"Faith is weaponized": Jill Duggar Dillard on how she felt controlled by her family

The Duggar daughter discusses her new book and how she felt re-victimized during the investigation into her brother

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 16, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Jill Duggar Dillard (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Jill Duggar Dillard)
Jill Duggar Dillard (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Jill Duggar Dillard)

"Every day is not easy," says Jill Duggar Dillard, "and right now is one of those seasons." As a member of one of reality television's most familiar and unquestionably largest families, the fourth Duggar child spent her formative years playing the role she most wanted to fill, the "good girl," the "Sweet Jilly Muffin." But then she married and began to assert her adult independence. And then the revelations about her brother Josh's abuse emerged.

In her new memoir, "Counting the Cost," Duggar Dillard reveals a complicated, remarkably relatable story of faith and family loyalty — and of finding one's own way forward in ways that diverge from them. The "cost" in her life has been contractual, financial and emotional. She reveals her protective, ambitious, controlling father, who in one stunning confrontation, she tells, "You treat me like the prodigal who's turned her back on you. You treat me worst than my pedophile brother." She reveals the "all encompassing, overwhelming sense of horror" when the details of her abuse investigation were published. And she remains steadfastly faithful and hopeful, a proud mother of three who tries to see with clarity both "the roses and the thorns."

In a recent "Salon Talks" conversation, Duggar Dillard was candid about the shock she got when she tried to leave the reality television orbit, how the media coverage of her abuse was a form of "re-victimization," and why she's giving her relatives some space now that she's telling her story in own words. "I do feel like sometimes faith is weaponized," she told me. "But I love Jesus and I'm thankful for God's grace and mercy in my life." You can watch our full "Salon Talks" conversation here or read the transcript below. 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You say in the book, "In reality television, everything has a cost." You were making trade-offs financially and personally from a young age. It feels to me that being in that church community, being in your family, already primed you in some ways to understand making trade-offs in life.

There were definitely many costs. That's why I just love the title of the book, because it is all-encompassing of various costs that I had to account for in my life. Whether it be the show and the invasion of privacy that became more apparent as Derick and I tried to be our own family unit while they didn't align with where the film crew and all the TV stuff was headed, or family dynamics and family relationships and how all of that unfolded. There were just so many aspects that hit us in the face, really, that we were not expecting.

You say in this book that for years, you thought you were just "working as volunteers." You saw your relationship with the show was part of your work for your family, your obligation for your family.

And ministry. 

Tell me a little bit about how that changed.

That's really what was pushed to us. To all of us kids, since the time we were young, it was always told to us like, "This is our family ministry." So, Derick and I were like, "OK, yeah, we'll just be a part of this ministry when we can and as much as we can to help the family." We definitely knew there were pressures there to conform to this. Even when we were very tired and overworked and we were facing challenges that way, we just kept pressing on because we were like, "Well, this is what we have to do. We're obligated to the family." It was more like that family pull.

"It was always told to us like, 'This is our family ministry.'"

But as life went on and we just couldn't, and it was starting to really affect us, that's when we started to make decisions that were different from my family and the whole show. When push came to shove, we're like, "We just need to stop the show and really get control of our lives." We were very much under the impression that we were just volunteers and that we could stop when we wanted to because it was a ministry. It wasn't anything else to us.

You think about how chaotic a wedding day is. It's extra chaotic because you've got People magazine, you've got television crews, you've got all of that swirling around you, and you were handed a contract. And you don't even really know what that means until a couple of years later.

I was handed the contract the day before our wedding, and I was not informed of what it was. I did not even have any information. When I asked what it was, I was told, "This is just about how you're going to get paid." I thought, "OK, this is just an appearance release type thing that we would sign." There were seasons with the show where it'd be like, "This is just so we can show your face for these episodes," that type of thing. I'm like, "I don't know what this is." But I trusted my dad, so it didn't seem like a big deal. There were no pages to read. It was literally just a signature page. 

I didn't think about it until years later when we were asked to come back for a shoot, and there was pressure to come back for this promo shoot. We were like, "No."

People knew we were on the mission field in Central America, and we had been dedicated to that work down there. We were like, "No, this isn't a surprise. We told everybody we were coming down here for this window of time." Our boss had asked us not to return to the States, and we'd made that commitment to him. It was at that point that I became aware of this contract because they used it as leverage to say, "No, you have to come back. You're obligated to." And I was like, "Hold up. What? I'm not obligated to anything." They're like, "Yes, you are. Here you go." 

Months later, finally, they gave me a little portion of it. First, they send me bullet points, and then they're like, "Oh, yeah, actually you are obligated to this." I was like, "What in the world? No, I'm not." They still wouldn't even send me the whole thing. They would just send me obligations.

The way that you talk about the IBLP, the way you talk about the mission of Bill Gothard and what the implications are for our families, our educational system and politics have deep ramifications. For those of us who are not as familiar with this organization, what do you want us to know about what's going on there? 

I think for the IBLP organization as a whole that I grew up in and all of these legalistic rules that they talk about, and then filming added to that and the way the world is headed right now, I think there are a lot of aspects that are transcendent to other areas of life. That's a huge thing that I've heard from people is like, "Oh, I didn't grow up at all you, but I feel the same problems that you're feeling or relationships or rules that I grew up with." Somebody else was saying, "I didn't grow up with any rules, and I feel like I would be tending toward being overbearing with my kids, so hearing your story has been helpful to me to realize more rules are not always better."

You just need to go in with your eyes wide open and not be fearful because that's also not healthy, but definitely work through things, process things, surround yourself with people who are going to help you work through things. See a therapist. That's huge. I know our generation is very much about advocating for mental health and therapy and all of that. Lots of insurances now cover therapy, so I think that's always helpful too.

I wanted to ask you about that because yes, your generation, my generation, we have a comfort level with therapy. But it is still more taboo and seen as more of a weakness, particularly in religious communities. God should be able to answer all your questions and God should be able to solve all your problems. For people who are deep in religious communities, you are telling a very important message. What do you want people to know, that you can reconcile your faith and get some therapeutic help?

Yeah, I do think that it's helpful. Just like you would see a doctor for something, I think that you need to see somebody, and you have to find somebody that is your fit. That's what I've told my friends too. You may find a doctor that you hate. So you've got to interview people, find somebody that fits well with you for therapy. 

But I think it is important. Emotions and problems we face, it's good to have almost like a life coach, having somebody advocating for you who's removed from your situation, who's going to help you work through things, who's been trained in that. At some points, you may need it more than others. You may need special, intense like, "I had a really bad day, I need to schedule an emergency therapy session or whatever." Or at some points you may be where we are now, kind of where it's like just more of here and there. I think it's very, very helpful.

I want to ask you about something that is really important that you get at in such a unique and articulate way. You were very upfront in this book about your brother's abuse and what happened when it was first investigated, and then what happened when the details were revealed years later.

When you talk about the experiences of talking to law enforcement, to different people, and then having that information revealed, you use words like "terror," "horror," "re-traumatized." It is important for people to know that it's not just about abuse, it's about the way it is handled. It is about the way it is spoken about, and it is about the person at the center of it controlling their own narrative. When that narrative was taken away from you, that's one of the central stories in this book. Talk to me about what you wish had happened, how it could have gone differently, and how you hope that it can go differently for someone else who is in that situation.

"I believe that victims should always be protected, especially juvenile victims, and that was something that was unfortunately and illegally taken from me."

Thank you. I knew that I would have to address this part of my life in the book because it's been a very public, unfortunately, part of my story. But I also was very careful in the way that I handled it, and I was adamant that I would not tell it in a way that continued to expose very private parts of my story and things that should have never been released and should have never been out there as a victim. I believe that victims should always be protected, especially juvenile victims, and that was something that was unfortunately and illegally taken from me.

I definitely believe that there was a re-victimization that happened in the way that it was handled. I think that everything should have remained private for me, not to protect the abuser, but as a victim, as a juvenile victim. I put in the book the judge's opinion on everything. He called it out and said what it was. He said, "This was illegal," what they did, as far as talking about these things, releasing these things. The only reason they got off the hook was because of their status and their position, and they were granted immunity as government officials. You have to meet a different standard there. They were granted immunity, but what they did was illegal. I hold them accountable for their actions, and I hope and pray going forward that no other victims would have to deal with the trauma that I face because of this and the reliving and rehashing and all of this that just haunts me to this day. It's emotional for me to even talk about it.

I want to get back to your dad. In the book, there's a line that really gets me. You say that when you were given away on your wedding day, that was a lie, that you still belonged to your father. You were a married woman, you were a mother, and your dad was still influencing and making decisions about your life. How did that play out for you in terms of being part of this patriarchal system?

"Why is there this handing off at the marriage altar, but then in reality, it feels like I've got the rug ripped out from under me, and I'm still under my dad's control?"

I think that everybody faces this whole struggle, when you get married, or maybe when you go off to college. You're trying to find out, who am I and how am I separate from the people that raised me? You're trying to find your identity a little bit. I was going through those normal feelings, but at the same time, there was a whole other level that I wasn't even aware of that really did make me feel like, "Wait a second." This was later, especially after the contract where I was confused. I'm like, why is there this handing off at the marriage altar, but then in reality, it feels like I've got the rug ripped out from under me, and I'm still under my dad's control? 

I correlated it to the Bible story that popped in my head was the story of Laban with Jacob and Rachel and Leah where he has one daughter, but then he tricks him into marrying the other one, and then he has to work for seven years for the other daughter. It's just this whole thing, and really that's how it felt. I was lied to, not only with the contract stuff, and now I'm being told that I have to still be under my dad's control and the filming control, but also my upbringing in IBLP and that whole group, I'm being told that I'm held to a different standard because I know better because this is the way that I was raised. 

Spiritually speaking, if you backtrack or you lower your standards — that's what they would say, "Lowering your standards" — then you know better because this is the way you're raised and you're supposed to always adhere to these beliefs. It's a really weird position that definitely made me feel like I was given away, but not really.

You say at the end of the book, this is not a letter to your family. It is, in many ways, independent of your relationship with your family. You were working through a place of love and seeing, as you say, the roses and the thorns. What does that look like for you on a day-to-day basis?

I loved that analogy that I put in the book about roses and thorns where you can have beautiful parts to your story, and then you can have the thorny parts that are not so beautiful that those might be your triggers. 

With my relationship with my family, it goes through seasons. Maybe I'll see them a lot, and then other times I give everybody space. Right now, after this book launch, I definitely want to give people space because I see that and I validate those feelings and that need for space. I think that it's important, as you're processing things, to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. You might need to step back for a while and take some space for yourself, and that's OK. You might need time to process, and there will be a lot of triggers that you face that might push you away for a little while, or unhealthy toxic situations where abuse is continuing, you may have to cut off complete contact.

I think for us, it's just a matter of each step and each phase that we're in, just taking a look and saying, "OK, how do we feel about this?" And then day-to-day like, "How do I feel today? Do I feel like going to this birthday party? Do I have the energy? Am I in a healthy place, or are we at our limit and I don't have time to go to this hour-long function and then come home and have to debrief for three hours? Is that where we're at right now?" I think that's good to just take those moments and process as you go.

You dedicate this book to among others, those who have been harmed in the name of religion. A lot of people answer to that description, of all different religions all around the world. And yet you are still a woman of great and deep faith. What does faith look like to you now, and how do you distinguish between the harmful aspects of religion and the love of your faith?

It's really been a process and it's an ongoing process to sort through things. I wanted to put that in my book because I do feel like sometimes faith is weaponized where people will say, "Well, you are speaking out because you're unforgiving, or you're unloving, or you're bitter, and it's obvious because otherwise you wouldn't say anything." 

"Every day is not easy, and right now is one of those seasons."

And I'm like, "Excuse me. There were people in the Bible too who advocated for unjust actions and who advocated against injustice." I correlated it similar to Esther in the Bible, where she felt called for such a time as this to rescue people. She was rescuing the Jewish people, but you might be called to something, and it doesn't align with what maybe your upbringing was or you're going to face backlash. 

Right now, I am in a place where, with my religious views, especially, I feel like sometimes [Derick and I] have been confronted with something and then we have to then face it and be like, "OK, what do we really believe about this?" Whether it's music, when I started wearing pants or getting a nose ring or those types of things, really being forced to think about them.

We had that example with the whole leave and cleave thing and the contract and just these upbringing things. At this point in our lives and just where we are, our lives have not changed as far as we want to just honor Christ in all that we do. We love Jesus and we want to serve him, and we believe the Bible to be true. It's the interpretations a lot of times in the Bible that humans misconstrue things, and maybe it's out of fear sometimes too, In my upbringing, I can see where things are taken to the extreme because people are scared about how their kids are going to be raised or where things are going to go, so they use, out of fear, a lot of these IBLP teachings.

But I love Jesus and I'm thankful for God's grace and mercy in my life and that he has seen me through these hard times and continues to. Every day is not easy, and right now is one of those seasons. It's very hard. Even though I'm excited about my book launch, it's hard because a lot of what I talk about in my story is very personal, and it's a lot about people that I love. And I do love my family. I do want that to be apparent that I still love them. But yeah, it's a difficult season.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Books Counting The Cost Duggar Family Jill Duggar Dillard Josh Duggar Memoir Salon Talks