When a detective following the husband notices the dimming lamp, the woman is flooded with relief to think that her perception of reality is trustworthy after all.

The Family Traitor

Families who want to present an image of perfection often demand that family members keep all family sins a secret. Secrecy shackles people in their search for wholeness. When they ask for greater honesty from their families, even when the affirmation that their sadness or anger over these patterns is legitimate, other family members deny the problem and refuse to discuss the issues. The one who wants to talk about the underlying truth is often branded a traitor.

A graduate student studying to become a psychologist told me of a holiday trip to see her family. She wanted to talk to them about some painful family patterns that she was struggling to deal with. Afterward she was confident that she had not been disrespectful or provocative, yet her family’s vitriolic denial of the problems stunned her. Her family—well respected and admired in their church and community—refused to entertain any such discussion.  

In some families the layers of deception run so deep that there are multiple versions of the “truth” and even siblings can’t agree about what is true. I have consulted with two couples who found themselves dealing with children and/or grandchildren who accused the husband of sexual abuse.  In both cases the children spoke quite convincingly of recovered memories of the abuse.

The men maintained equally convincingly that it had never happened. Each of the men insisted that their accusers had False Memory Syndrome, a phenomenon in which memories are fabricated in the mind of a suggestible subject.

In one case the evidence of abuse became so overwhelming that even the man’s wife was convinced he was lying. In the other case it never was clear what was the lie and what was the truth.

I have worked with clients whose families essentially cast them out because they called attention to hidden patterns of family sin. When they expose the family’s problems, the identifiers are brought to psychotherapy as the troublemaker of the family. Like the ancient practice of laying sin onto the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:6-10, Leviticus 16:20-22), the family projects its pathology onto the one who refuses to act like everything is fine.

These scapegoated individuals long for an honest acknowledgment that their anger at their family is justified. The longer the family withholds the acknowledgment, the longer the traitor’s banishment continues.  If the family can rally and honestly own the legitimacy of the criticism, the family’s unity can be restored.  

Whether or not the family acknowledges its patterns of sin, a person searching for paths of righteousness must face and name those generational sins in order to keep from passing them on to the next generation. Sara Groves has a wonderful song about this simple but profound concept. In her song “Generations” she sings:

Remind me of this with every decision

Generations will reap what I sow
I can pass on a curse or a blessing
To those I will never know

Speaking the painful truth is one of the greatest gifts one generation can give to the next. Sin denied breeds corruption from within. Sin confessed can be exorcised.

Published April 27, 2009

Taken from Signature Sins by Michael Mangis. Copyright(c) 2008 by Michael Mangis. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.


Michael Mangis is a professor of psychology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. A praciticing psychologist, he is the cofounder of the Center for Rural Psychology, Elburn, Illinois.