Inside the Christian Cult That Told the Duggars to Blame Their Daughters for Their Abuse
For most of America, InTouch Weekly's revelation that reality star Josh Duggar is a serial child molester came as a sickening shock. But to some self-described survivors of the "Quiverfull" movement of evangelical Christianity to which the Duggar family belongs, the family's story of secrecy, victim-blaming and denial is all too familiar.
Former members of the insular religious movement, which promotes procreation by forswearing all forms of birth control and conscripting women into a life of perpetual pregnancy, describe a cult-like movement obsessed with public appearance and deeply at odds with its dogmatic beliefs on sex.
"[The abuse] is not at all an aberration to Christian teachings about family values," Vyckie Garrison, a former adherent to the Quiverfull movement, told Mic. Garrison is the founder of No Longer Quivering, a blog that serves as a "gathering place for women escaping and healing from spiritual abuse." She believes the religious fundamentalism of the Quiverfull movement is a recipe for all kinds of domestic abuse, and sees the Duggar family's tragedy as a "crystallization" of the hypocrisy rife within the movement.
And it is hypocrisy. After all, the 21-member Duggar family has been held as the polestar of "family values"-style Christianity since they began appearing on one-hour television specials in 2009. They've been fêted by governors and courted by presidential candidates, held up as paragons of familial love in an era when more than 40% of children are born to unmarried mothers and roughly half of American marriages end in divorce.
When Doug Phillips, the now-disgraced former president of Vision Forum Ministries, gave the Duggar matriarch a "Mother of the Year Award" in 2010, he declared that Duggar "modeled for millions a passion for God's gift of the fruit of the womb and a tenderness and wisdom in raising her 19 children that have been downright inspiring."
The family's devotion to the fundamentalist Quiverfull movement has been viewed more as a curiosity than a liability, and the seemingly wholesome brood became a fixture on TLC's programming lineup with the hit show 19 Kids and Counting (formerly 17 Kids and Counting and 18 Kids and Counting, which premiered in 2008). The show was a ratings smash for the network; in October 2014, 4.4 million viewers tuned in to see daughter Jill Duggar walk down the aisle and share the first kiss of her life with her new husband — TLC's highest-rated telecast in four years.
But there was darkness behind the scenes. While the Quiverfull movement the Duggar family proselytized was seen as a harmless quirk by fans of the series, its archaic view of sex and the role of women created an atmosphere where public image was valued above all else — and where victims of sexual abuse are blamed for the crimes committed against them.
In addition to being adherents to the Quiverfull movement, the Duggars are also proponents of the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), a Christian homeschooling program invented by fundamentalist leader and accused sexual predator Bill Gothard. As one delves into the ATI's documents regarding treatment of instances of sexual abuse, the Duggar family's response to Josh's crimes seems almost inevitable.
According to Recovering Grace, a movement critical of ATI, a handout reportedly written by Gothard on "Counseling Sexual Abuse" purports to equip parents with the tools to deal with sexual abuse in a Christian homeschool environment. Its instructions: Question the abuse victim about her own behavior and how she might have prompted the abuse by "defrauding" God.
The possible reasons for God letting the abuse occur? "Immodest dress." "Indecent exposure." "Being with evil friends."
According to Garrison, blaming the underage victim of sexual abuse, rather than the perpetrator of the abuse, is the "logical conclusion" of the Quiverfull worldviews.
"This is not an uncommon occurrence in Quiverfull families," Garrison told Mic. "The isolation, keeping children from actual education about sex, all of these things build up a culture in which it's hard to even say what's happening. There would be a lot of self-doubt, there would be a lot of self-blame and there would be a lot of victim blaming."
In a culture that promotes only a rudimentary understanding of sexuality and desires (the Duggar children are not allowed to date, and only share their first kiss on the day of their wedding), even allowing children to wear nightgowns in front of each other might be tempting them with lustful thoughts."It sounds bizarre, but those are the kinds of things they would be questioning."
And "if" the abused is somehow "not at fault," according to the ATI curriculum? The victim is asked to choose between victimization, or being made "mightier in spirit" by their own abuse. It's the most disgusting game of "Would You Rather" imaginable, and, according to Garrison, a window into the potential reasoning behind Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar's decision to keep their son's horrible secret.
"The consequence of this abuse is, to them, a positive — it leads them to be saved," Garrison said. "To them, the abuse is something that has eternal consequences of great benefit and glory to God. They're minimizing the harm and damage that's been done to those girls, and minimizing the guilt that comes from the crime that Josh committed, because of that spiritual benefit."
"The nature of the patriarchy that distinguishes the Quiverfull mindset from other religious extremists is the teaching that there is a channel of authority, and that it goes straight through the father."
The Duggar girls are victims of abuse — and of a patriarchal cult. It's hard to emphasize enough how strong a force "traditional gender roles" are in the Quiverfull community. The movement asserts the fundamental supremacy of men over women and promotes the idea that women are sexual property whose sole value after marriage is their fecundity. "The nature of the patriarchy that distinguishes the Quiverfull mindset from other religious extremists," according to Garrison, "is the teaching that there is a channel of authority, and that it goes straight through the father."
In the Quiverfull theological hierarchy, God is the ultimate authority, followed by the family, over which fathers wield unlimited influence and power. "There is this cultic mentality that is aligned within the Quiverfull family culture. The family becomes a mini-cult, with the dad as the ruling cult leader," Garrison told Mic.
And what of the women? They are relegated to the roles of caretakers, domestic servants and babysitters, often co-raising their younger siblings in what Michelle Duggar calls a "buddy system." This means that, in addition to Josh Duggar's sisters being forced into daily contact their their abuser, they were also likely doing chores on his behalf.
"They come across as so whimsical, such a wholesome family," said Garrison. "And appearances are so important. As you can tell from their statement on Facebook, they're still hoping that people will be inspired by this, that they will see the kindness of God. 'Well, we're not perfect, but God is perfect.'"
Quiverfull's women aren't its only victims. "The Quiverfull dynamic sets a family to deal with [abuse] on a spiritual level and a character level and a heart level, rather than as a psychological problem, or an actual crime that needs to be dealt with," Garrison told Mic. "Calling the police or special services doesn't really come into play."
Rather than giving their son the help he clearly needed — according to InTouch Weekly, the Duggars claimed to have sent Josh to a "program [that] consisted of hard physical work and counseling," although Michelle Duggar later admitted to police that Josh had been working for a family friend's home remodeling business — Josh Duggar's parents closed ranks to protect their family's image. It's exactly what Quiverfull asks of its adherents, who are instructed to absolve abusers of their guilt by by pinning the fault of the abuse on daughters for "immodest dress" or "indecent exposure."
Quiverfull paints men like beasts, only a thigh's exposure away from being triggered into sexually assaulting their own flesh and blood. "It's a cult," said Garrison. "These teachings aren't any aberration to Christianity. Quiverfull is the full-blown version — it's what you get when you take basic Christianity to its logical conclusions."
The Quiverfull movement foments a culture where abuse is protected from scrutiny, even while the cameras are still rolling. The Duggar family's obsession with this cult of patriarchy isn't a cable-ready curiosity, and their religious fundamentalism isn't a quaint throwback. It's dangerous, and until more light is shown on the true nature of the Quiverfull movement, its adherents are at serious risk.