Unlike most of the writers covering the Duggar sex scandal, I was raised in Advanced Training Institute (ATI), the fundamentalist Christian organization with which the family is affiliated. Joshua Duggar’s confession of sexually molesting young girls in his family's home when he was a teenager didn’t surprise me, nor should it surprise anyone with any intimate knowledge about this organization, because ATI’s theological beliefs and practices cultivate an environment where women and children are more vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse. Ironically, the same theological beliefs and practices at the heart of this scandal are the same beliefs that created the Duggars as a media phenomenon, and drew viewers and fans to their TLC show “19 Kids and Counting.”
Non-mainstream religious sects have certainly been enjoying a cultural moment on television: “The Following,” “Sister Wives,” “Breaking Amish.” Netflix’s dark comedy “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” explores the media hype around religious cult survivors in satirical detail. For me, though, that show should have come with a trigger warning, because in many ways, I am a real Kimmy Schmidt — a woman who spent her adolescence trapped inside a metaphorical bunker, and then was thrust into a world that she had never been prepared to be a part of.
The Duggars didn’t emerge from a subterranean bunker, though. They’ve been on TV promoting the fundamentalist Christian theology of ATI since their first special in 2004 (“14 Children and Pregnant Again!”). ATI is a Christian homeschool organization that hosts seminars worldwide, provides homeschooling curriculum, and even runs its own paramilitary training center. At one point, it was strongly affiliated with a Christian correspondence course law school. Its members are not concentrated in one area, and yet they maintain insular groups and often form churches in which all members are affiliated with ATI and/or follow its basic principles. Referred to as “Gothardism” within fundamentalist Christian circles, the teachings of ATI form an ideological system of practices based on the extremely strict, fundamentalist, and idiosyncratic Biblical interpretations of the organization’s founder, Bill Gothard – a man who, in 2014, stepped down as head of ATI following allegations of sexual misconduct with young girls.
The allegations against “Mr. Gothard” (as he is respectfully and worshipfully referred to by his acolytes) were an open secret among group members for many years. As a friend who worked at ATI headquarters once said to me with a wink: “The prettiest girls are always chosen to work the closest with Mr Gothard.”
ATI’s teachings trickle down into every single part of its members’ lives. This is not just a homeschool curriculum, it is a fully institutionalized religious sect with incredibly strict demands to conformity — rules that, in my experience, more often reflect Gothard’s personal preferences than actual Biblical teachings. Have you ever wondered why every Duggar woman perms her hair? It’s because Gothard taught us that curly hair brings out a woman’s natural beauty. Other ATI beliefs that I learned range from utterly bizarre to downright barbaric, like the creator of Cabbage Patch Kid dolls is actually a Satanic wizard who implants demons into the dolls that then sneak into children’s bodies while they are sleeping — along with the old standard that rock music is inherently sinful. One boy from our church would walk around supermarkets with his fingers plugged into his ears to prevent himself from hearing it.
And then there are the beliefs that are more central to the portrayal of ATI on TV through the Duggar family, which are also shared throughout the church’s teachings: the antiquated dress codes (especially for girls and women), the required homeschooling, the prohibition on birth control, the strictly gendered division of labor and the absolute and unquestioned authority of the father within the home.
One key difference worth noting between the “reality” show of “19 Kids and Counting” and the actual reality of ATI, though, is the relative affluence of the Duggars compared to most ATI families. The Duggars live in a spacious Discovery Networks-funded home, but it was not unusual, in my church, for two parents and ten children to live packed into a singlewide trailer. These children usually wear threadbare hand-me-downs already passed through several rounds of siblings. Many of them look malnourished due to the abundance of starchy meals necessary on a lean one-parent income. Women and mothers working outside of the home is absolutely forbidden in ATI no matter what the financial situation of the family. Some women are even required to get permission from their husbands if they want to obtain a driver’s license.
That affluence makes the constant growth of the Duggar family — their wildly exaggerated version of a large family upon which their TV fame is built — possible. The foundation of the Duggars’ fame is the fecundity of Michelle Duggar. Even the name of the show changes as she gives birth again and again and again. Each child is another notch on Jim Bob’s headboard, walking and talking proofs of his masculine virility. Despite this fascination with Michelle’s fertility, there is a critical question that no one ever seems to be ask on camera: just how fragile is the boundary between the loss of a woman’s reproductive control over her body and the loss of her sexual control over her body? From my experience in the ATI culture, it is very, very slim.
A cornerstone belief of ATI is that God appoints husbands in an “umbrella of authority” over their wives, who are mandated by God to obey their husbands completely. That includes absolute sexual and reproductive submission. The inevitable result of such a demand is the tacit sanctioning of spousal rape — if a woman’s body belongs to God and to her husband before it belongs to her, then her consent becomes irrelevant.
Women aren’t allowed ownership of their thoughts, either. At annual ATI conferences, married women are separated from everyone else and asked if they are having thoughts about using birth control, or if they feel resentment about having so many children. Answer “yes” to this and someone might tell you that those thoughts come from demons whispering into their ears. Many women in our church looked slumped over from constant exhaustion. My close friend’s mother even refused treatment for breast cancer because she saw the disease as God saving her from her abusive husband, and the burden of caring for her many children.
Like any system of abuse, ATI relies on control to maintain its power, and a critical component of that power is the total indoctrination of its members through its homeschool curriculum. The so-called “Wisdom Booklets” that form the backbone of ATI children’s educations contain more Bible verses than they do information. Particularly lacking, in a religious sect so obsessed with reproduction, is any kind of sex education. This is especially true for young women, who receive very little sex education because the church teaches us that women do not have sex drives. However, the opposite is believed of men: ATI teaches that men have nearly uncontrollable sex drives ready to erupt at the mere sight of a pant leg or a perm. To illustrate this point: ATI families are encouraged to maintain a “no computer” rule for their sons, but not their daughters. Gothard also encouraged men to turn toward the wall when dining at restaurants so as not to be “tempted” by a waitress or a stray attractive woman.
Not that our supposed lack of sex drive absolved us from sexual responsibility. ATI taught us that it is our job to keep men’s desires from erupting into lust or sexual activity. We were taught that it was our sin if we “cause a man to lust after us.” I spent many nights as an early-developed teenager crying and begging God to take away my large breasts, because I noticed men’s eyes had begun to linger on me during church. Modesty wasn’t only about dress, it was also about behavior. Women were taught from a very young age that they are to be submissive in all things: allowing men to open doors for us (even to get out of a car), never initiating conversation with a man and never correcting a man when he was wrong. Essentially, a good ATI woman is sweet, silent, and obedient.
This combination of zero sexual knowledge and deeply-ingrained submissiveness left many young girls in our church especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. As a teenager, I became aware that several of my friends were being molested by their older brothers or fathers. They would start stilted conversations with me about it, but none of us actually understood the concept of sex or rape or molestation enough to actually discuss it, so it stayed on the level of furtively whispered hints.
That vulnerability to abuse increases through the isolation of homeschool. There are no teachers or school counselors for abused children to confide in, so for most of them, the abuse would continue for their entire adolescence. The only hope of escape for young women was through courtship and marriage to a man, who would attempt to immediately impregnate her and to whom she would then relinquish all sexual control.
I didn’t become the victim of sexual exploitation until after I had left my home and the church. Growing up in such an isolated environment, I had only a vague idea of what the world beyond our church would be like. Fortunately, I was both brave enough and naïve enough to try and find out. Most of the people that I grew up with were never that lucky. I try, even now, to figure out how I could have abandoned everyone and everything I had ever known. The only thing that makes sense is this: I believed that there had to be something better than the life I had been raised to have. I believed that there had to be something better than courtship and marriage to a man my father (and “God”) selected for me, followed by a quiverfull of children of my own.
I was both right and very, very wrong.
After I left, I found myself suddenly thrust into a world that I was totally unprepared to navigate. Like Kimmy Schmidt fleeing from her bunker into the sunlight, I suddenly found myself surrounded by people and events that I had never been prepared for. It was nothing like the comically magical larger world that Kimmy Schmidt finds herself in. There were no handsome rich men, no forgiving landlords, no fabulous roommates, and certainly no sacks of cash. I entered a world full of things that I did not understand and a world full of people whose ill intentions I could not interpret or comprehend.
The same sexual ignorance that had made my friends vulnerable while in the church haunted me after I left. The first time I had sex, I didn’t fully understand what was happening to me. When it was over, I noticed that I was bleeding, and I became convinced that God was going to kill me for my sin of causing lust in a man. I lay on the dirty floor of my cheap apartment’s bathroom begging for God’s forgiveness, begging to start over again, and begging for my family’s love, which I knew had now been forever forfeited by my sin. At that point, I had no frame of reference to understand that someone had taken sexual advantage of me, because the concept of date rape wasn’t part of ATI’s “Umbrella of Authority.”
My decision to leave the church caused a permanent wedge between me and my family, who believe that I'm sinful for pursuing an education, for living with my boyfriend, and for everything that I'm proud that I've accomplished. Compared to most of the people that I grew up with, I usually think of myself as one of the lucky ones. But I lost 17 years of my life to ATI. And because I was homeschooled, I have to check the GED box on job applications. I feel immodest when I wear a tank top. I still get confused when someone mentions “the ninth grade,” “homecoming” or some movie that everyone my age grew up watching. I've spent years desperately trying to put it all behind me, and yet, I still feel like an outsider. I probably always will.
The past week has been incredibly difficult, as I’ve seen my most personal trauma mocked and exploited in the media. I hope this latest religion and sex scandal teaches that religious extremism isn’t entertainment. It is abuse. It is abuse when it is used to manipulate, control and victimize those who are rendered helpless within its confines. We should examine how we allow the most vulnerable members of our society to become prey for power-hungry religious leaders and sexual predators. Yes, the family is to blame. Yes, ATI is to blame. But so are we, for spending the past decade pointing and laughing along.