Note – an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified this as a Netflix series and has been corrected to Amazon Prime.
We made it a point to watch the Amazon Prime series Shiny Happy People this past weekend. If you’ve not seen it and don’t want spoilers, stop reading, though I will also point out that most of what you’ll see is a behind-the-scenes look at things that have already been out in the public.
If you aren’t familiar with the Duggar family, they were the center of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting. The parents belonged to a church that followed the religious doctrine of having as many kids as possible, with the goal of raising the next generation of fundamentalist believers who will lead society into being a Christian society.
The documentary contains a lot of interviews with people who were close to the family, including one of the daughters, who have since become estranged. Jim-Bob’s sister, a cousin, former close friends, etc. are all interviewed as well as other former members of similar churches who followed the teachings of Bill Gothard.
There is a lot of discussion, obviously, of the abuse charges against Josh Duggar and how the family, the church, and TLC handled that situation but that simply opens the door to a larger discussion of sexual abuse claims made against many, many leaders in the church, including Gothard himself.
After watching all four episodes this was the obvious takeaway for me. Many of us were shocked by the accusations against Josh Duggar but what this documentary makes clear is that this was bound to happen. It was really only the tip of the iceberg. The entire structure of Gothard’s plan for raising kids is set up to create abuse. Wives should be strictly submissive to their husbands, children to their parents, and everyone to the church leaders. Questioning is not allowed. Having any influence from outside this structure is not allowed. Kids are home-schooled using materials written or approved by Gothard. Kids who do not happily obey their parents are beaten until they become that child. Wives are simply an extension of that same thought pattern, if your wife doesn’t submit enough, beating her in the same way is acceptable.
My point here is that even if we assume a father has only the best of intentions going into parenthood, there will be abuse. They will be teaching their children that abuse is proper when the other person is supposed to submit to them. So, as an older male in the family, what else could a teenage Josh Duggar expect from his younger sisters? They were supposed to submit to him and with the hyperfocus on any kind of sexual temptation, including the importance of females not tempting males as opposed to males being responsible for their own gaze, it’s not at all surprising that there was sexual abuse in that family.
Frankly, I’d be surprised if there are families living in that structure who haven’t had some form of sexual abuse on top of the obvious, and condoned, physical abuse.
As one of the children who grew up in this church environment said, it’s the elephant in the room. If you spend every day hearing about how your sister should dress modestly so that you don’t think about your sister’s boobs, eventually you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about your sister’s boobs. It’s not healthy, and the interesting thing is, given what we learn about the people who created this curriculum, clearly they were struggling with their own lustful thoughts and actions, and many of the rules were about finding someone else to blame for them.
The fact that they then went and broke all the rules they set for other people also shows the impossibility of having absolute power over another person. The desire for that level of power is evil in itself.
How overarching is this submission? Jinger Duggar and her husband share that even after becoming an adult and having to star in a spin-off in an attempt to keep making money from the show even after the allegations against Josh became public, she never got paid. All money from TLC went to her father, who controlled the money for all of the kids and his wife, even after they became adults. This is all supposedly normal according to their beliefs. She was abused by her brother, forced to talk about it in TV interviews and say that she forgave him and that it wasn’t a big deal, forced to subject her own marriage and newborn children to a life of reality TV, even forced to film her own 60+ hours of labor, and never got paid for any of it.
And yet, she’s the only one of the Duggar children who appears in this documentary. She, apparently, is the only one who has left the church system that the family lives under. It may be easy to wonder why. Why have the other kids stayed in this environment? Worse yet, why is Anna, Josh Duggar’s wife, still waiting for her husband to get released from jail when he’s been found guilty of child abuse and possession of child abuse imagery? As one of the interviewers explained, what else is she going to do? She was raised to be a wife and have kids for the man chosen for her and told that man was Josh Duggar. She has no knowledge, or skills, to do anything other than that.
Maybe that’s the saddest fact of all. The goal is not to raise smart, creative, children. It’s to raise obedient children who will do only what the leaders want them to, and the loyalty to the church leaders, parents, and husbands is so complete that abuse victims pale in importance compared to the belief system. Nothing else matters.
Sadly, as much as we might want to point at TLC, Bill Gothard, and everyone else involved in those church teachings, the Duggar parents, etc. we also need to acknowledge just how often this same scenario plays out. Abuse in other churches by leaders and priests? Kept quiet for years. Abuse in sports? Abuse in the Boy Scouts? Abuse in Hollywood? Heck, abuse in our own families? How many times have victims of abuse been encouraged to keep quiet to protect the reputation of the system they were abused in?
As shocking and dark as the details of the Duggar family and their religious beliefs may be to many of us, it shouldn’t surprise us at all that there were so many people with a vested interest in the show, the religious organization, and the family were encouraged and even forced to gloss over the reality of what happened. If you’re shocked that anyone would go to such lengths to hide child abuse and ignore victims, you simply haven’t been paying attention. It goes on everywhere, and I hope the more cases like this one that we can bring to light, the more we’ll start to understand how horrible this is.