For the past few weeks I’ve been toying around with the idea of starting a blog to talk about the Duggars, an ultra-conservative Christian family from Arkansas who has been on TV since 2004, when they participated in a one-hour special called “14 Children and Pregnant Again!” The Duggars went on to film several subsequent television specials about their growing family, and they eventually landed their own TLC show, which first aired in 2008 with the name 17 Kids and Counting, and ended as 19 Kids and Counting in 2015, amidst a series of scandals involving the oldest Duggar son, Josh. The show was then rebranded as Counting On at the end of 2015, which continues to follow the lives of some of the married adult children, and just wrapped up its seventh season.
Although the Duggars have worked very hard to brand themselves as a model Christian family by making an exhibition out of some of their most extreme values to give themselves a niche (i.e. strict courtship rules, over-the-top modesty standards, condemnation of television and secular music, and perhaps most notably Michelle and Jim Bob’s renouncement of birth control), the reality is much darker. Even just a quick Internet search will tell you that the Duggars are strongly associated with the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a non-denominational Christian organization which is widely considered a cult because it promotes a strict belief system that is designed to control every aspect of its’ members lives. I will talk about the Duggars’ involvement with the IBLP (and its homeschooling program, the “Advanced Training Institute”) in MUCH further detail later on, but I bring it up now because learning about this sinister side of the seemingly wholesome Duggar family is what motivated me to do more research on their beliefs.
I found this topic particularly interesting because I was also raised in a very conservative Christian home, and while my parents weren’t nearly as strict as Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, I could still relate to the Duggar kids. I went to public school and was very lucky in that regard, but otherwise most of my time was spent in a Christian bubble, where I interacted with many children from families who really were very similar to the Duggars. Even though I did get to attend school, I was still extremely sheltered, and my home life was governed by rigid, Bible-based expectations for my behavior. However, by the time I first stumbled upon the Duggars on TV (which wasn’t until I was an adult and they had already entered the 19 Kids and Counting era, since my parents didn’t allow cable TV when I was growing up), it had been years since I had regularly attended church, so while I could relate to the children on some level, I kept up with the show from the perspective of someone who had “broken free” from that culture. The first storyline that I remember specifically tuning in for was Jill’s courtship, and I watched with a sort of horrified fascination at what the devoutly religious version of my life could have been, since she is the Duggar who I am closest to in age.
What really affected me, however, was not the show itself, but finding an online discussion forum where users had some really thought-provoking things to say about the negative impact of Christian fundamentalism, particularly on girls growing up in that sort of rigid religious environment (I want to say it was Free Jinger, but I really don’t remember for sure). At the time, I was no longer attending church and had definitely made a conscious decision to lead a secular lifestyle, but I had never really addressed how my childhood had affected me, and it had never even occurred to me that much of my experience (which was my “normal” for so long) was actually rather traumatic and likely contributed to the mental health issues I had struggled with for years.
I was still very much afraid of hell, and up until then part of me had always believed that I deserved any hardship that I had been through because I hadn’t been faithful enough to hack it as a Christian. I also didn’t really know how to express or even acknowledge the resentment I held towards my parents, because according to the religion that they still very actively practiced, everything that they had done in their quest to raise an obedient Christian daughter was perfectly acceptable, and questioning their actions would have been seen as a moral failing on my part. It wasn’t until I read about the Duggars that I realized I had a right to be angry about the way I was raised, which actually ended up marking the beginning of a long period of bitterness that in retrospect was probably something that I needed to go through as part of my deconversion, but at the same time is not a “season of life” that I ever wish to revisit.
For awhile I didn’t really think about the Duggars, mostly because my own life was too overwhelming to care much about theirs. Jill’s wedding happened around the same time that I was separated from my husband, so I was busy easing the pain by binge-watching Pretty Little Liars on Netflix. By the time Jessa’s wedding rolled around I was onto Gilmore Girls, and it wasn’t until Josh’s first scandal in 2015 that I started paying attention to the Duggars again. I was shocked that their hypocrisy had been exposed on such a massive scale, and saddened not only for Josh’s victims, but also for the rest of his siblings, who have all undoubtedly been affected by their oldest brother’s actions. When I heard about the Ashley Madison scandal a few months later, my heart ached for Anna and the children, and like so many others I hoped that she would have the courage to break free from the cult, or at least her unfaithful husband.
Instead, as readers probably already know, less than two years later Anna and Josh had not only reconciled, but had also conceived a fifth child. In the Duggars’ world, Anna’s pregnancy was a shining testimony of forgiveness and redemption, but the public announcement was met with loud criticism. I was disappointed too, not because I wanted her to sell out and write a tell-all book (although I won’t lie, I would have read it), but more out of sadness that even with Biblical support for a divorce, Anna chose to stay with Josh. Her decision was such a heartbreaking consequence of being immersed in a culture in which women are given virtually no opportunities to succeed in any role other than daughter, wife, and mother- and even then, only under the strict supervision of her male headship.
The ensuing discussion online motivated me to gradually become more involved in the growing community of people who follow the Duggars (and several other well-known fundamentalist families) not as fans, but rather as critical observers who gather on sites like Free Jinger and Reddit (including here and here) to talk about all things “fundie” related from an outsider’s perspective. Participants in these forums come from a wide spectrum of sociological backgrounds, and each site has a distinct tone and unique take on the overall discussion. Personally, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading what others have to say and occasionally piping in myself, to the point where I’ve become an embarrassingly thick encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to the Duggars. But even though I do usually find the snarkier side of the conversation entertaining (I know I’m not the only one who considers it a guilty pleasure!), I believe that it is also worthwhile to explore some of the more serious points in greater depth.
After all, we are aware of the Duggars because they are on TV, but how many other families are looking to them as role models? How many other fundamentalist parents have isolated themselves from normal society in the name of religion, often to the detriment of their children who are so sheltered from the bad parts of the world that they are also deprived of the many good things that it has to offer, including access to quality education and even in some cases basic healthcare? I would never say that religion is bad in its entirety, because I know that many people do find value in their religious beliefs, which can have an undoubtedly positive effect on the lives of those individuals. However, it is clear that extreme forms of religion often have an ugly relationship with abuse, as well as a laundry list of various other mental, emotional, and physical problems that can impact a person throughout the course of his or her entire life. As someone who continues to struggle with these issues well into adulthood, I want to do everything I can to make sure that we keep talking about this long enough for even the most adamant defenders of fundamentalist religion to realize that they too have the choice to live free of legalism and fear.
So what am I going to be covering in this blog? Honestly, I’m just going to see where my thoughts take me, although I do have a number of topics that I know I want to address. I definitely plan to talk about the Duggars’ specific beliefs and lifestyle, as well as include more general discussion about their culture as a whole. I also want to give this tiny corner of the Internet my own personal touch, so even though I absolutely intend to post about the latest Duggar news, discuss specific episodes of Counting On (both old and new), look back to even earlier Duggar TV from the perspective that we have today, and provide related links that I think readers might find interesting, I’m also going to be writing about my own experience- mostly how it relates to the Duggars and their world, but maybe occasionally my thoughts on religion and spirituality in general. I realize that not everyone who follows the Duggars wants to take their interest in this direction, so I welcome all visitors to read what you like for you own entertainment, and not feel obligated to care about anything that has to do with my personal reflections. For me, this blog is just a way to channel my own admittedly unusual interest in the Duggars into a project that also ties into my personal journey, which has also been pretty unusual so far.
As a final note, please feel free to leave comments below with your thoughts, opinions, and criticism. I’ll try to reply in a timely manner because I am always open to further discussion! Thanks so much for reading this far, and I invite you to check back frequently as I work on getting this blog up and running!