How a new docuseries pieced together the most damning exposé of the Duggars yet

Tribune Content Agency

If you casually watched an episode or two of “19 Kids and Counting” on TLC in the 2010s, you might have assumed that parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar had it all figured out. The show presented a cheerful, sitcom version of life in a huge, fundamentalist Christian family in which the biggest problems were logistical: Just how did Michelle Duggar do 10 loads of laundry a day or grocery shop for a family of 21?

That wholesome illusion was punctured in 2015, when allegations that eldest child Josh Duggar had molested numerous young girls, including several of his sisters, became public. And it unraveled completely in December 2021, when Josh, by then a father of seven, was convicted of possessing and receiving child pornography, charges for which he is now serving a 12-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

The new docuseries “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” goes beyond the placid reality TV façade to examine the family’s connections to the Institute in Basic Life Principles, an ultraconservative, highly influential religious ministry. Its founder, Bill Gothard, promoted total female submission to male authority, urging his followers to shun birth control, short skirts and public school. He resigned in 2014 amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving numerous women and girls.

Premiering this week on Prime Video, “Shiny Happy People” makes the case that “19 Kids and Counting” and spinoff “Counting On,” which aired for a combined 21 seasons and were among TLC’s highest-rated programs, put an anodyne gloss on the Duggars’ extreme fundamentalism and essentially functioned as a televised ministry for IBLP.

It also powerfully connects the dots between Josh’s criminal behavior, the exploitation of the Duggar children by reality TV producers and the many less famous people traumatized by experiences in the Christian patriarchy movement.

“What interested me was the cult behind the family,” said Olivia Crist, who directed the series with Julia Willoughby Nason. At the height of the Duggars’ TV fame, the public was inundated with images of “this shiny, happy family. But when you start to peel back the layers and do a little bit more research, you understand that there’s a lot of abuse going on within the fundamentalist ideology, IBLP, that the Duggar family promoted, and a lot of survivors who are just begging to be heard.”

Some of the most troubling allegations in the docuseries come from Jill Dillard — the fourth of Jim Bob and Michelle’s 19 children — and her husband, Derick Dillard, whose 2014 wedding was documented in a two-hour special episode of “19 Kids and Counting” viewed by nearly 3 million people.

Dillard claims that even after she turned 18, she never received compensation for “19 Kids and Counting” or “Counting On.” “No check, no cash, no nothing. For seven-and-a-half years of my adult life, I was never paid,” she says in the series.

Jill Dillard played a key role in keeping the family’s reality TV empire afloat after InTouch Magazine reported in 2015 that Josh had been investigated by local police for allegedly molesting five younger girls a decade earlier. Dillard was outed against her will as one of Josh’s alleged victims, and participated in a 2015 interview with Megyn Kelly that downplayed her brother’s behavior because, she says, she felt “obligated to help.” (Her husband describes the interview as “a suicide mission.”)

Similarly, Dillard says she feared saying no to starring in “Counting On,” the Josh-free spinoff created after public outcry forced the cancellation of “19 Kids,” because “then I’m not obeying my parents and bad things are going to happen to me.”

“We were taken advantage of,” she says in the documentary, which details how Jim Bob and Michelle allegedly addressed Josh’s behavior — by sending him to an IBLP-run camp and arranging for a stern talk with a family friend in law enforcement who later went to jail on child pornography charges.

Dillard also says she was pressured into giving birth for the first time on camera despite her objections and tricked by her father — on the day before her wedding — into signing a contract that locked her into five more years of the TV show. Now a mother of three, Dillard no longer adheres to the strict rules of IBLP and has garnered headlines for doing mundane things that defy Duggar tradition, like wearing shorts and getting her nose pierced. She says she is “very much on the outside” of her family. This week, she announced a forthcoming memoir, “Counting the Cost,” about her painful experiences on reality TV.

A spokesperson for TLC declined the L.A. Times’ request for comment on the docuseries, and did not respond when asked specifically about Dillard’s claims. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar did not respond to a request for comment.

“Jill was incredibly honest, forthcoming and vulnerable,” said “Shiny Happy People” executive producer Cori Shepherd Stern. “I have a lot of respect for what she did, in speaking to us and telling her side. It was a huge risk. This is a woman whose entire life was in front of a camera, and she had no control over the editing.”

But, Stern added, Dillard was motivated by her experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse who never wanted to be publicly named. (She and her sisters filed a lawsuit against the Springdale, Arkansas, police for releasing records related to the case. It was dismissed last year.) “She felt really strongly that that never should have been made public and really wants to advocate for privacy for victims of sexual abuse,” Stern said. (Dillard was not available for an interview with the L.A. Times.)

Dillard’s claims of financial exploitation by her parents are not surprising, said Crist, because of the way that IBLP gave fathers complete authority over their families.

As outlined in the series, IBLP espoused a patriarchal theology in which women were required to adhere to strict standards of modesty (floor-length skirts and waist-length hair) and sexual purity, consent to sex whenever their husband wanted it, and bear as many children as God gave them. Corporal punishment and homeschooling were standard, and older girls often were tasked with raising their younger siblings. Dating also was forbidden; young couples courted in highly monitored meetings orchestrated by their fathers.

In IBLP, “Women and young girls are considered objects from birth,” said Nason. “From embryos, essentially. God is the one that decides when they’re able to be born into the world to serve men.”

Rather than using a traditional church setting, Gothard, as the leader of the organization, spread his beliefs through training seminars, “character-building” programs and homeschooling curricula, wielding huge influence in evangelical circles — and even secular institutions like prisons and schools — beginning in the 1970s. “At a time when there was a lot of social and cultural upheaval and a lot of Christians were seeking answers,” he offered a deceptively simple solution, said Crist.

Gothard exerted control through his teachings, which “really spread like a disease,” and turned thousands of families into patriarchal “mini-cults,” as she put it.

The docuseries also includes disturbing archival footage from IBLP events — in one clip, a pastor demonstrates how to “spank a boy and bless him at the same time” by bending a young volunteer from the audience over his knees and patting his bottom, to laughter from the audience — as well as harrowing accounts of abuse and neglect from people raised according to Gothard’s teachings. They include Emily Elizabeth Anderson, one of the numerous women who accused Gothard of sexual abuse, and author Tia Levings, who was drawn to IBLP as an overwhelmed young wife looking for guidance but instead found herself with five kids by the age of 30, trapped in what she alleges was a physically abusive marriage.

There are excerpts from IBLP “wisdom booklets,” homeschooling documents distributed by a division of IBLP called the Advanced Training Institute. These booklets taught children that all fossils were formed simultaneously during the Great Flood and trained girls in avoiding “eye traps” — or dressing in a way that drew male attention away from their faces. “Instead of learning math, you’re learning slut-shaming,” says Brooke Arnold, who was raised in IBLP.

Former followers recall the fear provoked by seemingly innocuous objects, like Cabbage Patch Dolls, which Gothard claimed were cursed by demons. Sexual education was nonexistent; boys were not even supposed to change diapers, especially for baby girls, lest they see the infant’s genitalia.

“The educational neglect that these kids faced was horrendous and really something that I think more attention needs to be brought to,” said Crist.

The environment almost inevitably led to abuse, according to former followers interviewed in the series. “Nobody was surprised about Josh,” says Heather Heath, who was raised in an IBLP family. “Brothers do that.”

“Whenever you have a organization that suppresses or ignores sexuality, and treats it in a way that’s dirty or shameful, there are harms that come from that,” said executive producer Blye Pagon Faust, whose previous credits include “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. “When you’ve got an authoritarian system that puts women and children at the mercy of the men and the boys, it’s the perfect breeding ground for this kind of abuse.”

The TLC show made it clear that the Duggars had unusually conservative views but largely omitted the family’s more controversial practices, like Michelle’s endorsement of a method for disciplining infants called “blanket training.” Curious viewers — and there were many — had to turn to online forums like FreeJinger or Recovering Grace to learn more.

“They didn’t really say ‘IBLP’ on the show, if you notice. But [Gothard’s] laws were taped on the walls,” Amy King, who is Jim Bob’s niece but wasn’t raised in IBLP, said in an interview with the L.A. Times. She appeared in 14 seasons of “19 Kids” and “Counting On,” playing the role of the worldly cousin who adored her family but was baffled by their rigid lifestyle.

“I believe that my uncle did a really great job of hiding it and making it look picture-perfect and rosy,” she said.

King stopped regularly filming the show in 2015. A few months after the child molestation allegations resurfaced, Gawker reported that Josh had been using Ashley Madison, a website for people seeking extramarital affairs. “I had to step back and think, ‘Am I a part of something that is healthy?’ I realized, I have to get out of this. And I did.”

King participated in “Shiny Happy People” because she hopes “it will help as many people and as many families and as many survivors as possible,” she said. “I’m not trying to bash my family in any kind of way.”

The Duggars definitely used their fame “as a ministry,” said Faust. “And they never would have had that platform if they didn’t have the show.”

“Shiny Happy People” arrives a few months after the release of “Becoming Free Indeed,” a memoir by Jinger Duggar Vuolo, who is the sixth child in the Duggar family and is no longer aligned with IBLP. In the book, she traces her journey out of a “cult-like” belief system built on fear, manipulation and control. Jessica Willis Fisher, who starred along with her evangelical family in the TLC series “The Willis Family,” released a memoir last year alleging years of physical and sexual abuse by her father.

Other projects, including the FX docuseries “The Secrets of Hillsong” and reality shows like “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,“My Unorthodox Life,” “Sister Wives” and “Welcome to Plathville,” have shown real people struggling to redefine themselves after straying from hierarchical religious organizations that shaped their lives.

“It is so visceral for people who are trying to deconstruct. It’s like a part of their DNA,” said Crist, who describes it like “running a rake over your brain. You’re really shattering a worldview that’s been so embedded in you since you were born.”

And, as “Shiny Happy People” argues, none of us are really free from these beliefs. In later episodes, the filmmakers draw connections between the Duggar family’s celebrity, IBLP (which is still operating) and the rising influence of fundamentalist Christians on American politics. The message? The Duggars’ views “have become mainstream” to a huge degree, said Nason. “The cult of patriarchy is alive and well in society, whether you’re in IBLP, the halls of Congress or in the Supreme Court.”



Rating: 16+ (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 16 with advisories for violence, sex and coarse language)

How to watch: Prime Video