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As an avid watcher of all sorts of reality television, particularly anything related to American religion, I’d been on the lookout for Jill Dillard’s memoir, Counting the Cost. I’d watched as she mysteriously disappeared from the family’s television show with little explanation. I’d also tuned in to the documentary expose Shiny Happy People as soon as it was released last summer.
Over the weekend, I finished listening to Counting the Cost, flying through it in just a few days on my morning walks and as I did chores around the house.
For those of you who aren’t frequent viewers of TLC reality television, Jill Dillard is the fourth child in the now infamous Duggar family. The family had a series of specials on TLC in the early 2000s that morphed into their television show, 19 Kids and Counting. That first show was canceled after Josh Duggar’s sexual abuse of his sisters came to light. It was followed by Counting On, until that spin-off was then canceled following Josh Duggar’s arrest in 2021.
Jill’s memoir takes her readers through her childhood, before the Duggar family appeared on reality television, through the influence of the conservative Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) on the family, and then their decision to appear on television for TLC. She talks about her and her husband’s experience on the show. There’s the impact of having to deal publicly with her brother’s abuse. And then there’s the fallout with her family when she and her husband started asking questions about why none of the children had ever been paid for appearing on the show and when they began making decisions that weren’t in line with the IBLP beliefs of her parents.
It’s an insightful look into her upbringing. The influence of IBLP’s authoritarian teachings, particularly about the family, deeply impact her. Beyond the impact on Jill, it causes you to wonder about and worry for all the other children raised in that type of conservative Christianity.
The atmosphere of fear in the family was palpable in Jill’s retelling. The fear was caused to some degree by the family’s sense that people were out to get them because of their fame and their beliefs. The parents emphasized that the family had to be careful to protect the family’s privacy. But the fear was also due to the IBLP’s teachings about the nature of authority and the “umbrella of protection” within the family.
Several times Jill describes how she grew up believing that the only way to ensure safety and protection was to respect the umbrella of authority. This meant obeying her parents perfectly. It carried into adulthood. Even adult children who were married were still expected to obey all of their parents’ wishes.
Jill’s description of her fear of disagreeing with her parents caused me to conclude that love in the Duggar family was conditional. The children, at least as Jill describes it, felt that they were loved and accepted as long as they completely agreed with and obeyed their parents. Any step out of line — over the most minor of infractions, like when Jill had her nose pierced — could lead to a withdrawal of their parents’ love and approval.
To top it all off, the women in the family bore the brunt of this all. They were the ones making the money for the show — from their courtships, engagements, weddings, and births (their literal labor) — but none of them were being paid. Jim Bob Duggar, the father, always claimed that the show was the family ministry so there was no need to worry about being paid for work.
Perhaps most shocking to me is that ultimately Jill paints her parents in a mostly favorable light at the end of her memoir. While she is critical of them and some of their decisions, clearly she still respects and loves them. I’m not sure I could have done the same in her shoes.
She does not hold back, however, in her criticism of the IBLP teachings her family lived by. Given her and her husband’s role in the documentary Shiny Happy People, it’s not really a surprise that she’s parted ways with IBLP. Her memoir is not only a striking condemnation of IBLP, but really a warning to anyone following these teachings, particularly those raising children in the way the Duggar parents raised Jill and her siblings.