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A few months ago, I listened to Jill Dillard’s memoir Counting the Cost, and this month I followed it up with her sister Jinger Vuolo’s book Becoming Free Indeed. I’ve watched the Duggar’s television specials and shows since they first aired in the early 2000s — first out of curiosity and because of the entertainment value and later because of the window the family gave into a certain type of conservative Christianity (and into its relationship with the media and broader American culture).

Nearly two decades later, it has been interesting to watch the adult Duggar children, who spent many of their formative years on television, processing and reflecting on the way they were raised. Jill and Jinger’s respective memoirs provide just one window into this experience. It was fascinating to compare the choices they made in telling their stories. Their two approaches couldn’t be more different.

While Jill’s is a traditional memoir, Jinger’s is more of a spiritual biography — almost not a spiritual biography even, sometimes bordering on apologetics. She focuses almost solely on her faith journey, while Jill focuses on her life — her experience growing up on TV, her brother’s crimes, her exploitation on the show by her parents and TLC — in addition to some discussion of how her faith has evolved over time.

Jill focuses on her family and the way being on TV, combined with following strict IBLP (Institute in Basic Life Principles) teachings, led to major dysfunction within the family. While she ends on a positive note and makes it clear she still wants a relationship with her parents and siblings, she is critical of many of their actions, particularly her father’s role in exploiting his children for fame and money.

Jinger, on the other hand, keeps her focus on Bill Gothard’s teachings and how her own religious beliefs now differ from Gothard’s. She speaks positively about her family and glosses over her brother Josh’s crimes (she acknowledges how awful his crimes were but quickly moves on).

If you read only Jinger’s book, you’d assume that being on the show was a net positive for the family. While Jill delves in more depth into the trauma of being forced onto reality television as a child, Jinger spends most of her time explaining her current religious beliefs and making the pitch for why her version of Christianity is best, both for those who currently follow Gothard’s teachings as well as for any people who have left evangelicalism altogether. She’s writing to convert.

That’s not to say that Jinger has nothing bad to say about her childhood. Both Jill and Jinger are very critical of Gothard’s teachings and the IBLP. But whereas Jill takes a more incisive look at the system they were raised in, Jinger sees it more as an issue of the heart and belief. So much so that sometimes I felt like she was too critical of herself — blaming her trauma on her not loving Jesus enough or in the right way when really she was a victim of her harsh religious upbringing.

In the end, Jinger made the safer choice. She comes so close to putting all the pieces together. Instead she decided to play it safe and focus on theology and her own beliefs rather than truly questioning or challenging the way her family raised her and their years of work on reality television.

Jill took a big (and I would say, brave) risk. She not only calls out Gothard’s teachings but also her parents’ own complicity, providing a more insightful and incisive look at the damage and trauma Gothard’s teachings caused. And taking the risk to call all this out pays off, at least when comparing her book to her sister’s, making for a much more interesting and compelling read.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • RZ says:

    Hmmm. Makes me wonder when ” zeal for the Lord” moves from being constructive to destructive. I suspect Bill Gothard did not intend to do harm, nor did so many of his followers. The marker that defines harm, I suspect, is the use of power and some variation of orthodoxy to enforce that zeal. But then I wonder what makes this possible, even common among followers? It must be that wave of momentum that comes with zeal, fueled by fear of a “gotcha” God and by a tribal membership longing. The wave fuels the zeal but robs the reconsidering and reasoning side of the brain of that psychic energy needed to process it all. Then, there is that common thinking error: “Don’t think too much about this. You might lose your faith.”
    Interestingly both sisters knew instinctively that something here was wrong.

  • KAHildy says:

    Just because Jinger didn’t talk intimately about her upbringing, “call out” her parents, or “put the pieces together” to suit you, doesn’t mean she didn’t examine how she had been raised and dealt with it. On the contrary, I would submit that Jinger could not have written such a book if she hadn’t dealt with those issues. Jinger was the 4th Duggar child to marry and the 3rd daughter. Her experience would have been different than Jills, who was the 1st daughter. By the time Jinger married, JimBob’s power over his married children seemed to undergo a change. In fact, I haven’t seen the level of control Jill speaks of exercised with any of the subsequent children when they’ve married. Jill seems to have born the brunt of parental disapproval by being the first child to openly oppose, question, and challenge her parents choices in child rearing and family control. She paved the way for her siblings.

  • RZ says:

    Beth, Sorry, perhaps I was unclear. The trajectory of my thought process is to wonder how and when he went so wrong, not to question the fact that he did. I doubt that he said, as a young boy, “When I grow up I want to be a pervert.”

  • Julie Stough says:

    Jill dishonors her parents by making all of their faults public knowledge! Jinger brings to light alot of the ways she was raised without dishonoring her parents! Jinger is lovely….Jill is whining!

  • Heather Jones says:

    Julie Stough- I agree with you wholeheartedly. Jinger’s book wasn’t a gotcha book against JimBob & to a lesser degree, Michelle. Jill set out to get them- pay back for how she perceived being financially ripped off by her father. Jill, I feel, was being fed her new mindset by her husband, who was by JimBob. I have akways thought Derrick has a big ego- bigger now that he’s become a lawyer. disenfranchised Jill never had the personality she has now until she got involved with him. She has, however, always seemed like she was more important than her sisters- just like big brother Josh.

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