Thursday, June 15, 2023

Concerning Shiny Happy People, Two Weeks Later

I started watching the Amazon docuseries about the Duggar Family entitled Shiny Happy People two weeks ago today. 

I could not get through the second episode in one sitting, wept, and had to come bad to it the next day. I then spent the better part of the next two days bursting into tears multiple times, and I could barely function because of it. 

I'm triggered by so many things, and I was shocked at how it threw me back twenty-five years to the feelings, memories, and traumas I wrestled with in a Gothard-oriented church. I walked away on March 1, 1997, after spending four years there when I had no clue who Bill Gothard was (the creator of the religious system followed by the Duggars) or that his system governed activities in that church. I thought I'd healed and transcended it all, but I don't know that injustice, cruelty, or spiritual abuse can ever be made tolerable. 

Terrible things should remain distressing and deeply disturbing. They should rightly drive us to examine ourselves.

If you take away one thing from this blog post, note that the docuseries Shiny Happy People merely scratched the surface of the iceberg of pain and suffering above the water – true for all of those many things associated with Gothard's system and those like it. 

There's a mountain of hidden tragedy, invisible and underneath the water of view. If you found it offensive and difficult, or if you saw it as an attack on good, well-meaning Christians, please know that you were spared far more than the half of it. The producers and directors had to make it watchable for those who knew little to nothing about the religious side of the Duggars. Considering how deeply triggered I am on so many levels as someone who has worked hard at processing this stuff for the past 25 years, they did an excellent job. I'm intermittently angry that they didn't dig deeper, but I also keep returning to consider that it was just an overview.

The Valiant Survivors, First and Foremost

I am so proud of the Second Generation Adults who came forward to share their painful experiences candidly, and I wish that I were less affected by my own baggage so I could have more energy to laud them for their courage, especially for Jill (Duggar) Dillard. I've failed to note and emphasize this strongly enough, but I do so here and now. I think the troubling aspects of the series that have intruded upon my life as trauma triggers that have stolen my attention.

I'm also caught in the pain of remembering the author of Quivering Daughters, a book published in 2010 that aimed to provide Christian support to this same group of adult survivors of Quvierfull and Patriarchy. I played an active role in bringing that book to press in its early stages, but I understand that the author returned to her family when they repudiated her for writing it. I hope that by avoiding naming her here, I will not add to her troubles but can still honor her valiant efforts of self-sacrifice. Those in patriarchy at the time added to that pain when they launched a website mocking the book and cruelly defaming the contributors (a characterization that does not due their sinister efforts justice).  The review in Christianity Today, which mentions this website, notes that it likened the author to Satan, “whispering into the ear of a struggling sinner”  to girls being abused in myriads of ways by their parents.

When I listened to Girl Defined's commentary on the docuseries two days ago, I recalled the many responses from Christian ministers stating that the book, in various ways, was "not Christian enough" for them to recommend. Most viewed the book as an attack on all Christians who homeschool, and most felt condemned, even if they did not engage in the behaviors detailed in the book. I don't know what book they read and what docuseries they watched, but neither aimed at all Christians nor all homeschoolers – only the ones who subjected their children to abject abuse and followed agendas they are most proud to promote. (I'm so glad for the review that Larry Pile wrote of Quivering Daughters: It was plenty Christian enough for him!)

I understand that, along with taking the book out of print, the author has wholly retreated from public life and from interacting with anyone concerning her book. I don't have words to express my deep grief concerning this.

The docuseries accomplished in part what I hoped the book would do thirteen years ago – primarily giving a voice to the voiceless so they could find their own like those who appeared in the docuseries. Its author deserves her own notable place of honor among those featured in Shiny Happy People.

(SIDE NOTE: Notably missing in Girl Defined's video review, while claiming that they never had anything to do with Gothard or the Duggars, one appeared in a Vision Forum video honoring Michelle Duggar in 2010. May this attest to the extent of Gothard's influence among Christian homeschoolers in the past. I describe the now defunct and scandalized Vision Forum as "next-generation Gothardism" that extended his ideas into greater error.)

Revisiting Life at the Quiverfull Church

I did not anticipate that this documentary would trigger me so profoundly, expecting myself to be caught up in the personal stories of the Second Genearion Adults. My church was Charismatic and did not follow all the legalistic dress codes and other elements that the Duggars observed. So, I did not expect it to derail my life with intrusive and painful residue from the PTSD I suffered while I was a member of that church from Spring 1993 until Spring of 1997.

The worst part of it concerns the inescapable child abuse element that hung about like a dark cloud that would suddenly sweep in to block out the sun. I was not a mother, so I didn't have much direct knowledge of specifics because most mothers held me at arm's length like a pariah. In a way, I'm glad because I could barely suffer the things I heard, doubting that they were really observed. I once witnessed a parent shaking a LOT of Tobasco sauce on the tongue of her pre-school-aged son. I heard a great deal more about the Ezzos' program there, and I'd learn about ATI's secret teachings later, after I'd left. Honestly, most of the stuff I heard about in those days, I doubted that anyone actually practiced. I would later be assured by parents who left Gothard's system that many parents did. But in the beginning, I also didn't believe that people so deeply embraced Gothard's oversimplified theology, either. I regret not asking more questions all along. 

Some things I had to see or experience to believe. (Since starting this blog, that statement is the most common one I hear from people who have been spiritually abused after leaving their churches where they were demeaned, harassed, controlled, and thrown away. "I had to see it to believe that it was possible to be treated this way by other Christians.")

My church focused on the umbrella of authority concept, Gothard's aberrant redefinition of grace, and his overly simplistic interpretation of God's gift of infused, ethereal, spiritual power as a consolation prize for suffering. That was toxic enough to create perfect, compliant victims. The families that used Gothard's homeschooling curriculum (Advanced Training Institute or "ATI"), which parents swore an oath to keep secret, rose to a much higher level of abuse. Those families learned a more toxic set of secret techniques of 'child training,' a "Biblical" term that derives directly from Proverbs 22:6 (“train up a child in the way that he should go”). Much of it concerning sex between husband and wife derived from non-canonical, apocryphal texts, and Judaic commentaries.

Gothard drew much of his system from the theology, practices, and oral traditions of the Independent Fundamental Baptists (IFB), and parents could opt to purchase the academic portion from the IFB's Bob Jones University. Gothard adopted many corporal punishment techniques from the controversial IFB minister Michael Pearl (programs from whom have resulted in many child deaths and truly inestimable morbidities).

For the first two days after watching the docuseries, perhaps the worst stressor for me was the glib way that Blanket Training was presented, a hallmark practice of most ATI parents. Maybe I fixated on this to distract myself from the rest of the “child training” practices that Gothard adopted from Pearl. To cope with this, I created a video that detailed what I know of the process and a little more about the cruel beating of babies. 

This video is not by best work – let me put it that way.  There are some minor errors in it, but I don't have the heart and stomach to correct them. (I could barely speak through parts of it, but I wanted to finish it so I could get back to living my life.) Telling people how the documentary had not told half of it, I hoped that I might prevent more parents from adopting the practice. A person exposed to only the IBLP conference experience or had only viewed the docuseries would not have any idea that such things were taught to Gothard homeschoolers. That did help me greatly after I spent two days sleeping like a hibernating bear when I finished because it was so difficult and such a consuming subject.

Triggers and Baggage ad nauseum...

The docuseries' elements and topics upset me, but I turned a corner when I started working through these most notable dilemmas. Frankly, I could fill a book with the things that have surfaced in just these two weeks along with topics that have arisen in discussions with other post-Gothard people. While I and those like me feel very validated and a bit vindicated, a lot of things and the vast array of emotions I'm continuing to contend with prove exhausting and time-consuming. I've felt some fleeting rage, too, all related to physical abuse, and a few times when thinking about the educational neglect. I'm weary and worn from it.

I discussed the docuseries with my dear friend who left the Gothard church but still reveres Gothard and Pearl yesterday, and I wonder if our 30-year friendship will last beyond it. That is truly tragic. I have lost so many precious, important friends because of my convictions and my vocal opinions about them. I may lose my dearest girlfriend. But as my husband says, as time unfolds, “There are now too many 'No Fly Zones' with her, and you can't avoid them all anymore.” I cannot openly share my heart and mind and soul with her on matters about which I am passionate, serious, and sometimes polemic. She has always loved the truth more than her own comfort, but I find myself grieving in anticipation of a potentially sad outcome.

As Jill Duggar Dillard states so well, "I just hope and pray that this never happens to anyone else ever again.”Me, too, Jill. Thank you for your candid disclosure and transparency.

Please visit Homeschooling's Invisible Children. I hope and pray that the things documented there will not ever happen to anyone else ever again also.