Shiny Happy People: The Rise and Fall of the Duggar Family
On October 5th, 2023, Joshua Duggar, eldest son of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, was denied appeal on charges of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) possession, confirming he will be serving the rest of his 12 ½ year sentence in prison. Almost to the day 15 years earlier, the first episode of the 19 Kids and Counting series aired on TLC. It presented the daily activities of the devout Baptist Christian Duggar family, a family that would eventually consist of, evidently, 19 kids. In the years the show aired, the Duggars attracted a cult-like following, in part because of their embodiment as the “perfect” religious and conservative American family in the show’s depiction of the daily activities of this family. In June of this year, the docuseries Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets was released on Amazon Prime, presenting the Duggars in a much darker light, highlighting their involvement in IBLP, the abuse and violence within that organization, and also the crimes of Josh Duggar.
The Duggars are members of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a “nondenominational Christian ministry” created by Evangelical minister Bill Gothard. IBLP describes their mission as one that teaches “the wisdom and truth of Scripture as the foundation of every area of life,” which they do through a series of seminars, conferences, and their homeschool program, the Advanced Training Institute. These programs teach how one should live their life as prescribed by the ministry, including a very abstract education, modest clothing (especially for women), enforced gender roles, and much more. IBLP describes these programs as parts of the principles of authority, freedom and suffering. It is IBLP’s belief that the seven Basic Life Principles together can help one lead a life closer to God. However, when the principles are maximized and taken advantage of, it can create an abusive culture that indoctrinates oppression by limiting access to an understanding of a reality outside of said culture, and forcing dependency of victims to those around them, keeping people from speaking out, looking for help, or even recognizing the wrongdoing. Bill Gothard’s concept of the “umbrella of authority,” helps show the normalization of staying in line and imposes a fear of stepping out, especially towards women. The “umbrella of authority” is represented by an illustration of a series of increasingly large umbrellas over top of another, God represented by the largest, followed by the husband, and smallest being his wife, whose primary responsibility is managing her children. The message is that if you step out from under your umbrella, you are at risk of the influence of Satan. With all the above components, Gothard and the IBLP created a community designed to cover up abuse, and easily move past allegations of abuse, even among high ranking members. However, as would become clear to the Duggars, scandals were much harder to keep quiet with the eye of the media on them.
In May of 2015, InTouch Magazine published an exposé article containing a police report from 2006, outlining an investigation around accusations towards Josh Duggar for multiple sex offences several from 2002 to 2003. The article includes that Jim Bob Duggar, the patriarch of the Duggar family, told the police Josh had admitted to him his actions around the time of the offences – however, he did not report it to the authorities at the time. Explained in the report, when a similar event occurred nine months later, Jim Bob turned to elders of his church (IBLP), where they agreed to put Josh into a Christian treatment program in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was not until Josh returned from the treatment program, three months later, that Jim Bob and the Church elders decided to contact the police, specifically a state trooper Jim Bob knew personally named Joseph Hutchens. No report was ever filed, nor charges laid, as it was Hutchen’s belief that because Josh had been through treatment there was nothing else left to do. The only result was Josh having a “very stern talk about what might happen to [him] if [he] continued such behaviour” with the state trooper, who it should be noted, 10 years later was sentenced to 56 years in prison on CASM possession and distribution charges. In an interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News in 2015 after the report emerged, Jim Bob, and his daughters Jill and Jessa, who both identify as victims of Josh’s abuse, all claimed they felt that Josh came back a changed person from the program and felt completely safe in their home. In a later interview, Jill would say that she felt obligated to be apologetic on her brother’s behalf, even as a victim, to save the show. The InTouch exposé was released May 21st, 2015, two days after the last episode of what would be the last season of 19 Kids and Counting aired; in July of that year, TLC announced it was cancelling the show, and its episodes “will no longer appear on the air.” However, 5 months later, in December of 2015, TLC began airing a spinoff show titled Counting On, which focused on the lives of the older Duggar children, more specifically Jenna and Jessa, though after its first season, it expanded back to the rest of the Duggars, raising their own families and sharing the realities of growing up. In April 2021, Josh Duggar was arrested and charged with receiving and possessing CASM. In June of that year, TLC announced Counting On would not be renewed after its 11th season. In December, Josh Duggar was found guilty, and in May 2022, he was sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison.
June 2nd, 2023, a four episode docuseries titled Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, was released on Amazon Prime Video. It tells the story of the Duggar family and the downfall of Josh Duggar specifically, and focuses on the family’s involvement with IBLP, giving descriptions of ministry through the experiences of ex-members. The docuseries highlights the abuse and oppressive culture of the ministry, while also presenting the stories of ex-member’s religious deconstruction. In response to the docuseries’ release, Jim Bob and Michelle released a statement that claimed it painted the family in a “derogatory and sensationalized way.” IBLP also released a statement, emphasizing the sanctity of the ministry, believing that the documentary told an intentionally crafted one sided story, while also clarifying that founder Bill Gothard has not been associated with IBLP since 2014. That is, after his resignation following dozens of women accusing him of sexual harassment and molestation; a detail they do not include. Their only rebuttals to the accusations of abuse and oppression made by the documentary dismissed them as “salacious and false.”
“Jim Bob Duggar at the Republican Watch Party 2012” by Paul Newton is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
When the Duggars shared their family and religious values on 19 Kids and Counting, the unexplored world of the IBLP suddenly became accessible at the click of a button. In Shiny Happy People, an ex-IBLP member described that an intrinsic part of the religious culture of the ministry was using whatever platform one had to further Christianity and the Christian agenda – the Duggars were able to do exactly that with their platform and influence on TLC. Jinger Duggar, another one of the Duggar children, has spoken about being aware of the influence her family had in sharing their following of Bill Gothard and noting how many others they had influenced into the Institute and its beliefs. In retrospect, she says, “don’t follow these teachings, they’re so harmful.” In the docuseries, many ex-members articulate that there must be some blame placed on TLC for airing what they consider to be IBLP propaganda. They felt that the Duggars gave legitimacy to IBLP in the same sort of way Tom Cruise does to Scientology. Carlos Maxa, a journalist for Vox explains that TLC was directly contributing to bringing the values of the family from “a very fringe ideology” to the mainstream, making them “a conservative political powerhouse.”
Even after the Duggar “hype” has died down years later, there is an emerging culture of promoting the same values through social media. With platforms like TikTok and Youtube, there is no longer the need for an intermediary filter such as a television network or publisher – influencers like Paul and Morgan Olliges, fundamentalist YouTubers, are able to reach a mass audience of not only those who subscribe to their content, but to anyone on the platform, reaching a much broader audience than they once would have before. In doing this, such figures are sharing older beliefs to a younger generation in a more consumable and accessible fashion, once again bringing the fringe to the center of the conversation, whether or not it is in a positive light.
Josh Pease, a pastor interviewed in Shiny Happy People, articulates that the Duggar Family was truly “a horrifying glimpse of a story that was told over, and over, and over, again in so many different families.” Their position in the public sphere made it impossible to sweep these abuses under the rug, as much as they tried to. While in watching the series it is clear there is an extremely violent and confining side to this story and general IBLP religious evangelical culture, it is hard to access that same perspective as an IBLP follower, when it is all you know and were raised with.
I implore all to watch Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, for an extremely detailed, though at times quite graphic, deep-dive into the lives within the ministry of ex-members, that likely echo many more untold stories of current members.
Edited by Lily Molesky.