Many are stunned after watching Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, a docuseries about the famously growing Duggar family, on Amazon Prime. How could this have happened? The Duggars looked like such good people!
But for those of us who grew up in similarly repressive environments, none of this was shocking. We lived it every day. What we viewed in the docuseries was just another day in our patriarchal prisons.
The Institute in Basic Life Principles, or IBLP, the acronym it went by, was an approximately 2 million-person Christian Baptist organization run by fundamentalist Bill Gothard, who founded it in 1961.
But Gothard stepped down in 2014 after sexual harassment allegations from former female churchgoers.
By then, the Duggars had become the IBLP’s most celebrated congregants, and many didn’t realize at the time that they used their show as a pulpit to preach their ultra-conservative family values.
How ironic that a family who banned television watching in their home allowed TV crews into their sacred space to film. But money talks, especially when you have a dozen-and-a-half kids to care for.
I grew up similarly to girls brought up in the IBLP, but we weren’t shiny like the Duggar children of TLC’s famous show, 19 Kids and Counting. We wore tattered, mismatched clothing.
We were forced to wear modest clothing and had to wear pants under our dresses, though ours weren’t pretty pantaloons. Ours were whatever oversized hand-me-downs snatched from bedroom floors.
The girls in our commune—and what I would later see as a cult—were Sufi ragamuffins, not picture-perfect little ladies who looked like we strolled out of a beauty parlor.
Our hair was long, like other girls in fundamentalist communities, such as the IBLP and Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), but ours was uncombed. When we were younger, we didn’t have buddies like the Duggars.
The younger children had older children as mentors who helped with daily care, including teeth and hair brushing. Yet no one knew our hair was unkempt because it was hidden underneath scarves, like the rest of our lives—hidden from plain sight, behind gates and walls. There wasn’t an attempt to zip up the pandemonium. The girls of our community were spectacles to be seen should a stranger sneak a peek.
The Duggars did ten loads of laundry daily, with Jessa, one of the girl children, in charge of the loads—transferring clothes from the dryer to hangers and then rolling them into rooms to hang in closets, day after day.
Child labor is often a key component in religious fundamentalist communities like mine, with girls doing the bulk of the workload. Although our girls also wore long dresses, ours weren’t washed or unwrinkled. We had one washer and no dryer for our 100+ members, and no one was in charge of our clothes—not our parents or other adults.
When the girls tried to wash our clothes, we’d be shoved out of the way by a lady who took precedence, who always took precedence. The girls were the lowest, which is often the case in these communities. We weren’t even worthy of cleanliness. We reeked of mildew and negligence.
In 2004, I was 32 when the original Duggar show, 14 Kids and Pregnant Again!, debuted. I am now 50. By then, I had two children and had been out of the cult for around ten years.
I remember looking in awe at Michelle Duggar, mesmerized by how she kept it together. How did she match all of her children in blue shirts? How were the boys’ slacks creaseless? In my budding family of four, I wanted to recreate her systems.
I still hadn’t done the healing to fully recognize that I grew up in a cult. The teachings were so engrained that even after I physically left, I still had patterned thinking that made me believe my goals were none other than to be a wife and mother. These two identities would soar me to heaven in a rocket ship, even if metaphorically.
I looked up to Michelle Duggar who took housewifing and mothering to new and unattainable heights. I felt an affinity towards her because she was living the life I wished I’d had as a child, the life I hoped to give my children; that of perfection.
The Duggars were the only family I had seen on television who remotely mimicked mine. I hadn’t yet accepted the exploitation that happened in my cult, and I hadn’t yet understood the ugliness behind their closed doors.
I wasn’t ready yet to see my life for what it had been, as is the case with many children who leave cults. It often takes years of processing to understand the implications of our destructive upbringings.
Why couldn’t I have grown up with Michelle as my mother, someone who didn’t raise her voice and who seemed to prioritize her children?
Her kids appeared well-kept, orderly, and happy. The women in our community were the exact opposite of Michelle. They screamed from sunrise until sunset. They didn’t offer affection or kindness. Our girls felt unwanted, even hated.
The adults in our community would joke that we were “Goofy Sufis.” We weren’t actually goofy like Goofy, the Disney cartoon character, who was harmless. Rather, our community was destructive, neglectful, chaotic. Lazy.
By we, I mean the adults. The men and women didn’t work like Michelle and Jim Bob, who had strong work ethics. The adults in our commune delegated their work to teen and tween girls.
We cooked, cleaned, and did the majority of childcare for the entire community as the men puttered around praying, and the women gossiped while reclining. Year after year, the property deteriorated because no one maintained the brand-new facility.
Our commune was filled with rules that repressed girls, but it had few systems. As someone who longed for stability and organization, I looked up to the Duggars, who seemed to run their family with precision, like a military operation.
Clothes got cleaned. Kids got fed. And all the while, they looked shiny. In hush-hush voices and with obedient smiles, the Duggars looked so much more put together. We didn’t portray the same air of happiness. We were outwardly miserable, and most girls couldn’t hide behind smiles—we were too hungry, tired, and overworked.
Despite the circumstances in our Sufi community being dismal, we also experienced joy, not because we were living imprisoned but because we had each other, our commune sisters.
We also had the natural beauty of the place. Our commune’s property included a lake, stream, and waterfall. When we could slip away, we’d rip off our scarves and cool ourselves in fresh water.
Children in our communities were physically punished because this was said to break our will. And guess what? It did. Mission accomplished. Not only were our parents in charge of us, but also any adult could discipline us.
Girls could be inflicted upon by their fathers, mothers, leaders, and brothers. Everyone. We were the lowest on the totem pole. We were taught blind obedience to authority. We were vulnerable to being preyed upon because there was no recourse.
Where were the airtight systems now?
We couldn’t learn how to stand up for ourselves, setting us up for a lifetime of abuse. This is what fundamentalist communities teach girls. Because our bodies belonged to our parents, church, and eventually our husbands, they never belonged to us.
The title of the Duggar docuseries includes the word “secrets,” but I hope by now it’s no surprise that fundamentalist religious environments can be the grimiest of all. Despite the Duggars’ squeaky-clean appearance and our contrasting grubby one, we both shared dark secrets.
Groups with leaders who act as if they are gods and tell their congregants that they directly receive god’s words risk raising predators. Sex becomes hidden and shameful, which in turn, breeds dangerously repressed boys and men (I’m specifically using gendered language).
Sadly, I’m no longer shocked when rape allegations surface from religious fundamentalist communities. Nor should anyone else be. I’m sure for every story we learn of, there are hundreds more that are still in the ether, still being silenced.
Who is being controlled in these groups? Are the men? Never! It’s always the children, in particular the girls. What men preach about modesty, sexual purity, etc., is, in my experience, the opposite of how they behave.
As more and more survivor stories come out, the shadiness of some evangelical groups is coming to light. How many girls are still suffering behind closed doors? How many secrets still need to come out?
Girls, be loud and proud. Stop hiding behind their mantle of abuse. Our voices matter. We are in control now. The leaders and men are despicable. They need to be ashamed, not us. They did wrong, not us. We are innocent.
It’s time for a reckoning for all girls and women survivors of fundamentalist groups. Little girls grow into women, so watch out. It’s time to take our power back, to let out our voices. We are trustworthy. We must believe in ourselves.
Young girls trapped, you don’t need to own the shame. The shame belongs to the men. We had the power all along. We were actually who they feared most. And all we had to do was speak out.
And here we are today, screaming. There will be a reckoning. There will be justice. Survivors need to lead this movement. Little by little, we will seek justice. We are in the golden age of cult survivors sharing our stories.
As we have seen, all places of worship can also be places of the greatest abuse. It’s time we open our eyes and not exempt any person, any place because of their perceived holiness.
No person is holier. No system is holier. Whenever there is an “Us vs. Them” mentality, run.