Shiny Happy People, the Duggar family and cult documentary, is crucial viewing –

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The Duggars, Bill Gothard, and me.
I grew up adjacent to the fundamentalist Christian cult that Shiny Happy People, the four-part docuseries ostensibly about the reality TV-famous Duggar family, was really about. The Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), founded and led by a man named Bill Gothard, had many arms: a series of seminars and workshops, copious curricula on “successful living,” and a large homeschool organization.
It didn’t present as a cult; it looked like an ordinary Christian ministry, but with several possible levels of involvement, all of which strongly advocated radical patriarchy and a series of stringent fundamentalist views. Though I was homeschooled, my family never joined the homeschool organization that catered to the most hard-core members (in part because they required men to be clean-shaven, and my bearded father refused), but the rest of the leader’s teachings pervaded my life through most of my teens.
That’s probably why, when Shiny Happy People dropped on June 2, I couldn’t tell if the show was immensely popular, or if the many tweets about IBLP, Gothard, and the emotional and sexual abuse stories in the docuseries I saw were just Twitter’s algorithm knowing what to put in front of me. I’d felt connections to many of the dozens of recently released religious abuse docuseries — everything from God Forbid (about Jerry Falwell Jr.) to Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey (about Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) to both seasons of The Vow (about upstate “sex cult” NXIVM) to two recent series about Hillsong and its disgraced former pastor, Carl Lentz. But this was the one I’d been waiting for, the one I felt was narrating my life. Judging from what I saw online, I wasn’t the only one.
I follow a lot of people, many around 40 like myself, who grew up with serious exposure to IBLP, the related homeschool organizations called the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), and the man behind them all, Gothard, a soft-spoken fundamentalist minister with a predilection for giving “chalk talks.” (He’d explain some principle of living a “successful” life drawn from some textual snippet of the Bible and, simultaneously, draw a landscape or something on a chalkboard. Gothard is honestly a pretty talented artist; the big reveal — when you finally saw what he’d been drawing all along — was a real wow moment.)
Those of us who grew up in or around Gothard’s world can feel estranged from contemporary discussions of American evangelical culture because we frequently felt locked outside of it, noses pressed to the glass. There’s an often-blurry boundary between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, opaque to most people; to generalize, evangelicals like Billy Graham are more engaged with mainstream culture, whether through copying it, criticizing it, or trying to influence it. Fundamentalists tend to cut “the world” a wider berth and create elaborate lifestyle rules to keep themselves separate, which is part of what made the Duggars’ appearance on a TLC reality show so unusual. To us, though, this boundary was vibrantly alive. Not only was most secular culture off-limits, but most Christian culture was, too.
Depending on how serious your parents or church were about IBLP teachings (disseminated primarily through week-long seminars referred to as the “Basic” and “Advanced” seminars, and then a host of supplemental materials), your level of separation might vary. Many were taught, for instance, that “rock music” — any music, even Christian songs, that had an emphasis on the second and fourth beats, rather than the first and third — was actually a secret way that demons got into your soul, perfected by “African witch doctors,” and that prolonged exposure to it killed houseplants.
It goes without saying that TV and movies were frequently forbidden, with severely restricted Institute-approved exceptions. Dating was verboten, in favor of parent-directed, highly chaperoned “courtship.” Even I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the seminal evangelical work on the topic, could be viewed with suspicion.
Furthermore, the intensely patriarchal nature of the Gothard universe (something richly undergirded by the infamous “umbrella of authority” cited frequently in Shiny Happy People) meant that young women were mainly required to learn homemaking and childrearing, and young people were strongly discouraged from attending any college. This included Christian institutions, especially if they required moving away from home — though people in and adjacent to the organization more convinced of the need to infiltrate American politics often went to college anyhow.
Teens in ATI tended to go to the organization’s “training centers,” located in places like Indianapolis, Dallas, and upper Michigan, for seminars in subjects like “counseling,” culinary arts, and music, plus lengthy stints in ALERT (a paramilitary-style program) for the boys and EXCEL (a several-month finishing school) for the girls.
The abuses at those training centers are well known now and thoroughly explained in the documentary. Subjects talk about sexual abuse at the hands of male staffers, including Gothard, as well as practices like locking teenagers in solitary confinement “prayer rooms” when they broke the rules — which, one subject says, included not using tampons. But at the time, the training centers were the place to be, a signal that you were on the right path toward godliness. When I was 16, I went to a three-week music camp at the Indianapolis Training Center, and it kind of changed my life.
As many have noted, the interesting thing about Gothard is that even if you weren’t deep in his universe — didn’t know, for instance, that he claimed Cabbage Patch Dolls were possessed by Satan, or that this allegedly celibate man taught a long list of weird rules about marital sex — if you were evangelical, you probably bumped into his teachings in one way or another. In the 1970s, Gothard’s seminars filled big auditoriums and stadiums, and his ideas had a way of leaking into churches and organizations. Consider, for example, that both Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin were linked to Gothard. And of course, there’s that reality show: all 10 seasons of the Duggars’ 19 Kids and Counting, as well as its spinoffs.
I’m telling you all of this to say that I finally realized something while watching Shiny Happy People. The documentaries about the Falwells and Hillsong had covered familiar territory to me, but it was The Vow and Keep Sweet that left me most shaken. The absolute fealty to a self-appointed guru-style leader, the amounts of money and hidden influence, the emphases on appearances, the strange rules and tests of loyalty, and, most of all, the insistence on male superiority and dominance over women – these were familiar, because they were Gothard’s tactics, too.
I felt those same rattled emotions watching Shiny Happy People, and that clarified, for me, a question I’d been rolling around in my head: should these docuseries about cults and spiritually abusive leaders exist? For a few years, I’ve felt torn. On the one hand, the best of them make for terrifically entertaining television, abutting the true crime genre but with a different type of grisliness. On the other hand, by nature, they probe the intense trauma that a whole group of people carries with them, sometimes millions of people, and isn’t it a little gross to find that entertaining?
It struck me, watching Shiny Happy People, what the true subject of these sorts of films is — at least, when they’re being honest and thoughtful. Nearly every one of these films isn’t just about a cult leader and a scandal; they examine the subjugation, in particular, of women at the hands of charismatic men. Even more importantly, in these docs that deal with fundamentalisms of all stripes (Latter-day Saints, Protestant, or even “secular,” in the case of NXIVM), a question arises: Why didn’t you just leave?
Because you can’t.
The further your cult removes you from contact with the real world, the more implausible it seems that there even is life beyond its walls. Several subjects in Shiny Happy People, including Jill Duggar Dillard, speak about the bewildering nature of living on the “outside,” feeling as though you’ve suddenly moved to a different universe where they speak another language, with totally different body language and customs and costumes. Furthermore, the rules of the culture are so deeply ingrained in your psyche that to leave seems impossible. I recall a deeply disturbing episode of The Vow, in which a victim has to explain to a jury why she stayed in “solitary confinement” for several years when the cult claims the door was unlocked and she could walk out at any time. She agrees, but says that they didn’t need locks to keep her there. When I heard the story, I instantly recalled the “prayer rooms” of the Institute’s training centers.
I suppose this is why I wasn’t surprised when sexual abuse and assault allegations were brought against Gothard by a number of young women who’d worked closely with him. I hadn’t been close enough to any of them personally to know the stories, but I remember thinking, “Of course, of course.” These are the age-old tactics of a twisted cult leader; if you were on the inside, it was hard to think of leaving. Even when his advances were clearly against the very things he was teaching. How could it be wrong?
In the end, I’ve come around to the existence of Shiny Happy People and other docuseries that will likely be seen largely by people who don’t share the experience of the particular cult and will mostly be gawking at the train wreck. I get it, and though some docuseries are more exploitative than others, I don’t begrudge those viewers.
Yet, if I’ve learned anything from my post-viewing Twitter feed — or the continued popularity of these series — it’s that there’s a reason to watch these stories because ultimately they’re tales of redemption. They always feature ex-members who got out, who managed to find the strength and the help to leave an abusive situation and move into the light. It was never easy and they’re living with pain, but they aren’t under those thumbs anymore. There’s a spark of life in their eyes that they’re determined to pass on to others.
Their experiences are far from unique and that means their story might demonstrate to someone on the other end, watching wide-eyed or furtively, that a different life away from their particular cage is not just possible, but joyful. There are cages all around us, but there’s freedom, too.
Shiny Happy People is streaming on Prime Video.
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