When a Good Offense is the Best Defense for Abuse

Growing up Quiverfull, I was always aware that we had more to prove than ordinary families did. When we attracted public stares, whether for being out on a school morning or simply for the novelty of so many stair-step children at the salad bar, my siblings and I took our cue to behave as much like miniature, meek adults as possible. I, as the oldest of eight, took this especially to heart. When relatives brought up concerns over my parents’ choice to homeschool, I knew that my grades were our first line of defense. When various adults from church took me aside and told me I could talk to them about anything, I said thank you and clamped my mouth tight around my smile.

Our lifestyle was hard to defend, which made defending it all the more essential to us.

The truth is that we adopted fundamentalist ideologies like patriarchy, authoritarian parenting, and legalism out of fear, not because they bettered our lives. We believed thunder-voiced leaders who told us that isolation from the world was the only way to save our souls. God’s wrath was a specter shadowing every aspect of our daily life from what we ate to how childish energy should be managed, and when we suffered, it was for our own failure to measure up. Telling onlookers the truth was never an option.

Instead, we took up offense as our best defense.

We proclaimed that public-schoolers were idiots with inferior educations as we hid the fact that one of my siblings struggled with learning disabilities that only got worse through horrific at-home “treatments.”

We loudly judged the physical and emotional closeness we saw in couples who were dating (as opposed to family-chaperoned “courting”) while we buried shameful secrets about what can happen in a family when the males are given authority over the females’ bodies.

We declared that children were not safe around homosexuals or social workers or atheists or Democrats even as my siblings and I wore extra clothes to cover the bruises we had sustained in our own home.

I was used as an example of how successful the Quiverfull movement was in producing superior future leaders who would take back the United States for God, though I was told in private that I had no potential and no character, that I was stupid and regrettable and damned.

It’s clear to me in retrospect that promoting our lifestyle was a strategy to deflect attention away from our dysfunction. Mind you, I’m not sure that it worked. My husband points out that having adults continually offer me a listening ear wasn’t normal; many people in our church and neighborhood must have sensed that our home life was much less idyllic than we pretended. However, our loyalty to our beliefs was our shield, and if we had been offered a reality television show from which to champion our choices, I believe we would have taken it.

Yes, this is about the Duggar scandal. It’s about why I was so utterly unsurprised last week when news broke that Josh Duggar has a history of sexually preying on young girls including several of his sisters. While the circumstances of our childhoods were not identical, the ideologies behind them were, and I know firsthand how quickly evil can incubate in an isolated and repressive environment.

It’s no coincidence that Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles whose lifestyle teachings heavily influenced both my family and the Duggars, was ousted from his organization last year after thirty-four accusations of sexual abuse by women who worked for him. Nor is it mere chance that Doug Phillips, founder of another Christian organization that widely promoted patriarchy, homeschooling, and other common tenants of the Quiverfull lifestyle, has had his life unravel over the last year after news of his infidelity and a sexual abuse lawsuit by his children’s former nanny. Despite how adamantly these two men spoke out against worldliness and impropriety during their careers, their positions of “God-sanctioned” power gave them the perfect opportunity to act on their impulses. Perhaps it’s even why they spoke so adamantly.

The best defense is a good offense, and how can you better divert attention from your own sexual behavior than to preach against others’? How can you further distance yourself from a history of child molestation than to take a job publicly implying that LGBT individuals are a threat to children? How can you cover up the sexual abuse perpetrated on and by your children any more thoroughly than to publicize yourselves as the model Christian family? “The lady doth protest too much” may not apply to every situation, but Shakespeare was a better judge of human character than most.

My point is that none of us should be surprised by the news of Josh Duggar’s crimes or his parents’ attempts to cover them up. The system of beliefs under which he and I both grew up creates an environment in which the powerful can inflict abuse with few repercussions, their victims can be made to feel responsible, and defending the family lifestyle is more important than helping the family heal. Growing up Quiverfull taught me to hide family secrets through misdirection, offering up my ultra-modest wardrobe and political rants and Bible memorization trophies to public scrutiny so that no one would guess the horrors happening behind the scenes. Last week’s news is just another reminder that I was not alone in this.

As sickening as the Duggar scandal is to hear, I’m hopeful that its exposure will offer a counterpoint to the façade of a happy, healthy family that they’ve televised over the last six and a half years. The cocktail of movements I call Quiverfull for lack of a more comprehensive term is nothing to be admired. Rather, it is a control-based system that allows—and sometimes encourages—different forms of abuse while publicly touting itself as God’s ideal, and the more people who recognize this in the wake of current news, the more understanding and support we will be able to offer its victims.

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  1. Dear Bethany,
    I found your site just today. I am encouraged. Your writing is gorgeous, and I have similar views regarding “recovery from fundamentalism.” While I am significantly older than you are, I can relate on several levels. I am from Texas and my husband is Italian. We plan to retire to Italy in about five years. On my visits to this eclectic and beautiful country, I find my experiences somewhat intimidating–and it is not just the language barrier–it is also the discomfort of my “raging introverted” self that must try all kinds of new things and be open to more porous family boundaries. (I think here in the US, we might consider Italian families enmeshed). Anyway, after reading about some of your life in Italy, my heart is lightened knowing another person has succeeded in making Italy home. I pray to do it–my senior citizen adventure. I look forward to continuing to read your work. All best and kind regards. Priscilla (PS I have two girls as well, and one is named Bethany)

    • So nice to meet you, Priscilla! I laughed over your wording about “porous family boundaries”–yes, family dynamics are certainly different here!–and wish you the gentlest possible adventure when you move here. 🙂 Thank you for your comment!

  2. Heather Danysh

    As always, thank you for sharing, Bethany!

  3. I’m just reading this now. I’m so sorry that you had to carry the weight of all of this as a child and now as an adult(ish).


    Someday my friend, we will sit across from each other and talk about all the things.

    Until, that day.

    “You Is Smart, You Is Kind, You Is Important.”

    *another hug for the road*

    Now go watch “Grace and Frankie”… 🙂 xoxo

    • Thank you, Teen. It’s never going to seem fair that things that happened during one small sliver of my life will affect all the rest of it. Working through it is a present tense redemption story though, and friends like you are how I keep going. <3

  4. I’m glad you wrote about this as my own reaction was different than most of my vocal Christian friends who were calling for forgiveness and grace. Why do these same people never speak up for men and women on death row? They keep saying “he made a mistake when he was 14”, but 14 year olds don’t just wake up one morning and accidentally molest girls, this action is cultivated and progresses to that point. I didn’t really know what to think and you’ve helped give words to my feelings. Thanks for your insight.

    • One of my friends wrote just one thing on Facebook the day the Josh Duggar story broke: “Finish this sentence. (Or maybe don’t…) If Josh Duggar were a 14 yr old black boy found to be molesting his sisters while they slept….” Not to get political here, but her post struck me profoundly about the different standards that people seem to apply to figures in the news. I’m with you in not being able to fathom how anyone can think a teenager molesting little girls over time was a mere mistake, a childish indiscretion. Nope, nope, nope.

  5. Oh, my dear Bethany. My heart breaks for the childhood that you had to endure instead of enjoy. This is a beautiful essay (as always) and you must know that you are bringing light into the darkness for many others who need your words to find their own.

    Sending BIG love to you and your beautiful family. xoxoxoxo

  6. Vince G. ("Polka")

    When I saw Dan’s link to your blog I was fascinated. I had expected what I always expect from LU people, close-minded ultra-conservative BS. But that’s not what I found. I think your post is very enlightening, candid, and well thought-out, not polemic at all.

    Although I would not necessarily claim to have been part of Quiverfull (TM) per se, I was homeschooled from sixth grade on through high school. I have four siblings, which is a bunch less than a lot of the masthead families in the news, but it is in the same spirit. After my next two youngest siblings, my dad had a vasectomy. But my parents became ultra-fundamentalist and my dad had the procedure reversed. Two more children were born after the reversal. The reversal was necessary because, in the words of my parents, “if God is going to give us another child, He will give us the means to take care of him.” Of course, I think this is silly fiscal policy, but I was a minor stuck in my parents’ household.

    You’re right: homeschoolers in a society where the vast majority of families use public or private school are often closely scrutinized. My parents started homeschooling with me for a good reason, emotional instabilities that prevented me from functioning in a more conventional setting. I needed it at the time. I remember having to be careful because the superintendent of schools (illegally) declared homeschooling as truancy, so being seen in public during school hours was dangerous. And of course we always have to prove that we can be well-socialized without traditional school settings.

    I cannot speak of sexual abuse in my family because it’s still too soon. My youngest brother is 12 (21 years younger than myself), maybe after a couple decades the parties involved can air their dirty laundry.

    • Hi T! It’s good to hear from you. Man, I can’t imagine having my family switch TO hyper-fundamentalism after being more levelheaded. I’m sorry we never had a good chance to talk about this at LU, though I don’t know how much perspective I had on my childhood at the time. Regardless, thanks for your comment!

  7. Thank you for writing this. I think you are amazing. <3

  8. I found you through a tweet from Sarah Bessey. Thank you so much for these words – they have been such a gift to me today as I am working through my own feelings from experiences with fundamentalism & patriarchy. You gave words that I needed, but didn’t have yet. Thank you.

  9. Oh, wow, my dear Bethany. I knew you left a conservative background. I had NO IDEA it was Quiverfull. I am more sorry than I can possibly say for all that you have lost because of this. And I am so very grateful that you and your husband have worked to make your marriage completely different from what you lived as a child. And now I think I understand a little more clearly what it is you’ve been dealing with in these recent months — there is so much damn damage from the land mines this kind of lifestyle buries deep in the psyche of its children and I am heartbroken that this is your story. Although I know it is not ALL of your story – that story is still being written, and so very beautifully. I LOVE WHAT I SEE IN YOU NOW. (And now I will say it again–I’m so glad you walked from that church community. Talk about triggers. YIKES.) Much love to you.

  10. Bethany, I didn’t know this part of your story. The redeemed part! Thank you for your honesty. As usual, the best insight comes from those who have lived through the thing. The place where you’ve arrived in your journey is beautiful. I hope it gives some readers who are struggling through similar backgrounds hope.

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