Almost as soon as it was revealed last month that Josh Duggar sexually assaulted his younger sisters when he was a teenager -- and that his parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, did what they could to cover it up -- the Internet erupted with speculation about how the family’s intensive fundamentalist Christian homeschooling program may or may not have contributed to the abuse.
You’ve likely seen some of the lesson plans from Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute, for which the Duggars have advocated persistently, and which pushes an educational curriculum apparently comprised of some of the most damaging, unbelievably misogynistic viewpoints imaginable. To much of the public, the ATI lessons on sexual assault that have circulated online are basic examples of what we mean when we talk about rape culture and victim-blaming; to children who are raised in the homeschooling program -- like the 19 Duggar kids -- the lessons are “the truth.”
Nicholas Ducote, a self-identified “homeschool survivor,” was one of those children once. Now 27, Ducote was raised in Louisiana and homeschooled by his mother, a fundamentalist Christian and ATI devotee. As he grew up and began to question the homeschooling movement and religion more generally, Ducote stayed in touch with a number of other ATI alumni whom he met through a homeschool speech and debate program. Together, they gave voice to their shared history of shame, anxiety and confusion perpetuated by their experiences with the program.
“When I was in church, I was the special kid, because I was being homeschooled to be a culture warrior,” Ducote told Salon. “Homeschoolers were like the exemplary, perfect Christian children who exemplified everything that most American Christians think children should do and believe -- that they should be fighting for a Christian America. There were so many people who thought that no one else had experienced that.”
So Ducote and several other alumni came together to start Homeschoolers Anonymous, a blog dedicated to sharing the narratives of former homeschoolers. He and the other founders also run a non-profit, Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out, that is dedicated to “renewing and transforming homeschooling from within.”
Salon caught up with Ducote by phone last week to discuss his experience with ATI, the harmful lessons he believes the Duggars also learned, and how he overcame his own indoctrination. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
There’s been some backlash along the lines of, “Hey, not all homeschool programs” or “not all homeschool kids,” in response to the Duggar abuse and the family’s involvement with ATI. Not all programs are ATI, but at the same time, the Duggars were not the only people who were using it. What was your experience with the program?
I was raised in ATI. My mom homeschooled me from kindergarten through 12th grade. She had just become born again, so to say, in 1994-1995. I was born in 1988. She initially wanted to homeschool me for a year or two, but then she kind of got pulled into this larger culture. I don’t think it originally started as an explicitly religious thing, but when she went to look for resources on how to homeschool, the resources that she found were fundamentalist Christian resources. Those tend to be the ideas and philosophies that are at the keynote level of homeschool conventions, even still today.
What drew her into ATI in the first place and do you have any better perspective on how she felt about it?
As far as I can tell, the big attraction of ATI was that it was sort of this holistic thing. It was a lifestyle; it was a religious belief; it was a homeschooling method. Bill Gothard promised you access to exclusive truth. So he presented fundamentalism in a pretty attractive way. He made it practical. Very black and white: here’s a problem and here’s a solution. I think that’s very attractive, especially for new Christians, because it’s so easy. They don’t have to think a whole lot. There’s not a whole lot of critical thinking there. It’s just all laid out for you. Then [my parents] would start going to the basic seminars every year. There are more advanced seminars, literally called the Advanced Seminar. I went to a counseling seminar in Indianapolis at one of ATI’s training centers. That was the progression of them getting pulled into this. But they started ATI pretty early in their whole journey into the cult. That was definitely a huge part of not only educating me, but educating them. It’s such heavy propaganda, working on both the parents and the children.
What sorts of things were you learning in daily lessons? How were these views conveyed to you? I’m curious also what you know of your mother becoming educated to educate you, and what sorts of things she was learning.
My mom has a GED, and it’s hard for me to believe that she really looked at a lot of different curriculum [sic] and really critically analyzed them. When you look at the ATI curriculum it’s just so crazy. I mean, “semen gives you cancer.” I remember learning that and being really confused by it.
What about it confused you?
Well it was kind of two different teachings that went together. One was an STD teaching that basically said you can’t get an STD from your wife; as long as you’re in a godly, monogamous relationship and nobody cheats, then you can’t get an STD. It’s just going to completely ignore if these people would have had any contact with humanity before they met each other because presumably they are virgins. But in addition, there’s this idea of immunity, that when a husband and a wife have monogamous relations for a long time, the wife develops an immunity to a natural reaction to semen. If you are promiscuous, you will ruin this immunity and get cancer. A lot of ATI’s ideas about disease and spirituality are that it’s kind of two sides of the same coin. Your spiritual problems cause your physical problems. They believe cancer is a punitive condition for a lot of people, that God will curse you will cancer. To tie it all together, their big thing was that God and the Bible and fundamentalism could be applied to every situation. Every situation in life is black and white and there is something God has to say about it.
I want to talk also about sexual assault and what you learned about that. What other things did you learn about the secular world and Christian patriarchy? And what else were you taught about sex and sexuality?
So, the ideal is that you are not even supposed to--if you are a teenager--I’m not even supposed to have a crush on you. If I have a crush on you, I am giving you a literal piece of my heart, and the more pieces of my heart I give to girls before I marry, the less of my heart I will have to give to my wife. This is where they have such extreme ideas about purity and about abstinence. Their big word is “lust.” When you have a sexual thought in your brain, you are lusting after someone. They say that if you think about something three times it’s just as bad as doing it. If you think about sex, it results in this rush of testosterone. So it goes like this: Immodest women cause rushes of testosterone in men and cause them to irresistibly assault--either sexually or violently--women. All the blame is put on the women and how they dress. There is very little responsibility put on men to just not rape women. That’s kind of their ethics going into it. It’s kind of infiltrated mainstream Christianity.
I would say mainstream culture, also. That is exactly what we talk about when we talk about rape culture.
It’s literal rape culture.
I am curious if you remember what you thought of all of this, and what you thought of yourself and of your role in the world as a man. What is it like to be told that this violence could live within you without, I assume, experiencing it yourself?
It’s definitely a big struggle. It was a little easier for me to get past the teachings because I had two older sisters. They were pretty much out of the house by the time my parents converted, especially by the time we got into ATI. My oldest sister went to school and got an engineering degree and then got a masters in geotechnical engineering. So I always had that view. There was a time in my teenage years when I was really struggling with lust and masturbating. I was trying to stop wanting to masturbate, and the natural hormonal urges I was feeling -- that was “lust,” that was the devil trying to tempt me. I had a couple of friends and we struggled with this together. One of the guys literally preyed on underage girls; that was his thing. That was his struggle. We would discuss our struggles as if they were equal, as if we were both struggling with this “lust.” My action that I couldn’t control was masturbating, but his action that he couldn’t control was preying on underage girls. That’s the kind of equivocation that it creates. These Christians have been saying this about Josh Duggar. There is no conception of different levels of a sin.
What is your relationship with religion now? And what’s your relationship with your family like?
I call myself an “apatheist.” I just don’t care anymore. When it comes down to it, I guess I’m pretty much agnostic. I don’t think that anyone could really know the truth and I don’t care to really find the truth. Going to church for me is still traumatic. I just have a very visceral triggered reaction to everyone singing the same song. I always find myself criticizing and critiquing the sermon, but it’s weird because I won’t only criticize it from a fundamentalist point of view -- “Oh this guy is totally not doing his Bible right” -- but I also criticize it from a secular point of view -- “This is all horeshit.” I have found a community in the homeschool survivor community. I feel like that’s my church. Those are my people. That’s where I do my good.
How did you come to that community?
It started with homeschool speech and debate, and that was really how I knew anybody outside south Louisiana, because I competed nationally and regionally. So I met a lot of Christian homeschoolers. There was a website called homeschooldebate.com and it was basically a web forum. Before Facebook and social media, it was pretty much the only safe place where fundamentalist parents would allow their children to be on the Internet. For a long time, it was the only place where I was allowed to go onto the Internet. My parents had access to my account and they read all my messages, and I didn’t even had an email account until I was like 15 or 16. But I met a lot of people that way. I stayed in touch with the people on HSD. We just found that we had so many of the same struggles, whether it was some sort of social anxiety or dealing with a professor in college, or dealing with an authority figure and not really having healthy relationships with authority--either being too subservient or challenging it too much.
Where do you think the issues with authority came from? Was that a gendered thing?
I think it’s some of that, but I think it was mostly this weird combination of Libertarian, conspiracy theorist, and right-wing distrust of the government, which just kind of made me, in general, distrust authority. That’s where it started, when I was able to form opinions different from my parents about the government and really come into my own and understand why I believed things. Then it slowly started to creep into religion. I would research what I believed and what other people believed. That’s where it all just started to collapse. With ATI especially, that’s where it collapsed for a lot of people. Just because it is so terrible and so crazy. It’s such a terrible curriculum. It’s not hard to see past it if you are outside your parents control.
What is like to think, “Everything that I was ever taught by my parents is totally out of this world?”
It definitely impacted my relationship with my parents. I don’t necessarily trust them, or their motivations or their actions. I questioned everything. I couldn’t do it all at once. It’s not something where you can just sit down and be like, “Okay, here are all the things I believe. Let me just go through them one by one.” It was just one little thing at a time. I had a professor in college who was a great feminist scholar, so I would just go to her office and talk to her a lot. I had a sense growing up that the girls I was growing up with were not being treated right. I knew girls who had been sexually abused, but I didn’t know really that that’s what it was at the time. But I saw so many situations that when I looked back at them I was just like, “God, I can’t believe I didn’t do anything about them.” But at the same time I would have never known what to do. I would have not known how to help a girl get out of an abusive home. The most dangerous ideas, and the most dangerous impacts, are on the women and the girls in these systems.
Why did you start Homeschoolers Anonymous? How did you decide that it was important to do this and speak out?
In homeschooling particularly, there is this culture of silence. So you had so many people who thought that they were alone; people don’t think that other people experience this crazy world. They think they are the only ones with PTSD. Our community has really high rates of suicidal ideation, of anxiety and depression -- basically every flag for mental health. Almost everyone in our community struggles with something pretty big in their life that was a result of homeschooling. Even just putting stories out there has been a huge challenge to the main narrative of homeschooling, which for so long has just been about these perfect kids who are just doing everything right, and fighting for a Christian America. There’s no one there being a watchdog. There is no one holding these organizations to any sort of ethical line or moral standard. They just have unchecked, unlimited power in the homeschool movement to say and do whatever they want. We just wanted to say there’s a lot of alumni out here who have different experiences, and we want to illustrate and illuminate them.