Some things in life are fair. Life does not distinguish between so-called good families or so-called broken families, between rich or poor, educated or uneducated, first world or third world when it comes to the black sheep or wayward soul.

Black sheep are as prevalent in families in South Africa as they are in families in America or China or anywhere else on the planet. The reason for this is because the black sheep is the mirror of what is going on in the family, as Johannesburg-based registered psychologist and director of Houghton House, Dan Wolf explains:

“In psychological terms, the black sheep is often referred to as the ‘identified patient’ because this is the person in the family who is manifesting the symptoms of the issues in the family, which is why I am often quite fond of the black sheep.

“By ‘acting out’ or behaving in an anti-social or anti-status quo manner, the black sheep is screaming out that there is a problem in the family, whereas everyone else in the family is maintaining the ruse of normality and functionality.”

Anti-social behaviour is classified in many ways: from radical political or religious behaviour to addictive or alternative sexual behaviour (such as orgies and S&M) to excessive tattooing to drug and alcohol abuse to good old individualism to a combination of the above and more.

“In all families, each member plays a different role. One might be the black sheep, another the ‘parentified child’ who adopts the parent role with the consequence that they don’t have a childhood,” adds Wolf. “Both are acting out but one is acting out in a more socially acceptable way; both are signs of a dysfunctional family, which is no shame because the definition of a dysfunctional family is ‘any family with more than two people’.”

Black sheep are often labeled as different, quirky or creative because individualism is often the trigger of black sheep behaviour.

While individualism or rebelliousness is admired and envied in movie or music stars, some of whom like Angelina Jolie and Madonna rose to fame as black sheep, the syndrome is not as readily embraced by everyday society.

Society derives its comfort from the flock: from similarity and the status quo. If you are different you are potentially threatening, and you risk becoming an outsider. Some black sheep cope well on the outside while others feel extremely vulnerable and easily fall prey to destructive influences and people.

Celebrated South African artist Walter Meyer describes the no-man’s land of the black sheep as “the edge of town where no one fixes their fences or mows their lawns”. The edge of town is a place of psychological and physical dereliction and fallibility, far from the comforts of the flock.

Many black sheep are talented, but as many never achieve anything. While society tolerates waywardness in the young, anyone over 30 who is wayward but who is neither famous nor able to support themselves, risks being labeled pathetic.

Dr Phil, television’s voice of psychological authority, has been pretty strict with some adult black sheep on his show. Addressing a 30-something drug-dealing black sheep, he said: “”You’re nice looking, you’re intelligent, you’re articulate. You’ve got a lot of skills and abilities that you can build on, but the first step is to build an accountability system around you where you cannot go back to doing what you’re doing unless you want to go to jail. You can’t do it by willpower. You’ve got to set up accountability with your family, your brother, your friends.”

He was less tolerant about a black sheep who considered himself too artistic to hold down a job. When his flat mate evicted him for not paying his bills, he went to live in the woods. A rabid skunk bit him here and he had to return to society to seek medical attention, which was paid for by his parents. Dr Phil pointed out that he had rejected society and his family, only to run back to them to save him. He told him to get a job and start taking responsibility for himself.

“The black sheep often gets stuck in adolescence and does not move to adulthood,” Wolf explains. He or she rejects the family whose issues they are reflecting, but at the same time they often become overly dependent on their family because they have no foothold in the world.

“What is helpful and more adult is to realise they do not have to accept the whole family package. They can partake of selected aspects of family life and work out a way of engaging with the family without feeling consumed by it.

“If the family is too dysfunctional and refuses to address their issues, then sometimes the black sheep needs to disassociate from the family and realise they are in need of a different support system – such as finding another family or mentors.

“From the family’s side, I advise families to commit to helping the black sheep by seeking counseling where the family can examine itself. They need to follow the process and do what they can to address the family dynamics, but if the black sheep continues to play the dysfunctional role, then families sometimes have to separate from him or her.”

Families need to understand that part of the black sheep desperately wants to be independent, but another part is more comfortable remaining stuck. There are gains to being a black sheep, you are looked after and your rent gets paid while you get to use drugs and alcohol or live in the woods.

“The alternative for a reintegrated black sheep,” says Wolf, “is a slower lifestyle, facing the opportunities you have wasted, shame and boredom. The up side there is the opportunity to transform into a shining star where you are viewed with fascination for having turned around your life. The achievement of this requires an ability to tolerate frustration and to delay gratification – these are requirements to develop.”

Life may not be so easy for some time, but most black sheep who have got their lives on track say they would never swap where they are now for the psychological abyss from where they have come.


When South African author, features editor of True Love magazine and black sheep extraordinaire, Melinda Ferguson, published her first book ‘Smacked’ in 2005 she left nothing unsaid about the horror of a wayward soul gone too far.

Journalist Maureen Isaacson’s review of the book at the time said it all: “From the opening line, ‘I have a gun in my mouth’, we are spiralled into the horror that was Ferguson’s life as a superjunkie. One of the three dealers who are about to rape her tells her: “I don’t like sex. But I do like rape.” Then she gets the crack cocaine she craves. It’s dramatic but it’s cold.”

Ferguson turned her back on heroin and crack in September 2009 and has been clean for going on eleven years. In May this year she published her second book ‘Hooked’, about ten years in recovery and her journey to fill the hole in her soul.

“I have been a black sheep all my life and I am still one. I like being a black sheep; black sheep are interesting people and I am yet to meet a black sheep who isn’t intelligent though some have fried their brains. Fortunately I have found ways to be a healthy black sheep and to remain one step removed from the flock.

“I always say every family has to have one black sheep and I am definitely the black sheep in mine. I was always the naughty one; the one who had my prefect badge taken away, the junkie. One of my sisters, by comparison, was the head girl.

“My two sisters and our brother grew up in Roosevelt Park in Johannesburg. Our Dad passed away when we were very young, and our Mom, who passed away six years ago, was an alcoholic. Two weeks after she died I started writing ‘Smacked’, and a year later it was published.

“My mom was traumatised by me being a junkie, yet she would not acknowledge her drinking addiction was not dissimilar and that addiction was a family disease.

“I am a born addict. I started drinking at the age of eleven; I drank through high school, adding dagga in my last year of schooling. Varsity was a cloud of dagga and alcohol and I graduated to heroin and crack at 27.

“I married the father of our two beautiful sons (now 13 and 11) while we were on drugs (he has been clean for 12 years), and I was pregnant on drugs. I am still horrified I did this and it is really a miracle that both boys are healthy, they do really well at school and they are good sportsmen.

“My recovery was at a farm called ‘Enoch’s Walk’ in the Magaliesberg where tramps and homeless people seek rehabilitation and refuge. There was no doctor there to help me get off drugs, it was the hard way and I worked for my food.

“By that time I had messed up my life so badly that I just wanted to hide in the bush. My boys were with their father and I did not see them for several months. When I returned to Joburg I stayed with my mother in a house full of alcohol. She said if I did not approve I could leave. To make money I waitressed at a fish restaurant in Melville where an angel entered my life in the form of magazine editor Glynis O’Hara to whom I poured out my soul. She said she would publish the story if it was well written.

“After a while I was able to see my boys again, initially for two hours a week. I found it incredibly overwhelming to have two baby boys – the younger didn’t even recognise me when we were reunited. Ten years later their father and I share the week with them; they stay with him for four days and with me for three.”

She is one of the lucky ones for whom life turned out well.

Now 42, Ferguson says she does not think there is a cut-off point to being a black sheep. “The problem is that black sheep often land up hurting themselves or burning too many bridges and not being able to find a way back,” she explains.

“There is no quick fix. I write about all this in ‘Hooked’,” she says. I write about all the things I have done in my ten years of sobriety in an attempt to fill the hole in my soul – from Internet addiction to relationship addiction to exercise addiction.

“It’s a long, tough journey and I deeply regret messing up relationships with my family, jeopardising my boys’ lives, and the pain I have caused.

“I think I will always be a black sheep from the point of view that I never want to be part of the big damn white flock. I like standing out from the crowd, and even though I don’t drink or drug at all anymore, I haven’t turned into a goodie two-shoes. I am still me but instead of abusing my family and my body, I try to be a good mother, I exercise six times a week, I eat healthily and I work hard.

“For the past six years I’ve been in a relationship which has been good for me, because I think what black sheep crave more than anything is to feel loved. In fact I would like to start a black sheep society. I would invite Julius Malema to join. I think the reason he gets so hectic is because he craves attention and the feeling of being loved.”