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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.