NOTE: This article contains detailed descriptions of abuse. Please read at your own discretion.
A new docuseries, airing this Friday on Prime Video, explores the untold side of the Duggar family story that was not shown in 19 Kids and subsequent spin-offs and specials — namely, their fundamental religious upbringing and ties to the cult-like Christian organization, the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP).
Many will remember the reality television phenomenon that (quite literally) grew to be 19 Kids and Counting – a quaint show about an extraordinarily large family with extraordinarily well-behaved children. Plotlines followed parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar as they homeschooled their modestly dressed brood, tackled never-ending chores like laundry and meal prep and popped out new kids with incredible frequency.
Followers of the reality shows will also remember the scandals that have rocked the family in more recent years involving the Duggar’s eldest son, Josh. 19 Kids was halted in 2015 after reports surfaced that Josh had sexually assaulted five girls — some his sisters — prior to beginning the show.
The show was resurrected later in 2015 in a follow-up TLC series, Counting On, which followed some of the grown-up Duggar siblings as they started their own families, but it was also cancelled when Josh was caught up in another scandal: he was arrested in 2021 for the possession of child sex abuse material. (He was convicted and sentenced to more than 12 years in jail in 2022.)
And while this new series touches on Josh’s crimes and the fallout, it digs much deeper into the disturbing dynamic of the Duggar family, the systems of control imposed on them by their faith and the ultra-conservative teachings of the IBLP.
Read on for more details of some of the most shocking revelations. (NOTE: Spoilers ahead for Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets.)
The ‘cult’ that is IBLP
The Institute for Basic Life Principles is not a church but rather an organization, reminiscent of Scientology or NXIVM, that has specific and non-negotiable rules and teachings families are expected to follow.
Founded by Bill Gothard, an influential leader in the “Quiverfull” conservative Christian movement, the IBLP encourages families to have as many children as possible in order to create more voices to share its teachings.
Gothard’s doctrine focuses heavily on “umbrellas of authority” — where each follower falls under the authority of someone else. Women are to submit to male leaders, especially their husbands, and children are expected to submit to their parents. Children are also expected to follow an IBLP homeschool curriculum that falls well short of accepted educational targets.
And while Gothard, who was unmarried and never had children, eventually resigned from the IBLP in 2014 (following at least 30 claims of sexual harassment from former employees) the documentary makes a compelling case that Gothard’s — as well as Josh’s — behaviours were not isolated events.
Through interviews with ex-IBLP members, sociologists, pastors and journalists, the documentary explores an alleged endemic of sexual assault, harassment and exploitation within an organization that was designed to keep people from speaking out about the abuse that was happening within.
Jill Duggar speaks out
One of the voices brought on to expose the dysfunctional inner workings of the IBLP and, subsequently, the Duggar Family, is none other than the fourth-born Duggar sibling, Jill.
The first episode opens with Jill and her husband, Derick Dillard, getting settled in front of the camera as Jill expresses her trepidation.
“Yeah, I mean, doing an interview like this isn’t easy, and I didn’t want to do it,” Jill admits with a nervous laugh. “There’s a lot there,” she continues. “Like, do I want to open that can of worms?”
“There’s a story that’s going to be told and I’d rather be the one telling it.”
Jill, one of her brother’s victims, describes what it was like to be interviewed by Megyn Kelly of Fox News when the news broke of Josh’s molestation.
“It’s not something I’m proud of,” says a sobbing Jill, telling the camera that she had never said “no” to Jim Bob before, referencing how she was expected to be submissive to her parents.
During The Kelly File interview, which Jill now claims was the Duggar family’s attempt “to get to where TLC would be cool moving forward with this show,” both Jill and her sister Jessa appeared to minimize the allegations against Josh, saying that “the extent of it was mild” and defended him against claims that he was “a child molester or a pedophile or rapist.” The sisters also said they forgave their brother and praised Jim Bob and Michelle for how they handled the situation.
“In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done the Megyn Kelly stuff. I felt like I was in a place again of, like, bearing the burden and the weight of just … even though you volunteer, it’s like you feel obligated to help,” she says in Shiny Happy People, wiping away her tears.
“If I hadn’t felt obligated to do it for the sake of the show and do it for the sake of my parents, I wouldn’t have done it.”
And while Jill says she often felt beholden to her parents under the IBLP’s umbrella of authority structure, there were other times when she felt outright deceived by her dad.
On the hectic day before her wedding, shortly after 19 Kids was cancelled, she says she was running through the kitchen when her dad had her sign a contract.
“I didn’t know what it was for,” she said, but acknowledges that in the Duggar family “signing contracts to agree to certain rules or standards of behaviour was not uncommon.”
“We found out later that it was a commitment of your life for the next five years,” added Derick, explaining that by hastily signing the document they were now tied into a contract for the upcoming show, Counting On.
When it came time to have their first baby — a big money-making episode for TLC — the couple was not interested in having the cameras there, but the contract they signed said otherwise. In a compromise, Jill says TLC gave her and her husband handheld video cameras and had them document the process themselves.
“I felt like, if I said ‘no,’ and I’m not obeying my parents, then bad things are going to happen to me,” Jill says. “IBLP and the teachings draw in people like my dad who want this control. It can foster this cult-like environment. I absolutely think people would be drawn to that.”
Jill and Derick also claim that they were never paid for their work on Counting On, despite being two of the show’s main characters. Instead, they claim, Jim Bob kept the money for himself.
When they finally pushed the issue with Jim Bob, and he offered some of the older children a lump sum payment, it came with strings attached: they would be required to sign a lifelong production commitment with Jim Bob’s company. When Jill and Derick declined, their relationship with TLC came to an end.
Jim Bob and Michelle posted a joint statement to their website about Shiny Happy People, calling the docuseries “sad.”
“The recent ‘documentary’ that talks about our family is sad because in it we see the media and those with ill intentions hurting people we love,” the statement reads. “Like other families, ours too has experienced the joys and heartbreaks of life, just in a very public format.”
“This ‘documentary’ paints so much and so many in a derogatory and sensationalized way because sadly that’s the direction of entertainment these days.”
A culture of control
The IBLP’s extreme lengths to control their membership, the documentary argues, went far beyond contracts and umbrellas of authority.
Children, the docuseries’ subjects explain, were taught that “instant obedience” to their parents was the only option — that they were never to argue or talk back, but instead, enthusiastically do what was asked of them.
If a child in an IBLP family showed insubordination, it’s alleged they were often spanked or hit with rods. IBLP parents, it’s alleged, followed the corporal punishment teachings outlined in the book To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl, and the audience is shown a clip where Michael Pearl instructs parents to hit a misbehaving child five times.
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“If he screams too hard with the first five, gets hysterical, wait. You know, a little psychological terror is sometimes more effective than the pain,” Pearl says in the clip.
Global News reached out to IBLP Canada about claims of abuse within their organization, but they did not respond by press time.
In 2022 they issued a statement saying they “would never condone nor do we tolerate abuse of anyone. There is no teaching by IBLP that women are inferior to men because there is no such teaching in the Bible. From a Biblical perspective, all people are equal in value before God despite the fact that we are all different with varying gifts and talents, and may have different complementary roles.”
They added that the “IBLP does not comment on the personal lives of its program participants.”
Training, as described in the documentary, started at an early age with “blanket training,” where an infant child would be put on a blanket with an object placed nearby but off the blanket. If the child left the blanket or reached for the object, they would be hit.
The goal was “breaking the rebellious spirit they’re born with,” says Eve Ettinger, an ex-IBLP member featured in the documentary.
Older children, the show alleges, were often sent to training centres where they performed long hours of unpaid labour. Sometimes they were locked in rooms for days or weeks at a time, until an authority figure determined they had repented for their sins long enough.
And it wasn’t just children who were controlled with spanking; wives were often abused and spanked by their husbands for their insubordination or behaving in ways that were deemed unappealing. These fear and shame-based techniques went hand-in-hand with aspects of the Duggars’ personalities evident on 19 Kids, the show explains, like the children’s meek personas and Michelle’s infantilized “baby voice.”
Jim Bob and Michelle issued a statement to NBC News in 2022, responding to an article that was critical of the organization, saying: “We do not agree with everything taught by Dr. Bill Gothard or IBLP, but some of the life-changing Biblical principles we learned through IBLP’s ministry have helped us deepen our personal walks with God.”
From control to silence
These extreme measures to control women and children ensured a persistent pattern of grooming and abuse within the IBLP, the show’s subjects argue, and led to years of the covering up of crimes, as well as silence from victims.
Jim Bob’s sister, Deanna Duggar, and her daughter Amy King (née Duggar), say they learned the year before TLC’s very first Duggar special, 14 Children and Pregnant Again!, that Josh had “touched his sisters inappropriately.”
Bobye and Jim Holt, former friends of Michelle and Jim Bob, said they learned of the abuse around the same time, when their daughter Kaeleigh had been selected by Josh for courtship leading to marriage. The Holts recall that when they asked the Duggars about it, Michelle told them that Josh was planning to reveal the abuse to their daughter after the marriage was finalized.
Sexual and physical abuses in the organization, however, were never discussed; teachings were developed within IBPL making it “impermissible to gossip,” which further silenced those who were suffering.
The future intentions of the IBLP
The culmination of secrecy, silence and control comes together in the final episode of the documentary, where viewers learn about an ongoing project that one subject calls “one of the most ambitious plots of modern evangelical history (that) almost no one has ever heard of.”
Alex Harris, a lawyer and ex-IBPL member, explains that the organization has been planning a decades-long, multigenerational plan to “raise an elite strike force of Christian, homeschool graduates to infiltrate the highest ranks of government.”
Harris says he knows firsthand of the plan because he used to be part of it — it’s called “Generation Joshua” and he used to be one of the leaders.
IBPL’s most promising and charismatic homeschooled children, Harris explains, receive specialized education and training with an emphasis on law and government, with the goal of getting into some of America’s most influential law-making offices. The long game, he says, is for these kids to eventually take seats in the Senate and be appointed as Supreme Court justices.
He cites some of Generation Joshua’s recent successes as former Rep. Madison Cawthorn winning a seat in Congress, young members working for former president Donald Trump and the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or is involved in an abusive situation, please visit the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime for help. They are also reachable toll-free at 1-877-232-2610.
‘Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets’ will be available for streaming on Prime Video beginning June 2.