An Open Letter to Duggar Defenders

More than two years ago I wrote a blog post titled My Concerns about the Duggars. To this day it continues getting hundreds of hits daily, along with the random comment. Probably half of the comments left on it defend the Duggars as upright, responsible people raising healthy, well-adjusted young people. These comments often lash out against me, calling me bitter and so forth. I’ve often thought of responding to these comments with further blog posts, but so far I haven’t.

Today that changes. This post consists of four parts, which deal with the Duggars’ subculture,  the argument that they are happy so nothing must be wrong, the idea that the Duggar parents are teaching their children “responsibility,” and something many who watch their show may be familiar with—that the Duggars believe in shunning (i.e. cutting off all contact with) rebellious adult children.

In this post I want to write specifically to what I call “Duggar Defenders.”

*****

You likely think you know all they need to know about the Duggars from watching the TV show. First of all, this is not how TV works. But that isn’t the only issue. The problem real here is that you very likely do not understand the Duggar’s subculture. You assume that they are a typical American family with an extra 16 children. You assume that your culture is their culture. It is not.

The Duggars are part of a very specific subculture of the Christian homeschooling world, one dominated by leaders like Doug Phillips of Vision Forum and Bill Gothard of ATI, whose incredibly restrictive teachings and controlling practices have earned them the adjective “cult-like.” These organizations and leaders teach that children must be trained to obey their parents completely, without question, and with a smile; that women are not to have careers and that daughters should be actively discouraged from considering such; that adult daughters must continue to obey their fathers and must marry through parent-controlled courtships; that college attendance is problematic for children of either gender but especially for girls; and that marrying and having large numbers of children is the only godly path available.

Within the last year, Doug Phillips has been outed for sexually abusing a young female employee and Bill Gothard was exposed for decades of sexually grooming the teenage girls sent to him by their parents for instruction. In spite of their close ties to both men, the Duggars have yet, to my knowledge, to speak a word against either.

reality-tv-stars-jimbob-and-michelle-duggar-join-beall-and-her-husband-former-vision-forum-president-doug-phillips-in-2010

Michelle Duggar being awarded Vision Forum’s Mother of the Year

Duggar girls Phillips

The Duggar girls with Doug Phillips, who took sexual advantage of a young female employee

Duggars Gothard

The Duggar girls with Bill Gothard, who sexually groomed dozens of teenage girls over several decades

I have heard some of you argue that the Duggars are no longer following all of Phillip’s and Gothard’s rules. This doesn’t fly with me. If this is the case, the Duggars have been promoters of both men for so long that they really have a responsibility to speak out here. But more than that, I don’t see it. Yes, the Duggar girls are dressing more trendily today than they did ten years ago, but they’re not wearing anything the older Phillips girls wouldn’t have been seen in—or anything I wouldn’t have worn. They’re still keeping the code. When the Duggars send one of their daughters off to college, then I might believe that they are stepping away from these leaders and their teachings. Until then, pardon my skepticism.

As an aside, do you know why the Duggar girls curl their hair? (Most of them have naturally straight hair, though you wouldn’t know that from the pictures.) Because Bill Gothard taught that long, curly hair was godliest, because he had a kink for it.

I grew up in the same culture as the Duggars. I was homeschooled, I was the oldest of 12 children, and my family was involved in or aware of each of the various ministries the Duggars are involved in. The Duggars parent the way my parents did, listen to the same ministries as my parents, and have the same general beliefs as my parents. You have to understand that the Duggars are not just your typical suburban family plus an extra sixteen children. The Duggars are part of a very distinct subculture, and that subculture has different rules and different norms. I know those rules and norms, because I lived them.

The Duggars are not shy about their associations. They have promoted Bill Gothard’s ATI and Doug Phillips’ Vision Forum for years. They also promote S. M. Davis’ ministry, and have promoted Michael and Debi Pearl’s To Train Up A Child in the past. They are open about using Gothard’s homeschool curriculum. This subculture is their home. They live it, they breathe it, they preach it. If you want to understand the Duggars—what they believe and how they parent—you have to understand that subculture. And I can promise you right now that it’s more than sunshine and roses.

If you’re not familiar with this subculture and want to learn more, I’d recommend reading Recovering Grace, and Rethinking Vision Forum, and Homeschoolers Anonymous, for starters, in addition to my own blog of course.

*****

I’m told that the Duggar children are happy, so clearly my concerns are unjustified. But you know what? The fact that the Duggar children look happy does not actually tell you anything about whether they are happy. This sounds like a rather astounding statement on my part, doesn’t it? Well bear with me! The Duggars follow parenting methods that teach that children should only ever be allowed to be cheerful, smiling, and happy. Yes, really. Those are the only emotions that are permitted.

This song, the “Smile Song,” is sung at Bill Gothard’s ATI conferences:

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Let me quote from Dulce, who was raised on ATI:

The Duggars are deeply enmeshed in ATI, (Gothard’s homeschooling program) and ATI takes allegiance very seriously. It isn’t a vague statement of beliefs that you sign so your kids can take the courses. It is several pages of in-depth info that covers what kind of music you can listen to (no Christian rock), the kind of TV you may watch (mainly Christian DVDs), the way you must dress (those jumpers are about modesty), the kind of punishments the parents must use (spankings), and more. It isn’t just a curriculum–it is a lifestyle which delves into family finances, child planning and every other detail.

One key idea teaches the importance of a joyful countenance and a light in your eyes. This is a measure of how mighty you are in spirit. Not only that, it is also an indicator of your respect for authority. Bill Gothard explains in the Basic Seminar session on How To Relate to Four Authorities that if you look unhappy, you are publicly shaming your authority. In parenting, that means that if the kid looks unhappy, it is a personal offense against the parents. He also teaches that unhappiness is the result of ungratefulness, and that anger comes from not yielding our rights to God. This boils down to the idea that if you are not cheerful, you are not pleasing God.

In addition to ATI, the Duggars also follow the parenting practices of S. M. Davis and Michael Pearl. The Duggars still promote S. M. Davis, both in person and on their website, and only removed their endorsements of Michael Pearl’s books and ministry after the deaths of three children were tied to his teachings. (I should note that the Duggars have never come out and condemned the Pearls’ teachings, and have never stated that they no longer follow them. They have merely removed the book from their website’s endorsements section.)

What do these men teach? This is from S. M. Davis:

They [children] need to learn to obey what you say, do it right away and do it with a smile. Maybe that is a statement that you should have your children memorize and even hang in your home. ‘Do what I say, when I say and with a smile.’ . . . After all, isn’t the goal immediate obedience with a smile? If it isn’t that, it isn’t obedience, and the child has won.

And this from Michael Pearl:

If a child shows the least displeasure in response to a command or duty, it should be addressed as disobedience. If a child sticks out his lip, you should focus your training on his bad attitude. The wrong slant of the shoulders reveals a bad frame of mind. Consider this a sign to instruct, train or discipline. A cheerful, compliant spirit is the norm. Anything else is a sign of trouble.

All of these teachers urge parents to be quick with “the rod” for the slightest disobedience. Now you may object, pointing out that TLC does not tend to show the Duggars punishing their children physically. Well of course they don’t. That sort of thing is kept off camera or covered up because it looks bad. And if you want to tell me that the Duggars would promote parenting gurus who teach that if you don’t spank your children into submissive broken obedience, you are sending them to hell, and yet not spank their children in this way themselves, be my guest. From where I’m standing, that makes no sense whatsoever.

But let’s get back to the point about smiling for a moment here. The Duggar parents are following parenting gurus who teach that unhappiness or a sour disposition is disobedience. In this climate, what child would have anything but a smile? There is no other option. I also grew up on these teachings. I remember being punished for having a “bad mood.” My siblings and I looked happy, on the outside, and that outward appearance was not always wrong. But sometimes it was—sometimes it was very, very wrong, because being discontented was seen as sin, and was punished. Of course children will look happy, when that is the only option they are allowed.

When you thrown in TV, in the case of the Duggars, that only ups the ante. While my family was not on TV, my parents were keenly aware that we were on display everywhere we went. When we went out in public, mom wiped our faces and put bows in our hair, and before we were allowed to get out of the car at our destination we were always given the standard pep talk: “Remember that you are representing Christians, and you are representing homeschoolers, and you are representing big families,” she would say. “Be on your best behavior.” You better believe the Duggar children have heard that same pep talk time and again.

*****

I’m often told by Duggar Defenders that it’s a good thing that the older Duggar kids have all those chores, and take on all that care of their younger siblings—they’re learning responsibility. I sometimes wonder if we’re operating on different definitions of “responsibility.” First of all, there’s a big difference between asking kids to help out around the house and asking them to raise their younger siblings. Yes, having some chores and being required to contribute to the household upkeep is important. But there’s such a thing as too much. And more importantly, how can one learn responsibility without being given the freedom needed to show oneself responsible?

I’ve often felt that young people in this subculture are given an overabundance of chores and work to do while being given an under abundance of freedom to grow and take responsibility for oneself. I’ve said sometimes that it feels like being 30, and 5, while in the body of a 15-year-old. Yes, you’re required to cook and clean and change diapers. But you’re not allowed to go hang out with friends, or to go to the mall, or to just be a teenager. In some ways you’re treated like you’re 30. In some ways you’re treated like you’re 5.

I mean, the Duggar children (including the older girls) are not allowed to use the internet without having another sibling looking over their shoulder. The Duggar kids now have iPhones, but are not allowed to access the internet on them. The older Duggar girls can’t go shopping without an “accountability partner,” and when one of the older Duggar boys started volunteering at their local fire department he had to take one of his sisters along as an “accountability partner.” Learning responsibility means having the freedom to exercise it, and that means not having people constantly looking over your shoulder or breathing down your throat.

But there’s something else, something that’s been bothering me ever since I saw the following video some time back, and that has to do with the way the Duggar parents work to limit and carefully circumscribe their adult children’s choices.

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In the video the older Duggar girls are talking about what they want in a husband (since the Duggar girls are expected to find the right man the first time through a parent-controlled courtship, they have to guess at what they want rather than finding out by dating around). I was especially struck by an exchange between Jinger and some of her siblings in the last half of the video.

“She doesn’t want to live three hours out from civilization,” one of the girls said of Jinger.

“No, okay, city please!” Jinger burst out, “City please!

“She would do fine in New York City or something,” one of her sisters adds in the background.

“I’d be okay anywhere,” Jinger goes on, “but city would be awesome.”

“But if you didn’t get somebody like that,” one of her sisters butted in, “the Lord could be working and teaching you something in that area.”

“Yes, that’s for sure, I need to work on a lot of things, you know, contentment,” Jinger admits.

What you see here is Jinger actually saying what she wants, and being talked down by her sisters because in the Duggar home what someone wants is not all that relevant. What God wants for them is what’s important.

This would be bad enough if this were it, but it isn’t. In an article released after the clip came out, Michelle had to come in explaining what Jinger really meant. Because apparently Jinger isn’t even allowed to say what she wants without her mother cleaning up for her afterwards, and explaining that that wasn’t really what she meant.

Jinger didn’t mean she wanted to move to New York City. She meant that she wants to live closer to a city. We’re talking right near a city, but not New York City. Jinger meant she wanted to live 15 minutes from a Wal-mart. We live so far out of town on 20 acres, but Jinger wants to live closer to town, so she doesn’t have to drive so far to go shopping. New York City is way above what we would ever consider a city where she should move!

How old was Jinger at this time? Nineteen.

I’ve heard Duggar Defenders argue that the Duggar parents aren’t limiting their children’s choices, pointing out that their adult children have worked at the volunteer fire department, trained to be doulas, and taken college courses through a program called CollegePlus. Look, the volunteer fire department is volunteer, not a job. As for training to be doulas, that’s okay because it’s considered an acceptable occupation in these circles. But beyond that, being a doula was a scaled-back dream, not the original dream. Finally, CollegePlus is an online program created for sheltered homeschooled young adults whose parents believe going to college is a threat to one’s salvation.

Let’s start with the Duggar daughters for a moment.

For a while Jana, now 24, served as a midwife’s apprentice helping deliver babies at home, but being a midwife was not in her long-term plans. In 2010 Michelle wrote that Jana, then 20, was pursuing her interest in the harp. Jana never attended music school or a conservatory (not for lack of money, given what her parents are paid for the TV show), so this presumably meant private lessons. But while the authors blurb for the girls’ recent “Growing Up Duggar” book mentions Jana’s service as a midwife’s apprentice, her service at the volunteer fire department, and her efforts in one of Bill Gothard’s ministries, it does not mention the harp.

Now let’s turn to Jill, 23. In September of 2011, Jill was planning to go to nursing school. She was going to start with taking courses through CollegePlus and then transfer to “a local fully accredited nursing school.” For some unclear reason, that didn’t work out. As of summer 2013, two years later, Jill was planning to become a Certified Professional Midwife (CPM). At that time, she was enrolled in an online midwifery school and was serving as a midwife’s apprentice helping deliver babies at home. Then in fall 2013 Jill began courting and then married this summer, 2014. Granted, Jill could still become a CPM, and I hope she does, but that’s doubtful at this point because, in the Duggar’s culture (and that of Jill’s husband) the wife’s role is to support her husband’s career and raise children, not have a career of her own.

What of Jessa, 21? According to the author’s blurb mentioned above, she’s talented on several musical instruments, enjoys reading books, and has a talent for organizing. And yet, again, no college. She could attend music school, or study English, or get a degree in interior design. Instead she lives at home with her family, and is now engaged to be married. As for Jinger, 20, she has expressed interest in photography, but like her sisters has not been sent to college to further this interest or any other.

What of the boys? The Duggar parents initially set Josh, 26, up to sell used cars, but he has since taken a position at Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., presumably based both on his family’s notoriety and any skills he may have gained campaigning with his politically active family over the years. John-David, 24, served at the local volunteer fire department before running for local office (constable), starting a towing business, and now pursuing a pilot’s license. I hope Josh and John-David are able to make a go of it, but I can’t help remember that Josh once spoke of being a lawyer, or wonder if John-David is getting close to finding something he likes.

Yes, the Duggar parents are giving their adult children some opportunities, but these opportunities are carefully circumscribed by what they consider acceptable. In a world where college is considered godless and immoral, the Duggar sons are limited to starting their own businesses or various job-training programs. This isn’t to say that they can’t succeed, but simply that some doors are closed to them from the start. In a world where women are not allowed to have careers, the Duggar daughters are limited to music lessons, apprentice midwifery, and photography hobbies. Not only are the girls not permitted to go to college, they also aren’t permitted to think in terms of finding a way to financial independence.

Don’t tell me the Duggars are raising “responsible” children when they’re controlling their their children’s interactions and limiting their options. “Responsible” children don’t need Big Brother internet access. “Responsible” children are allowed to choose from a full range of career options. “Responsible” children are encouraged to think in terms of financial independence—including the girls. “Responsible” children are allowed to move to the city, if that is what they want. This is a very strange sort of “responsibility,” if you ask me.

*****

But wait, you say! Why don’t the older Duggar children just leave, if they want to go to college, or move to the city? It’s not like their parents are physically confining them. So let’s talk about something else for a moment: what happens when you grow up in this culture and then leave. And yes, we’ll be using the word shunning, because it is a very real thing that really does happen in these circles.

As I’ve noted, the Duggars endorse the childrearing teachings of S. M. Davis, promoting them on their website and writing that they have “have helped us raising our children.” What does S. M. Davis have to do with shunning, you ask? We’re getting there! The Duggars’ 2009 form email reply pointed people to an article called “Help for Rebels under 18.” That article contains a link to its sister article, “Help for Rebels over Age 18.” Given the Duggars’ effusive praise of S. M. Davis and how much his teachings have helped them, we can assume that they agree with the bulk of his teachings (if they didn’t, you would think they would offer caveats). What does S. M. Davis say in this article? Let’s take a look:

What Do I Do With A Rebellious Older Child when I Have Other Younger Children Still Living At Home?

If you are dealing with an older sibling that has younger siblings still living at home then you will have to cut off ALL communication between the rebellious young adult and the other children. That means ALL forms of communication. Phone calls, e-mails, letters and even eye contact! You may think this is a bit harsh and drastic but if you don’t break all communication then you will begin the domino effect explained on the following Videos: (You may consider getting these Videos and letting your other children watch them and discuss them when you are finished.)

  • “Why Satan Wants the First Born”
  • “The Influence of Older Children on Younger Ones”
  • “How to Help Weak Children Become Strong”

What this means is that if one of the older Duggar children “rebels,” he or she risks being cut off from any contact with her siblings who still live at home. And they very likely know that, too. I do think we need to be clear about what exactly is meant by “rebellious” in these circles. An adult daughter who refuses to obey her father, even as an adult, is “rebellious.”  A son has an easier time of it, as he is expected to form his own household, but if he rejects any of their religious beliefs or has premarital sex, he, too, is “rebellious.”

Let me tell you how “rebellious” works in this culture.

One of my brothers, Judah, was termed “rebellious” when he started listening to contemporary Christian music, began hanging out with (Christian) friends at the mall, and stopped wearing his purity ring (not because he started having premarital sex but because he wanted the commitment to be his own and said the ring didn’t really mean anything to him). H was under 18 at the time, and my parents responded by waging emotional war with him.

As for me, I was first termed “rebellious” when I concluded that God probably used evolution to created the world rather than a literal six-day creation. I wasn’t going around preaching it all over, it was a personal belief change—and I wasn’t questioning God or Christianity either. I was further termed “rebellious” when I refused to break up with my (straight-laced) boyfriend when my parents ordered me to. I was 20 at the time.

One of my sisters, Heidi, was termed “rebellious” when she started dating without getting my father’s permission first. She was 18 at the time, and the guy she started dating was a conservative Christian and had a similar homeschool background. Several months later she got a tattoo (of a Christian symbol, no less), and boy oh boy did that land her smack in the middle of “rebellious.”

And yes, my parents literally and for real did consider cutting me off from all contact with my younger siblings still living at home. The very first thing my father said when he found out I believed God used evolution to create the world was “What am I going to do about the other kids?” That’s when I realized that I was, in fact, expendable, and that shunning was actually in the cards. When I made my choice not to break up with my boyfriend (whom I have since married and have two children with, half a decade later), whether or not I would be allowed contact with my younger siblings was up in the air for a time.

And you know what? My parents did not read S. M. Davis. They read Michael Pearl, yes, but Michael Pearl does not (to my knowledge) teach shunning. S. M. Davis does. To this day, I’m glad my parents didn’t read S. M. Davis. My life might be sadly different if they had. But the Duggars? The Duggars read S. M. Davis—and promote his teachings with great praise.

If you’re still incredulous that such little things could be counted rebellion or that rebellion could actually result in being cut off from your younger siblings, it’s worth noting that the Jeub family, who were filmed for the TLC miniseries Kids by the Dozen and were part of the same subculture as the Duggars and my own family, kicked their daughter Alicia out and cut off all of her contact with her younger siblings for being “rebellious.” Reb Bradley, a pastor and homeschool leader who writes parenting books that are popular in the same circles, similarly kicked out one of his sons and cut off all contact because he was “rebellious.”

I want to reiterate: We’re not talking about getting kicked out or cut off for dealing drugs out of the garage. From what I’ve been able to learn, Alicia Jeub dated a guy her parents didn’t approve of (she was 19), and Reb Bradley’s son was kicked out for “disrespectful communication” (also as an adult). I currently know a number of young women who have their contact with their siblings limited as a result of their “rebellion,” and none of them are doing drugs or engaging in other criminal activity. For adult daughters in these circles, “rebellion” can mean something as simple as not submitting to your father, who is considered your godly authority. And this is something that actually happens.

Words mean completely different things within this subculture than they do outside of it. To most people, if a young adult is kicked out of the house for “disrespectful communication,” he was probably cussing his parents out and verbally abusing them. Within this subculture, “disrespectful communication” can mean something as simple as a sullen glance or a refusal to respond when spoken to (this is all it meant for my brother Judah).

If one of the older Duggar children makes choices outside of those laid out for them by their parents, they risk being cut off from all contact with their younger siblings. When the older Duggar children have put so much effort into raising their younger siblings, this becomes only worse. It’s follow the party line, or risk losing the siblings you have raised from infancy, almost as though they were your own children. I raised one of my own sisters this way, and when I moved away from home for college when she was five she felt abandoned. It took years for me to explain to her what had happened, and restore our relationship. I cannot even imagine how much worse this would have been if all contact had been simply severed, indefinitely. She was my baby. And those older Duggar kids have babies too.

(As a side note, one of my readers has pointed out that leaving to establish oneself independently or to attend college typically requires capital. The Duggar children would not be eligible for financial aid, and they likely could not take out a loan without having a parent cosign it. This makes leaving and doing their own thing financially difficult as well as possible grounds for being cut off from their parents and siblings.)

*****

Now I get it, I do! The Duggars look fun, and quaint in a way. In our fast-paced world, the desire to find something to idealize, or to find something untouched by change, can be strong. But life on the inside of the looking glass is often not as fun as it looks from the outside.

Of course, some of you may be hopeless cases. If you think it would be great to spend day after day of your early twenties changing diapers and playing cook for your siblings, saying “yes mom” and “yes dad” and getting permission to go out, sharing one big room with your kid sisters and going without privacy, all the while eschewing preparation for a career of your own, I’m afraid I can’t help you. If you think it sounds romantic and tingly to have your father choose your husband, I really don’t know what to say—besides, I suppose, “I’ve been there, and it’s not.”

I wish the Duggar children all the best, I really do. I’ve seen many young adults from their background break free and form their own lives apart form parental dictates and rules, so I know it is possible. After all, I’ve lived it. I hope the older Duggar girls find ways to turn their interests into careers or at least means of providing some form of financial stability for themselves, and that those who marry find husbands who are open to their continued personal and professional development. As for the older Duggar boys, I hope they’re able to find careers that meet their interests and abilities.

And for all of the Duggar children, I hope each and every one of them is able to go through a period where they differentiate themselves from their family and figure out, for themselves, who they are, what they believe, and what they want.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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