An Angel in the House;
The title is a take-off of sorts on Virginia Wolfe's essay "A Room of Her Own," wherein Wolfe mentions her personal battle to slay her inner desire (or perhaps only her internalized societal training) to be the age's conception of a perfect woman -- the self-effacing, personality-less wife/mother who is the "angel in the house."
It isn't easy to be "different." As a child, you get openly ridiculed. Fingers are pointed at you; you stand alone in the playground. The small groups of giggling little girls pass you by with nervous, sidelong glances and snide, slyly muttered commentary you're supposed to just barely hear. There is no place for you in their little covey. Boys ignore you completely, or target you for taunting verbal attacks while circling just within reach -- but always in groups that are too large to tangle with. With actions like these, a constant pressure is maintained: to conform, to fill your societally assigned role and to be like everyone else -- a good sheep.
I've never been a good sheep -- I've never "belonged" well. It is perhaps that I am so bad at conforming that I chose, as a child, to deliberately flaunt the established herd. True, I wished (desperately, on occasion) to "fit in.". But some small voice inside me knew the truth -- I'd never get it right. I'd always be either the one on the outside, or I'd have to pick on outsiders to show I belonged. I couldn't do it. Okay, I thought, if I was destined to be the black sheep, I might as well glory in it. So I killed my inner demon that desired to be a good sheep, just like everyone else -- I deliberately, messily, and savagely slaughtered it, and whenever it raised its insecure, unhappy little head, I ruthlessly hammered it back down. I was different; I did not belong, and I was, however initially unhappily, proud of it.
As an adult, I seem to have maintained this inability to bond well with groups. I did not fit into "normal" groups, like structured sports or charity groups. I was into medieval recreationist martial arts and role-playing games. Both of these hobbies were not really what one would call the usual type of hobby; as a single example, I was frequently the only female there. It didn't matter to me -- I enjoyed them immensely, and they were social groups where even someone as awkward and shy as I could find a place to fit. I did not feel the pressure to belittle someone else in order to be accepted.
I am still today loosely affiliated with the role-playing games industry. This is due to having one of my roommates be a partner in a small role-playing company, and my being a column writer for a small magazine put out by that same company. One of the things I've noticed with this particular company group is its occasional clique-ishness. It's something that's always made me vaguely uncomfortable, and so as a result I've never strongly affiliated my name with the company, and I've maintained my status as a free-lance writer for the gaming industry in general, rather than just for this one little company.
The company is quite small -- it keeps its metaphorical head above water due to many people having a love for the game and being willing to work for either next to nothing, or for free. There is a gaming convention that happens near here on a yearly basis, where many of these volunteers and other associated folks get together, and this is frequently the only time the various members of this group, scattered across the United States, actually get to see each other and play games together. Unfortunately, due to the tight clique-ishness of the group, there is sometimes what is called the "omega wolf" effect -- someone is unofficially designated the scapegoat of the group. Scorn is continuously heaped upon this person's head by everyone in the group, both to his face and behind his back, and everything that goes wrong is blamed on him. This group persecution of the most 'low-ranking' individual is a documented effect in some wolf packs.
In this particular instance the scapegoat was pretty universally derided. If the volunteers for the game company were role-playing in a game, the scapegoat's character was always the butt of malicious, vicious jokes. If they were going to dinner, some effort was expended in making sure this person didn't know about the dinner, so he couldn't go with them. Once at dinner, they would be scornful and openly disdainful of all this person's volunteer efforts for the company.
This sort of thing disturbed me, for a variety of reasons. I know too well what that feels like -- there's no comment open or honest enough that you can point it out as vindictive and undeserved, and tell the speaker to stop picking on you. It's always behind your back, or within "reasonable conversational parameters" -- if you're an insensitive boob. Two, I've never understood why they didn't just tell this person the truth if they dislike him so much, rather than torturing him on a yearly basis. And three, I've always despised groups where one could only gain status by making someone else lose status.
During the con, I ended up having dinner with some friends and new acquaintances. They were all contributors or volunteers for the company, and the scapegoat was not there. While we were eating, the subject of the scapegoat came up. I was somewhat perturbed to hear start up the beginnings of the usual almost unanimous, gleeful trashing of this person. I decided it wasn't worth being considered a "member in good standing" of this group, if it meant I had to remain silent when something I thought was wrong was happening. So I casually mentioned how disturbed I'd feel if people who said they were my friends talked derisively about me behind my back. Immediate silence fell.
Initially everyone seemed somewhat taken aback. Then someone mentioned that the scapegoat had never really bothered him. Someone else qualified her initial derogatory statements about him. The jibing stopped. It was obvious that most of the people there weren't really sure what to say. But the subject of the scapegoat did not arise again during dinner.
In retrospect, I guess I made most of the people there somewhat uncomfortable, and I certainly did not exhibit the proper bonding behavior for the group. But I don't think I care... it made me feel good to get them to consider, just for a moment, what it might feel like to be in that guy's position. I was especially pleased when two of the people at the dinner came up to me later, and told me they thought what I'd done was rather nice.
As I said before, I'm keenly aware of what it feels like to be in the position of "omega wolf" -- to not be part of the herd. It's a horrible, sinking feeling -- to think people are your friends but wonder why sometimes they say things that make you feel uncomfortable, or why they seem to laugh a lot at comments about you, that you poorly understand. Being a child in a foreign country where you don't completely speak the language sets you up perfectly to be a scapegoat... and unfortunately also sets you up perfectly to dish out the same trash you took previously, in a desperate attempt to prevent your being the scapegoat again.
I've been both the scapegoat and the group hanger-on, and I felt vaguely dirty in my attempts to fit in. When trying to be a hanger-on, there was always that obscure feeling that there wasn't really very much different between me and the scapegoat, except that the scapegoat wasn't hurting anyone -- and I was. I tended not to want to pay that price for acceptance. But even when it wasn't me doing it, I always felt a little uncomfortable watching someone get trashed... like there was something I should be doing.
It may seem odd, but I felt better about myself by speaking up last weekend. I realize it does nothing for the people I saw as a child, when I was silent, and may do nothing for the scapegoated gentleman in question. But there's a curiously liberating feeling in suddenly realizing that I don't have to hurt anyone to be liked, and I don't have to put up, in silence, with watching someone else be hurt any more.
Last Updated: Tue, March 28, 2000