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Making Sense of the Duggars – Why It’s Not About Josh or His Sisters

I’ve read dozens of articles about Josh Duggar and his family – lots of people with lots to say.  They agree that Josh, starting when he was 14, molested at least 4 or 5 younger children, some of whom were his sisters.  They agree that he “confessed” and his parents responded by sending him for “treatment.” Apparently, the victims forgave him.

Some articles condemn Josh and his family, some defend them, some seem to delight in the fall from grace of this family that was quick to judge others.   Some worry about the victims.  Some condemn other people for judging the Duggars!  None of that is particularly helpful.

But just ignoring it isn’t a helpful response either.  When abuse happens and it’s hidden away, it will, eventually, tumble back out of the closet. When it does, the most effective response is not to shove it back in the closet, or to ignore the skeletons dancing in the living room.

When it became public knowledge that Catholic priests had been molesting children, and we realized the Church hierarchy had been carefully covering it up, we needed to talk about that.  We needed to pull the problem into the light so people could identify ways to stop it.  It was important to determine the factors that had allowed so many people to turn their heads and let it continue.

The problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church went beyond individual priests who abused individual children – it was a systemic problem that supported the abusive priests at the expense of the children.  It was a system that encouraged secrecy and shame, and that had to be exposed before it could be remedied.  (Not to imply that the process is complete.)

The Duggars promoted themselves as an ideal family system, and we need to understand what happened.  Not the details of the abuse, or information about the victims.  And not just wringing our hands and talking about how awful-horrible-terrible it is.  That may be satisfying, but isn’t helpful.

Libby Anne at Love, Joy, and Feminism offers helpful information.   In What Did Josh Duggars Counseling Look Like, she introduces us to the material used in seminars offered by Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute – which is where they sent Josh for counseling.  The whole article is worth reading, but at the heart of it is this outline for “Counseling Sexual Abuse.”

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I work with many adults who’ve been sexually abused as children.  If I wanted them to feel responsible for the abuse, I would start with this outline.  Then, after I’d thoroughly doused them in guilt and self-blame, I could encourage them to seek forgiveness and find redemption in their spiritual growth.  For the victim this is a cruel perversion of the actual process of healing from abuse.   For the perpetrator, it’s an opportunity to blame the victim and feel forgiven without much effort.

This model of understanding sexual abuse explains a lot about why the situation in the Duggar family was handled the way it was.  But ~ but ~ HOW can they think that’s how it works?  For example, their emphasis on modesty as abuse prevention is applied to very young children – even three and four year olds.   How can that be?  It’s as if they’re living in a different reality.

And in a way they are.   Josh Duggar and the Tale of Two Boxes shifted my understanding.  People with progressive sexual ethics and people with conservative sexual ethics don’t share a paradigm for sexuality in general.  Suddenly, lots of confusing difference clicked into place.  Compare the two:

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When you break it down that way, it makes perfect sense.  Consent is not a biblical principal.  Consent can’t be a biblical principle because the Bible is patriarchal, and consent implies equality.  In the Duggar family, for sure, women are not on a par with men.  Women are considered inherently different and naturally submissive to male leadership.  This creates an artificial power differential based on gender.

As a therapist, I know that children who are abused by their parents often blame themselves.  Because they depend on their parents for survival, it’s safer to believe that their parents are good and that the abuse was somehow their fault than to believe that their parent is unfair and cruel.  I can speculate that women in a severely patriarchal household are motivated to consider their male head of household in the same light.  If the family leader appointed by God is not basically good and trustworthy, then where does that leave those who are dependent on him for guidance and direction?

Nope.  It’s much safer to follow blindly with your eyes closed.  Easier to accept logical contortions than to  break away.   And I don’t say that lightly – Libby Anne provides dozens of links to “survivor blogs” – leaving this kind of family is incredibly difficult and painful.

For those of us not bound by such extremes, it’s tempting to believe we are somehow better than the Duggars.  Smarter, maybe.  After all, we know better than that.  It couldn’t happen to us.  But before we settle too deep in that comfortable space, let’s remember that we live in a patriarchal culture too.  It’s easy to see the traps other people are caught in, harder to see when we’re tied up in traps of our own.

The challenge is to move beyond “that’s awful-horrible-terrible” – even when it is.  The goal is not to demonize others and not to be “better than them.”  The goal is a world rooted in equality – regardless of gender, race, class, or ability –  a world where victims’ voices are heard, and oppression is not the norm.    And that movement – that change – has to start inside each of us.