In her first book, Jill Duggar tells the story of how she broke free of her family's abusive, patriarchal ideology and became her own person.
[Previous: ‘Under Authority’: The law of crying out]
The documentary Shiny Happy People exposes the radical, dangerous beliefs of Christian patriarchy that lie behind the wholesome image of TV-reality-show families like the Duggars. The documentary’s biggest get was Jill Duggar, one of the older Duggar daughters, who spoke about her conflicts with her father.
Counting the Cost is a book by Jill and her husband, Derick Dillard, in which she tells her own story.
As she became an adult, Jill wanted to pursue her own dreams. But that natural desire for independence ran directly against her family’s religious beliefs of patriarchal headship and absolute obedience. That conflict—and how, after much suffering, she learned how to stand on her own two feet—is at the core of the book.
Counting the Cost is a quick, short read, easily finished in a day. It was written with a professional ghostwriter, which makes it more polished than Lovingly Abused. But for the same reason, it’s less raw, less intimate, and less confessional. It’s not a tell-all book. You might call it a “tell-some” book.
What the book leaves out
The core of the book is about Jill’s money issues with her father. It’s steadfastly focused on that, avoiding every other subject except when necessary to provide context for that conflict. If you have other questions about her beliefs or her life, you probably won’t find answers here.
For example, it doesn’t answer one of the biggest questions I had after watching Shiny Happy People: Was physical violence a routine part of the Duggar household, and if so, how it was concealed from the TV crews constantly filming them? Or was it filmed and edited it out so as not to interfere with their cash-cow TV show?
The story of Josh Duggar molesting his sisters, including Jill, is only skimmed over. It’s mentioned so briefly that if you didn’t already know, you wouldn’t find out from this book what Josh had done or to whom.
Despite this omission, she’s still angry and ashamed that Josh’s misdeeds are public knowledge. One of the book’s threads is an (unsuccessful) lawsuit she filed against the government officials who leaked the police report and the tabloids that published it. She views this as a bigger miscarriage of justice than the initial offense.
But, as painful as it must be for her, that’s part of being a public figure. You can’t put yourself, your beliefs and your lifestyle into the public eye for years—holding yourself out as an example for others to follow—and then demand that the media only report on the good parts.
Also, to state the obvious: Jill did nothing wrong. She was the victim. However, she was raised in a shame-based religious worldview that teaches women to blame themselves for sexual violence committed against them. Does she blame her father for protecting Josh as long as he did? That’s another thread the book leaves unmentioned.
A ‘spirit of ungratefulness’
The core of the book concerns a story Jill told in Shiny Happy People. The day before her wedding, her father handed her a contract and told her to sign, which she did without asking questions. She and her husband Derick later found out that the contract obliged her to participate in five more years of filming.
Over the next several years, this contract was like a chain holding them back from doing what they wanted. Jill and Derick were living abroad in El Salvador, working as missionaries, and the network repeatedly demanded that they return to the U.S. to participate in filming. Jill had to fight to keep camera crews out of the hospital room when she gave birth.
Jill was never paid for her participation on the show, and because she’d been part of it since she was a child, she accepted this as normal. However, over time, questions started to creep in. For example, when Derick wanted to go to law school, he applied for grants and financial help—only to be told he was ineligible because they were already making too much money.
Eventually, they found out that the network had been sending her paychecks—except Jim Bob kept the money and didn’t tell them. In fact, he filed taxes on Jill’s behalf, falsely reporting income which she never received. He’d used that money to build up a real-estate empire and a fleet of private planes. Meanwhile, Jill and Derick had to pay the hospital out of pocket when she gave birth.
When they pressed Jim Bob on this, he berated and guilt-tripped them, accusing them of having a “spirit of ungratefulness”. He offered to pay them a $20,000 lump sum, much less than they were owed, in exchange for surrendering all future claims and signing an NDA. At one point, he presented Jill with an itemized list of all the money he spent raising her, as if she were obligated to repay him.
(According to IBLP, the cultish fundamentalist group whose teachings the Duggar family follos, children are obligated to obey their parents for life—even when they’re married adults with kids of their own. By this standard, merely asking her father for the money he owed her, and not backing down when he said no, was a daring act of disobedience that Jill feared would jeopardize her eternal salvation.)
Their meetings kept breaking down into threats, tears and recriminations. In the best line of the book, Jill told her father, “You treat me worse than you treat my pedophile brother” (p.212).
Finally, Jill and Derick hired a lawyer to formally demand the money they were entitled to. Predictably, Jim Bob hit the roof. He ordered Jill’s younger siblings to bombard her with messages begging her to drop the case. But they held firm, and in the end, they got what they were owed.
Jill benefited greatly from her husband’s presence. He’s an evangelical Christian, but a more “normal” one, so to speak. He didn’t grow up with the IBLP emphasis on patriarchy and obedience, and his encouragement gave her the backbone to stand up for herself. Ironically, Jim Bob introduced the two of them and nudged Jill into a relationship with him—a decision I bet he regrets.
(You might wonder, as I did, why Jim Bob picked Derick to be Jill’s husband rather than someone from another IBLP family. My wife made a plausible suggestion: at the time of the scandal with Josh, Derick was a missionary working in Nepal. Jim Bob may have been betting that he wouldn’t have heard about it, whereas other IBLP families would have seen her as damaged goods.)
We haven’t heard the last of this
After finishing this book, I’m certain that the final act of this story has yet to be told. For all the personal growth she’s experienced, Jill hasn’t fully broken away from her father’s beliefs. She’s still a Christian.
It’s just that she’s a Christian who occasionally makes up her own mind about small things: like wearing pants, or getting her nose pierced, or occasionally drinking a glass of wine, or, worst of all, enrolling her children in public school rather than homeschooling. By IBLP standards, those are shocking acts of rebellion. (In one funny anecdote, after Derick was seen drinking a single beer, Jim Bob immediately called and offered to get him into a rehab program for alcoholism.)
There’s still a lot that she doesn’t question. She and her husband used contraception, but she offers no opinion on her fellow Christians who want to take that right away from everyone. She tells the harrowing story of how she almost died in childbirth, yet she never so much as glances toward the morality of abortion. It never crosses her mind that doing missionary work in impoverished countries is both culturally condescending and a poor use of scarce donor dollars. And she never considers whether her brother’s crimes were an aberration or the predictable result of a theology based on absolute male authority.
Jill seems like an intelligent and sensible individual. She managed to become her own person in spite of being raised in a religion that did everything possible to prevent it. As she moves further out from her father’s sphere of influence and grows older and wiser, I don’t doubt that her views will continue to evolve. This may not be the last book she has to write—and there’s no telling how many other, similar stories about the Duggars have yet to come out.