Dysfunctional homes are tough places to grow up. They’re chaotic, unpredictable, and scary. Dangerous even. They’re filled with secrets, and they’re confusing and shaming. This atmosphere, created by the alcoholic, the addict, or the abuser and enabled by other family members, often leads children to fill very specific roles that help the family function with a minimum of turmoil and stress. Just which of these roles did little Marty Brandel assume and how do we see them reflected in his adult personality? Let’s take a look.
|Before we get started
This is not an article infused with happiness (although – spoiler alert – it eventually ends pretty well for the hero of the story). I feel it necessary to issue a warning to anyone who might be triggered by discussions of child or domestic partner abuse, alcoholism, or their aftermath.
But before you stop reading, let me add that there are an astounding number of organizations, in the U.S. and other countries, which can help those needing to escape a currently abusive situation or trying to recover from a past one. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a wonderfully thorough list of places where victims and survivors of domestic violence can get help, including resources for children, teens, men, women of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community. In addition, mentalillnessmouse on Tumblr has compiled an equally thorough lists of mental health hotline numbers and on-line resources. If you need help, take a look.
Just a few other disclaimers: Keep in mind that just because children growing up in dysfunctional homes are more likely than others to experience certain outcomes, it doesn’t mean they all will. Every child is unique, with unique experiences that affect them uniquely. Most survivors of dysfunctional families grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults. Also: Some psychobabble, and lots of speculation, ahead.
Adapting to Survive
These masks. See that. I think they’re so interesting. ‘Cause we all wear ’em at some point, don’t you think?
— Deeks to a suspected CIA mole in “Betrayal”
When there is an addict or alcoholic in the family, like there was for young Marty Brandel, the family unit often unconsciously adapts to the substance abusing person. They do so by filling roles that collectively handle uncertainty and allow everyone to function within the atmosphere of chaos and fear created by the substance abuser. Children do whatever they can to reduce their individual stress and to protect other family members (maybe even the one who’s causing the dysfunction). Exactly how they go about this – what role they take on – is influenced by their innate personality, birth order, the degree of family dysfunction, and by other particulars of the family dynamics. Children tend to gravitate to roles that are best suited to their personalities, but they may also be subconsciously “assigned” a role by other family members; in other words, it may be imposed on them.
To make the whole discussion more complicated, children may play a combination of roles, or they may switch from one role to another as the situation changes. An only child in particular may play parts of each role since he has no siblings to share his burden with.
Childhood Coping, Adult Issues
A child playing a role as a coping strategy might not be able to turn it off once the abuser or addict is gone. These early roles can have lasting effects on survivors’ adult personalities, how they perceive themselves and how they relate to others throughout their lives. And while the role (or roles) a child adopts may be suited to their innate personality, it can be a distorted version. This can lead to long term emotional problems, relationship issues, and even problems with drug addiction and/or alcoholism. Roles assigned by the abuser can lead to guilt and other hurtful emotions. As adults, these survivors can become addicted to unhealthy people, behaviors, or even to chaos itself.
Although each family is different, the general characteristics of dysfunctional families tend to encourage a very specific set of roles, roles that experts see so often they’ve actually named them. Of course, this is psychology, not physics, so there isn’t full consensus on the exact roles. Some experts describe four, some five. Some identify slightly different patterns of behavior, resulting in slightly different sets of roles. Here’s a closer look at the roles I found most frequently identified in alcoholic families. Just where do you see Deeks appear?
The Lost Child, AKA The Loner, The Adjusting Child, The Isolator
The Lost Child escapes the dysfunction of the household by withdrawing. He denies his feelings and may disappear into his room and seek out fantasy worlds through daydreaming or video games, or maybe find friends outside the house to escape with. He is quiet and shy, and deals with reality by attempting to be invisible. He may be looked at as a Good Boy (see Hero below) because much of his time is spent alone with books, staying out of trouble.
As adults, Lost Children continue to deny their feelings of sadness and anger. They are afraid of making decisions, so they lack direction. They can grow up with extreme social phobias- a strong fear of people and places, and of intimacy. They only way they know to be safe from being hurt is through social isolation. Unable to set boundaries, they may exhibit codependent behavior. They may even suffer from irrational thoughts and can be emotionally unstable.
I don’t see Deeks as a Lost Child. He doesn’t seem to have the quiet personality or the adult manifestations (except maybe for a fear of intimacy). I know he withdrew from the world post-Sidorov, but that was a special situation (stay tuned for an upcoming post on PTSD).
The Hero, AKA The Perfect Child, The Responsible Child, The Good Boy
Usually the oldest child, the Hero is an overachiever. He excels in school or athletics and doesn’t cause trouble. He seeks approval by being overly polite and following the rules. The Hero works hard in order to draw attention away from the substance abuser, and in the hopes that his accomplishments will make the family seem normal, possibly even prompting the user to stop using. He gives the family self-worth because he looks good to others, proving the parents are good parents and good people.
Heroes may be overachievers, but they usually have an inferiority complex, suffering from painful feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and guilt, as nothing they do is good enough to heal the family’s pain. As adults they’re extremely judgmental of themselves and others. They tend to be inflexible perfectionists with control issues. They fear mistakes but are unwilling to ask for help. Their compulsive drive to succeed may lead to stress-related illness or compulsive over-working. This drive comes from a need to quell those feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and isolation that leave them unable to express their true feelings or experience intimate relationships.
Might little Marty Brandel have played the Hero role? He could have been a star musician, playing his violin for the school orchestra, and maybe his rebel days as a rock star didn’t happen until his dad was out of the picture. As an adult, we know Deeks has had trouble communicating about what he really means, and he certainly has worked hard to get where he is today. But I’m not sure this role is overall a good fit for him. He is not a controlling perfectionist, but rather the opposite. Not to give things away, but there’s another role that’s almost the opposite of the Hero where I see him fitting in better.
The Caretaker, AKA The Enabler, The Placater
The Caretaker takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family, taking over a parental role at a very young age. He has an intense desire to fix problems and worries the household will fall apart without his help. He may be emotionally attached to the addict or alcoholic and may shield them from the consequences of their behaviour to protect them but also to prevent embarrassment, reduce anxiety, avoid conflict, or maintain a sense of control. He also takes care of other family members, becoming a surrogate spouse or confidante. His helpfulness and nurturing qualities help keep the family together, but his own needs are never met, forcing him to become extremely self-sufficient. Often the role of Caretaker is intermingled with the description of the Hero.
As adults, Caretakers are valued for their kind heart, generosity, and ability to listen to others. Their sense of self revolves so much around others that they don’t know how to get their own needs met. They become adults who cannot receive love, only give it. They may be anxious and conflict avoidant. They have a strong need for acceptance and a high tolerance for inappropriate behaviour and may become involved in abusive relationships in an attempt to “save” the other person. They may go into the helping professions and become nurses, social workers, or therapists.
I apologize even when it’s not my fault, typical male-female dynamic.
— Deeks answering Kensi’s survey question about how they settle conflicts in “Wanted”
Was little Marty a Caretaker? Watching him with his mother in “Internal Affairs,” it’s easy to imagine that she would have put him in that position, leaning on him for support. It’s harder for me to imagine him enabling or caring for his father, for we’ve never heard him talk about his dad with anything other than disappointment and contempt. Even though the word “Hero” sounds like an action-oriented role like the one Marty assumed when he shot his dad, that action might have come more from a place of Caretaking, with Marty taking care of his mom by protecting her.
I do see Deeks as being incredibly kind, always thinking of others’ needs before his own (particularly Kensi’s). Just look at him worrying about Detective Versey’s sobriety in “Personal.” He’s also pretty conflict averse, waiting three plus years to confront Sam over his derisive attitude, and putting up with a lot of control issues from Kensi (plus The Punch) without really confronting her.
The Scapegoat, AKA The Rebel, The Acting Out Child
Last time I saw you this nervous was when those cops pinched us in that stolen Camaro.
— Deeks to Ray in “Plan B”
The Scapegoat is a “bad boy” who acts out the pain of the household. He may have problems in school, with drugs or alcohol, or with the law. Promiscuous sexuality or involvement in gangs may lead him to be labeled the family’s problem, drawing attention- both inside and outside the family- away from the substance abusing parent. The Scapegoat is always messing up. One source poetically describes him getting into a lot of external trouble over internal pain. He has a great deal of anger and self-hatred and can be cynical, mean, or violent against others or himself. His defiant acting out is often identified by both parents as the cause of the family’s problems; he’s blamed for the tension in the household. The family may feel ashamed of him, but he’s the most emotionally honest child, and usually the most sensitive and caring, in the family.
You weren’t much of a surprise either, Detective Deeks. The HL7 predicted you’d turn on the LAPD eventually. Authority issues, your talent for manipulation. A fixation for revenge for that one time…
— Dr. Rathburn to Deeks in “Citadel”
As adults, Scapegoats can continue to exhibit defiant, rebellious and self-destructive behavior and inappropriate expressions of anger. They may be irresponsible, with an inability to follow directions. Their poor performance in school can affect later employment opportunities. They may develop social skills and the ability to manipulate, but the relationships they experience tend to be shallow and inauthentic.
I see the Hero and Scapegoat roles almost as opposites, with the Hero following the rules and the Scapegoat breaking them. And I see Deeks as more the latter than the former. We know he got into at least some trouble as a juvenile (ice cream and beer drinking in 7th grade, a joy ride in a stolen Camaro with Ray). As an adult, we also see him being quite willing to take on authority, making cheeky comments to Bates, Hetty and Granger (not to mention standing up to his LAPD ex-partner Boyle). Before he shot his father, was little Marty also a bit of a troublemaker? I see that as slightly more likely than him always excelling, following the rules, and playing the role of Hero.
Deeks: …Going undercover’s the best part of our job. I mean, you get to be somebody you’re not.
Sam: For you, that’s an improvement.
Kensi: And also you like to lie.
Deeks: What? No! I thought we were picking on Sam. And secondly, it’s not lying. It’s, uh, truth reimagined for the higher good.
— Team banter in “Rocket Man”
Deeks seems to share quite a few of the adult manifestations of the Scapegoat. He is extremely skilled at the Scapegoat’s manipulation and prone to his inappropriate expressions of anger. One of the best examples of his ability to manipulate was the way he talked to Kensi in the lead-up to “Internal Affairs,” answering her questions with shades of the truth and leaving her with just enough information to encourage her to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As for inappropriate expressions of anger, do I need to say more than torture and possible murder? We’ve seen many such instances, from the end of “Human Traffic” where he nearly shoots Scarli, to “Deep Trouble Part 2” where he hurts a suspect to try to get him to talk. Could his playing the angry Scapegoat as a child have made it that much easier to play cynical, mean, and violent Max Gentry as an adult? Or was Max really more like his “alter ego,” evolving out of Marty’s Scapegoat behavior into a true part of his personality?
Then there’s the adult Scapegoat’s shallow and inauthentic relationships. It seems pretty clear that “Party Marty” had a long string of short-lived relationships (his “pre-emptive break-ups”) before he came to work at NCIS, and even for quite some time after. It wasn’t until he fell in love with Kensi, and finally pushed through his insecurities and communication difficulties, that he managed a meaningful, intimate relationship.
The Mascot, AKA The Clown
The Mascot uses humor as a way to escape the pain of the problems caused by addiction. He jokes to ease his own pain, to hide it, and to distract others from theirs. He may be the class clown or suffer from hyperactivity; his frenzied behavior is often a defense against intense inner anxiety and tension. He tends to be extremely immature and insecure. Picture many of the comedians you have known.
Wilson: I refuse to die.
Deeks: I refuse to grow up. Actually, that’s working out pretty well for me.
— Deeks interrogating a suspect in “Deep Trouble Pt. 2”
Mascots are usually kind and good hearted, showing remarkable empathy, creativity and resilience. But they never seem to grow up, with immature patterns of behavior persisting into adulthood. Their anxiety and fear of looking honestly at their feelings or behavior keeps them out of touch with those inner feelings. Rather than deal with problems, they may run away from them by changing the subject or clowning.
I will try to take things more seriously.
— Deeks to Kensi in “Empty Quiver”
As adults, Mascots can continue to be attention seekers. They may avoid serious behavior and continue using jokes to cope with stress. This joking behavior means they are often not taken seriously or are subjected to rejection and criticism. They can be easily distracted and have poor decision making abilities. Their inability to cope with inner fear and tension can lead Mascots to believe they are going crazy. They can experience mental illness, become chemically dependent, or even die by suicide.
I have a tendency of using comedy to defuse tension…
— Deeks to Kensi in “Sans Voir, Pt. 1”
If you didn’t read this description of the Mascot and immediately see Deeks, I want to hear about it in the Comments. To me, this role has to be the main one he played as a child. We’ve never heard him describe his childhood self in those terms, but he has described his adult self this way. We see him making jokes to deal with tense situations every single week. He’s also not averse to making a joke rather than talking about his feelings. Just look at his trouble communicating with Kensi. I even wonder if his predilection for zany New Age beliefs (horoscopes, the Mayan apocalypse), which never felt like a good fit with his intelligence, achievement, and down to earth nature, might actually be less his real beliefs and more just another way to entertain others.
Sam: Everything you do is different… The way you dress, your jokes, your hair.
Deeks: If this is about my haircut, it needs to end.
Sam: It’s not about your hair. It’s about what it says about you as a person.
Deeks: So you’re saying it’s about my character?
Sam: Yeah, something like that.
— Sam and Deeks finally have it out over chess in “Descent”
We also see how his use of humor is misinterpreted by Sam- and maybe Callen- as a character flaw, as a reason not to take him seriously but instead to mock him. I see Deeks as a big kid, one who until relatively recently seemed not to know how to behave or communicate like a grown-up.
As already mentioned, Deeks is incredibly kind and empathetic, especially when it comes to children or women in trouble. I also see him as very creative- just look at how he adapts while undercover. And like the rest of the team, he’s extremely resilient. Happily other than his bout with PTSD, he doesn’t seem to have fallen into the substance abuse or mental illness than can befall a Mascot.
Additional Roles for Abusive Households
The roles described above come largely from discussions about households affected by addiction. There were fewer such discussions specifically about abusive households, but in general they featured the same roles. For example, in a household with domestic violence, the Hero tries to lessen the abuse by excelling in school or sports. The Scapegoat’s bad behavior may be used to justify violence. The Caretaker may act to keep younger siblings safe during a violent incident. Then there are other roles unique to households affected by violence, such as the Abuser’s Confidant. He is treated better by the abuser, who confides his justifications for abuse against the other parent. There’s also the Victim’s Confidant, who is privy to the abused parent’s feelings, concerns, and plans. And there’s the awful role of the Abuser’s Assistant, the child who is forced to assist in the abuse in some way, as well as the Referee, the child who mediates and tries to keep the peace.
Of these additional roles, I could imagine little Marty acting as the Victim’s Confidant, comforting his mother as part of the Caretaker role. He might also have tried to be a Referee. Perhaps that’s what helped empower him to take matters into his own hands and shoot his dad. Keeping the peace doesn’t seem all that different from the role a police officer plays, so perhaps this early role played into his eventual choice of profession.
A Depressing Exercise
This exercise felt a little like guessing someone’s astrological sign, only it was way more depressing. Still it’s kinda the point of this whole series. I have to say it’s lent a slightly bittersweet quality to watching Deeks using his trademark “humor to defuse tension” Mascot skills. Of course this has also been a pretty subjective exercise, so I’m sure others will have different interpretations. Let us know yours in the Comments!
Tomorrow, come back for a special fan fic from Divergent338 AKA Hannah, who is exploring this topic in her own unique way.
Then in our next installment, we’ll move from Roles to Rules, and talk about the rules that dysfunctional families impose on their members. How was Marty Brandel affected by the rules to not talk, not feel, and not trust?
Want to Read More?
In the meantime, here are a few more resources:
- Go back to the previous post in this series, The Crappy Childhood Contest
- The Watershed Addiction Treatment Program has a typical listing of roles in homes with addiction.
- The Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System covered the roles in abusive households in their publication What About Me! Seeking to Understand the Child’s View of Violence in the Family
- If you’d like to know how to help those who need it, check out The Pixel Project’s “16 Ways to Stop Domestic Violence in Your Community.”
- The HelpGuide has a great overview of child abuse and neglect.
A huge Thank You to my fellow wikiDeeks collaborator Brenda for her assistance with research and editing of this article. Brenda is a nurse practitioner with more than 25 years of experience in caring for individuals experiencing significant trauma, and a PhD student whose research focuses on communication, conflict and ethics in human interactions. I’m very grateful for her input and review of this series.
And thanks to Hannah for her own special contributions, with a fan fic inspired by these analytical articles, designed to illustrate the topic in a very different way. I’m so happy to have her partnership on this series.