"Shiny Happy People," a new four-part docuseries streaming on Amazon Prime, tells the story of how reality television, pioneered by the channel TLC, took a far-right evangelical family from rural Arkansas that did not believe in contraception, dating, using the internet or even watching television, and deceptively molded them into America’s sweethearts.
Underneath the idyllic image of the Duggar family, as broadcast on "19 Kids and Counting" from 2008 through 2015, was a horrific secret: the oldest child, Josh, as a teenager had sexually abused girls, including his own sisters. His parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, the patriarch and matriarch of this mechanically jovial clan, concealed this damning history, even as they promoted the pre-marital chastity of their own and their adult children’s lives. As I reported in 2015, TLC sanitized the Duggars’ dedication to the fringe teachings of Bill Gothard, the disgraced founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles.
Exploitation of children — both sexual and otherwise — is endemic in Gothard’s organization and teachings.
"Shiny Happy People" follows this same narrative trajectory, and adds some new and dramatic revelations. But it is marred by the filmmakers’ failure to cite or acknowledge the many previous reports and investigations about Gothard and his organization, or to properly place the IBLP (and its homeschooling curriculum, the Advanced Training Institute) in context of the larger politics of the religious right.
There is a lot to commend in the documentary’s interviews of friends and family of the Duggars, including Jim Bob’s sister, niece and close friends. (Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, along with Gothard, declined interview requests, according to the filmmakers. In a statement, the Duggars said the series was “sad because in it we see the media and those with ill intentions hurting people we love. … This ‘documentary’ paints so much and so many in a derogatory and sensationalized way.”) Most heartbreaking is the interview with Jill Duggar Dillard, the fourth of the Duggar children, now 32, a survivor of her brother’s abuse and, we find out, also a survivor of her parents’ exploitation of her labor.
A visibly traumatized Dillard divulges that, after the revelations about Josh’s abuse of his sisters came to light in 2015, she and her sister Jessa Duggar Seewald felt forced to sit for an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly to declare the abuse no big deal. It seemed evident in real time that the Kelly interview, during which both sisters claimed that they didn’t even really remember the abuse and had forgiven their brother, was akin to a hostage situation. But hearing Dillard bravely confirm this is one of "Shiny Happy People’s" most devastating moments.
Dillard also says that the sisters were compelled to appear in a new reality show, "Jill and Jessa: Counting On," that TLC cooked up after the revelations about Josh became public, Dillard said. (TLC did not respond to a request for comment.) The network was not the only organization with a tarnished reputation; when Josh’s sexual abuse came to light, he was serving as executive director of the Family Research Council Action, one of the most influential religious-right political organizations in the country. Forced out of that position, he later worked in a car dealership in Arkansas, where federal agents discovered child pornography on his computer, for which he is now serving a 12-year prison term. In arguing for an even longer sentence, federal prosecutors told the judge that he had “deep-seated, pervasive and violent sexual interest in children.”
Exploitation of children — both sexual and otherwise — is endemic in Gothard’s organization and teachings, and Jill Duggar Dillard’s life story brings this into stark relief. In her interview she says that neither she nor any of her siblings were paid for years of exhibiting their lives to the world. Even the labor and delivery of her first child was shown on television against her wishes.
It is critical to give survivors of these traumas a platform to tell these stories, and "Shiny Happy People" succeeds at that.
Former followers of Gothard provide details, similar to excruciating experiences others told me in 2011 and 2015, on a range of abuses: his grooming of girls, exploitation of child labor, and his teachings that women should submit to the authority of men and that rape is the fault of women. (Gothard has long denied these charges, and did not respond to a request for comment. In a 2011 interview with me, he tried to claim, contrary to his own extensive writings, that he does not teach that wives should submit to their husbands. Gothard, then 76, later emailed me that he “made vows for personal purity, such as not kissing until I get married, and not improperly touching any girl.” He has never been married.)
It is critical to give survivors of these traumas a platform to tell these stories, and "Shiny Happy People" succeeds at that. It falls short, though, in placing the reach of Gothard’s homeschooling curriculum in the broader politics of the religious right and the homeschooling movement. Here, the filmmakers missed opportunities to put some of the foremost experts on these topics on screen.
For example, the series briefly discusses that Gothard and Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are proponents of Quiverfull, an evangelical movement that demands wifely submission to husbands, fathers’ control of their (even adult) daughters, and rejects the use of birth control so Christian parents can produce more soldiers for the culture wars. Yet they don’t acknowledge the author of the definitive book on Quiverfull, investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce. Similarly, they neglect the larger story of the drive for and proliferation of Christian homeschooling, a topic on which the religion scholar Julie Ingersoll specializes. She is considered such an authority that she testified as an expert witness in a trial in which a criminal defendant had been homeschooled with Gothard’s curriculum.
Even on smaller details the filmmakers do not credit journalists for their work. For example, the series notes that the Green family, the evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of stores, donated money to Gothard’s organizations. David Corn and Molly Redden reported this for Mother Jones in 2014, but their work is not mentioned. The series also touches on the use of a secularized version of Gothard’s materials in private prisons, but does not mention an extensive investigative report about this by Silja J.A. Talvi for In These Times in 2006.
"Shiny Happy People" correctly points out that Gothard, the Duggars, and other followers of his teachings were able to conceal their excesses for so long because of a culture of fear and silence within Gothard’s organization and its culture as a whole. But it is also true that for many years when reporters and experts, along with former followers who posted extensively on a number of whistleblower blogs and message boards, tried to sound the alarm they were largely ignored. In 2010, for example, when the Democratic congressional candidate Alan Grayson ran an ad accusing his Republican opponent Daniel Webster, a Gothard acolyte, of promoting his teaching on wifely submission, media outlets and fact checkers largely portrayed Grayson as the one acting out of line. Webster still represents Florida in the House of Representatives, and is a favorite of the far-right Freedom Caucus.
One of the main through lines of "Shiny Happy People" is that television is a commanding medium that powerfully shapes viewers’ perceptions. That is true in the case of "19 Kids and Counting," and of "Shiny Happy People," too. With independent print journalism under dire financial stress, it is more important than ever to recognize the crucial role it has always played in uncovering underreported stories about abuses of power — and the brave sources who, even in the face of trauma and gaslighting, make that kind of reporting possible.