate.
It's a White Sheep World: Trying to Fit In Is Exhausting
Be honest. How do YOU treat the Black Sheep of your family?
The Dead Cat and the Bank Teller
Amos realizes he wears a wool coat of a different color, and he chooses to have fun with it when the mood strikes him.
An animal lover, he owned an elderly cat he adored. With his cat tucked safely in the back seat of his car, Amos pulled through the drive-thru lane of his local bank one hot July day. The bank teller peered through the window and smiled.
Amos had wrapped the kitty in baby blankets and nestled it in a handheld baby carrier that his wife had bought at a garage sale. The bank teller cooed, "Aww, look at your kitty. She's so pretty, just laying there. I could never get mine to lay still like that. How do you do it?"
Amos grinned, "She's been dead for two days. We don't have the heart to bury her just yet, but we'll get around to it soon!"
Amos knows how to leave an impression.
Ten Feet Tall and Growing
It is true that Amos can be unpredictable and difficult to control. He may be minimally compliant with medical or any other advice. His memory is not entirely reliable. He is more than eccentric.
However, he has come to embrace his outcast status. His favorite expression when he is feeling great is that he is "ten feet tall and growing." Granted, he may share that with his larger-than-life stories.
The Truth About Amos (or the Best We Can Figure)
Many of his accounts evolve over time, but the family has come to know which ones are legend and which ones are just stories.
- We know that he did conspire to "steal" my grandfather from a retirement facility that was making Grandpa miserable. Pretending to visit, he wheeled Grandpa right out to the parking lot, and together they took off out-of-state.
- Amos did run for state political office. The family thought it was mere bluster until we saw Amos' name on local television election returns with 2% of the vote. Jaws dropped, including mine.
- When Amos was hospitalized for cancer, he so desperately wanted a good cup of coffee that he walked across the street to the Hardee's restaurant in his hospital gown and slippers. Police came and helped him back to his room. You have to admire someone who goes after what they want.
- A self-ordained preacher, Amos ministers to prisoners and others who are down on their luck. Although I cannot vouch that Prince Charles personally funds his ministry, as Amos claims, Amos does have a tremendous verbal gift in front of audiences both large and small. Persuasive and dramatic, he loves an audience. He would be even more convincing if he had more teeth, but you cannot have everything.
The Value of the Lamb Underneath
Whatever the hue of a family member's wool coat, it is important to welcome them as a part of the flock, regardless of their tendency to stray.
More important is the need to value the lamb underneath. When coats are shorn, we are after all more similar than different — linked by the bonds of kinship. Like it or not.
Readers: Weigh In
Share your family's story in the comments section below.
1Adams, Kelley. "Eco Friendly Fibers." Slowyarn.com. Accessed July 23, 2013.
2Wikipedia. "Black sheep." Last modified May 13, 2013.
3Science Daily. "Scientists Identify Genetic Basis for the Black Sheep of the Family." Last modified July 11, 2008.
4Kaufman, Margo. "There's a Black Sheep In Every Family Fold." New York Times. Last modified November 23, 1988.
5Sage Knowledge. "Black Sheep Effect." Accessed July 23, 2013.
6Barham, Marcus. "Black Sheep -- Famous for Embarrassing Their Famous Families." ABC News. Last modified July 6, 2007.
7Flaccus, Gillian. "Gore's Son Pleads Guilty in Drug Case." Washington Post. Last modified July 30, 2007.
8Weird Worm. "Blacksheep: The Mortifying Siblings Of 7 Famous People." Accessed July 23, 2013.
9The Independent. "Black sheep! Even the best families have one." Last modified July 26, 2009.
10Kerby, Rob. "10 of History’s Most Famous Black Sheep." Inspiration, Spirituality, Faith – Beliefnet.com. Accessed July 23, 2013.
11Miles, Jonathan. "The Amazing Story of the Televangelist and his Gay Grandson." Details. Last modified February, 2012.
12Thea. "How to Survive Being the Black Sheep of the Family." Write Change Grow. Accessed July 23, 2013.
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