Heather Grace Heath grew up in the IBLP cult of patriarchy. In her autobiography "Lovingly Abused," she talks about how the experience marked her and how she escaped.

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[Previous: ‘Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets’, part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4]

The documentary “Shiny Happy People” reveals the whole truth about the Duggar family. Beneath their carefully maintained TV image of white-bread wholesomeness, there’s an ugly ideology of control and violence. Their belief system is devoted to the preservation of patriarchy and the subordination of women.

The Duggars are devotees of a preacher named Bill Gothard, who created an organization called the Institute in Basic Life Principles or IBLP. Not a church per se, IBLP is an ideology that spreads in conservative Christian communities, using churches of many denominations as a vector.

Among other things, IBLP teaches homeschooling, purity culture, Quiverfull beliefs, arranged marriage, female submission and male headship. Its most infamous teaching is the “umbrella of protection”, which depicts human existence as a hierarchy of obedience to one’s superiors. Independent thought and freedom of choice are never permitted, on pain of demonic attack and eternal damnation.

One of the IBLP survivors interviewed in the Duggar documentary is a woman named Heather Grace Heath. Lovingly Abused is her autobiography. In it, she tells her own story of how she grew up in the clutches of the cult, how she escaped, and how she created a new life for herself.

How she got into the cult

Heath grew up in the IBLP cult. Her parents didn’t. They both attended public school and had positive experiences there.

However, they both had lifelong problems which may have contributed to their falling under IBLP’s sway. Her father had a drug addiction which eventually he managed to shake. Her mother came from an abusive home; her own father, Heath’s maternal grandfather, was a violent alcoholic who molested his own children. Growing up, she thought her grandfather was kind and loving, especially to her, though she wondered why she and her cousins weren’t allowed to be around him without another adult present. It wasn’t until she was an adult herself that she learned the word “grooming” [p.24].

Heath’s mother, when she was 19, confided in the pastor of her childhood church that she was planning to leave her toxic home. The pastor told her to stay and said that she was under the authority of her abusive father until she got married. It’s because of that pastor that she, and eventually Heath’s mother, started attending Gothard’s seminars and fell under his spell.

The IBLP philosophy of parenting has abuse baked in. Its homeschooling curriculum, the Advanced Training Institute or ATI, explicitly teaches that breaking a child’s will should be the parents’ goal [p.63]. Heath’s parents refused to engage in some of its cruelest suggestions, like “blanket training”—placing a child on a blanket and hitting them with a rod every time they try to move off it, until they give up trying. However, Heath still suffered a childhood of beatings and deprivation. As in the title, she describes it as “loving” abuse from parents who genuinely believed they were doing what God commanded.

However, as an older teen, she attended some of IBLP’s training centers, and worse kinds of abuse were rampant there. One common practice was “heart checks”—solitary confinement in a locked room, with nothing but a Bible—for disobedience of any kind. In one anecdote, which Heath also tells in the Duggar series, she was locked up for buying tampons rather than pads. Supposedly, tampons were a slippery slope to sexual immorality… you can imagine why.

Sexual abuse and predation were also common. Heath writes about how IBLP kids, including her, were taught that rape was almost always the victim’s fault for some sin they committed. Even when it wasn’t, IBLP families weren’t supposed to go to the police, because it was taken for granted that the outside world would persecute them for their lifestyle.

Becoming her own person

After escaping the cult, Heath had to go to great lengths to rebuild her own identity and learn how to function in the world.

Part is a simple deficit of factual information. In Gothard’s homeschooling curriculum, women are only taught what it’s assumed they’ll need to know—which isn’t much, since the only careers they’re being prepared for are as wives and mothers. As Heath wryly puts it, “‘Is God calling you to marry a pastor or a missionary?’… You get two options” [p.186].

On top of that, the scraps of knowledge she did get were often wildly inaccurate, filtered through a dense screen of fundamentalist assumptions. Evolution, of course, is right out. It wasn’t until she became an adult that she learned anything about astronomy or environmental conservation [p.217]. Gothard’s curriculum also teaches that illnesses and disabilities are God’s punishment for some hidden sin. For example, she learned that women having sex with multiple partners causes cancer [p.127].

However, worse than the factual deficits were the cruelties and prejudices she learned and was taught to repeat. In one chapter, she relays the story of a young man from her church who asked her parents for permission to court her. But Heath’s father rejected him—because the man was Black, a reason he found so obvious that he was surprised he had to explain it [p.139].

As she says, many fundamentalists believe the Tower of Babel story is a lesson against both interracial relationships and immigration. “I was taught… that God put us in each country for a reason and we should remain there” [p.54].

Unsurprisingly, IBLP is also virulently homophobic and transphobic. Refreshingly, Heath cuts through that “hate the sin, love the sinner” excuse put out by apologists. She makes it clear that it’s the people themselves she was taught to hate and shun:

I was that person who told LGBTQ+ couples I loved them as people but could never approve of the sin they were embracing. I was taught to be hateful. I have two incredible sisters-in-law who are trans. It breaks my heart to know I wasn’t taught to hate a life path they chose, I was taught to hate them. [p.53]

She feels deep regret over what she said and did during her earlier years, writing: “I wish I could undo the racist, violently cruel things I said when I wanted to fit in and no one told me I was wrong… I wish I had done so much more research before supporting organizations that fuel hatred and damage lives” [p.54].

How she escaped

As a girl, Heath volunteered at her local hospital as a candy striper. As her grandmother grew old and her health started to fail, she assisted in caring for her, first part-time and then full-time. These experiences gave her a glimpse of a world where she could make choices and actively make a difference, rather than living out a passive housewife’s existence. Through the hospital, she was also able to read real books on biology from staff and volunteers.

She decided that she wanted to become a paramedic. When she unenrolled from Hyles Anderson College, the ultra-fundamentalist school her parents had allowed her to go to, the college staff called her up to berate her [p.187], but she held firm. That experience catalyzed her into making more decisions for herself, including marriage without her parents’ approval.

Nowadays, Heath identifies as a believer but not a Christian [p.199]. She’s still building the life she wants for herself, learning all the things she missed out on. She’s also made it her mission to help other victims of abusive homeschooling, which is disturbingly unregulated in many states. As she puts it, parents should have a choice about how to educate their children—not whether to educate them.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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