Vyckie Garrison remembers watching Michelle Duggar, the matriarch of the then-TLC program "14 Children and Pregnant Again!" on television and feeling a twinge of envy. It was 2004, and Garrison had seven children of her own whom she was raising and homeschooling within her fundamentalist, "radically pro-life" Christian community in Nebraska.
"I remember thinking, 'Look at her actually doing it,'" Garrison told me in a phone call from her new apartment in Albania. "I was in awe of her. Her kids, they seemed like they were completely on-board. They have the same mentality and the same giving spirit. She was my idol. Well, not 'idol' because we couldn't have idols, but, you know."
The Duggar family's foray into reality television also marked many Americans' first introduction to Quiverfull ideology, a theological movement that interprets the Old Testament Psalm, "Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of [children]," as a command to reproduce often, sans any birth control or family planning. For the record, the Duggars don't claim to be Quiverfull, though they do reference that verse on their website in response to the question, "Why have such a large family?"
TLC positioned the Duggars, led by Michelle and husband Jim Bob, as a benign oddity, a kind of oversized "Waltons" family where episodes centered largely on pregnancy announcements, chaperoned courtships and managing a home large enough for the family.
Over the course of a decade, the family eventually ballooned up to 19 children. There was some controversy along the way, as the Duggars actively lobbied against abortion access and for legistlation that discriminates against transgender individuals; writer Nina Burleigh described the family as "good TV. Good, sugarcoated rat poison, politically speaking."
But it wasn't until 2015 that their fame bubble would finally burst, when it was revealed that the couple's eldest son, Josh Duggar, had molested at least five girls — four of whom were his sisters — when he was 14 or 15 years old.
TLC canceled the show and several months later, Josh was at the center of another sexual scandal. During a data breach at Ashley Madison, a website that caters to users seeking discreet affairs, it was revealed that Josh was a user of that site. He issued an apology saying that he was "the biggest hypocrite" and that he had been "viewing pornography on the Internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife."
Fast-forward to this year. On April 29, Josh Duggar was arrested and later released on bail after being charged in federal court with receipt and possession of child pornography, including images of minors under the age of 12.
Josh Duggar isn't the only evangelical Christian man to see scandal in recent years — there's been former Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr., evangelist Bill Gothard and megachurch pastor Dave Reynolds, to name a few — but the very public nature of his family's life before his conviction, especially as it relates to childbearing and parenthood, makes his fall somehow more striking.
Just a few weeks before his arrest, Josh's wife, Anna, had announced the couple was pregnant with their seventh child. According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, Josh could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted and Anna will be left to essentially raise their family on her own.
It's a stark reality, the kind unfit for even the most salacious TLC show, that spotlights the dark underbelly of patriarchal Christianity. While men are sold a promise of life where they are revered as the spiritual head of the household — a life in which their virility and manhood is unquestioned — when it comes to the Quiverfull movement, what's in it for the women?
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Unlike Anna Duggar and many women in Quiverfull families, Vyckie Garrison was not raised in the church.
It wasn't until she became pregnant during a short-lived relationship with an older man who had lied about having a vasectomy, ending up in the offices of a faith-based crisis pregnancy center, that she was first introduced to some of the basic principles of "Christian family values."
While she waited for the results of her pregnancy test, she was shown the 1984 anti-abortion film "A Silent Scream." When the staff returned to confirm that Garrison was pregnant, they informed her by saying, "God blessed you."
"I didn't think I had any option but to be a mom, but I knew I was going to suck at it," Garrison said. "That's when I really started turning towards religion. I wanted a map, a guidebook, 'Motherhood for Dummies.'"
Garrison found it in the curriculum and radio programs of Focus on the Family, an evangelical parachurch group that rails against pre-marital sex, LGBTQ rights, divorce and abortion and promotes "the permanence of marriage" and "the value of children."
While homeschooling her daughter, Angel, Garrison was introduced to fundamentalist Christian women who viewed motherhood as a mission field.
"There was a lot of talk of women being submissive and anti-birth control or, as we put it, 'radically pro-life,'" Garrison said. "I had health complications that made [getting pregnant] a life-threatening condition, but it's really pushed on the moms that you should be like Jesus and you are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes."
Garrison, who was married at this time to a man named Wesley Bennett, went on to have six more children despite the health risks because it's what she thought the Bible called her to do.
"The women would tell me, 'Missionaries risk their lives every day and they do it because it's their calling,'" she said. "'When they get to heaven, they'll get their martyr's crown.' There's a huge martyr's mentality."
Garrison embraced the lifestyle, even starting a newspaper for families that adhered to the Quiverfull philosophy. In a blog post that she'd written before becoming pregnant with her seventh child, Garrison said, "Whether a couple has a dozen children or only one, it is important to welcome them in the same spirit in which we would receive the Lord Jesus Himself."
However, things at home were reaching a boiling point.
Bennett eventually became verbally abusive, "very controlling and wanted to know everyone's thoughts." Furthermore, Garrison was seemingly always on the verge of a complete physical and mental breakdown due to the toll a seemingly endless cycle of nursing and pregnancies was having on her body.
"But I had that martyr's mentality; I was going to do everything to ensure this home for my kids," she said. "But I looked at my kids and they were not thriving. I sucked at homeschooling and they were not happy."
She began corresponding with her uncle, an inquisitive atheist who asked her questions about her chosen lifestyle. When Garrison realized that, other than pointing to scripture he didn't believe in, she didn't have answers for why she lived how she did, something clicked. She realized that she and her children both deserved better.
A few weeks later, she fled to Kansas City to stay with a friend; when she eventually returned after divorcing her husband, she successfully retained custody of her seven children.
Garrison is an atheist now and lives in Albania, halfway across the world in an apartment where you can catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea from the living room window.
In the years since her "quivering days" she co-founded and maintained the blog "No Longer Quivering," a resource for women like her who plan on leaving the movement.
"The women, they get into it for the kids," she said. "But that's also why they get out."
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In her academic essay, "Christian Patriarchy Lite: TLC's 19 Kids and Counting," Christy Ellen Mesaros-Winckles said that while the concept of being "barefoot and pregnant" lost overall social cachet decades ago, it's still alive and well in the Quiverfull movement.
And while, Mesaros-Winckles said, the theology underlying the Duggars' beliefs was often underplayed, "conformity and a rigid male leadership hierarchy often place women in the Quiverfull movement in subservient roles."
According to Garrison, that's the system in which she found herself trapped — and in which Anna Duggar, who has been conspicuously silent about her husband's various scandals, likely feels trapped as well.
Is she blameless? Perhaps not. But she is undoubtedly a victim of a patriarchal system designed to make women feel like they don't have a choice to leave.
"The situation she is in is just impossible," Garrison said. "The only way she can save herself and her children — she would just have to give up her idea of her faith."