Josh Duggar’s Shame and Ours

Why did America fall in love with a family of extremists?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

To bypass software installed on his computer to prevent him from viewing pornography, Josh Duggar installed a separate operating system and a “browser capable of encryption,” the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. With those tools, he downloaded child pornography, some depicting the abuse of children younger than 12. And though he pleaded not guilty, a federal jury concluded otherwise and convicted him this week on one count each of receiving and possessing child pornography. He faces decades in prison.

This otherwise ordinary case appeared in the Associated Press and the New York Times and Variety because he is famous, a celebrity known initially for his reality-TV show career. For years, Duggar appeared with his siblings on TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, which portrayed his large and conservative family as something at once alien and relatable. How unusual to have so many children, yet how recognizable their family life appeared to be — that was TLC’s pitch to the nation, and it worked. The Duggars were stars.

What TLC pitched as charming traditionalism was really a form of extremism. Before Duggar destroyed his life, he worked as a lobbyist for the Family Research Council, a prominent anti-LGBTQ+ hate group. The Duggars campaigned against abortion rights as a family well after they’d become famous. A year before the public learned of Duggar’s abusive past, his mother, Michelle Duggar, recorded a robocall against an anti-discrimination measure in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The measure, she claimed, would allow “males with past child-predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.”

Not long afterward, Duggar admitted to molesting five girls as a teenager, including four of his sisters. The family stood by him — they had known and buried the story for years — but they lost their TV show. The right-wing former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee defended Josh after the molestation story broke in 2015. “They are no more perfect a family than any family, but their Christian witness is not marred in our eyes because following Christ is not a declaration of our perfection, but of HIS perfection,” Huckabee wrote on Facebook. That confession would not be Duggar’s last, though. He watched pornography; he cheated on his wife; he was very sorry. He disappeared from television, but TLC and the Duggars had money to make, so the network debuted another reality show, this one focused on his adult siblings. The family had become a spectacle; maybe it could no longer be anything else.

The popularity of the Duggar family indicts not only TLC but also the show’s fan base, who were committed enough to family that not even the molestation story could force them off air. The reality-TV model convinces viewers they’re participating — almost — in the lives of its stars. The Duggars in particular sold a rosy vision. Their family was so charming, so engaging, that people would want to belong. With the Duggars, devout Christians all, a missionary zealotry infested their performance. The family’s faith transmitted a powerful appeal. Audiences spent years with them and watched the kids grow up, find love, and marry.

Yet fame always costs. The Duggar parents struck a bargain with TLC on behalf of their brood, which included children too young to consent to their notoriety. What does it say about TLC — about us — that the Duggars could become so famous? That their patriarchal lives seemed quaint to so many? The Duggars never felt like anything but a threat to me; though my own family never approached their extremes, we did practice an adjacent version of Christian fundamentalism. Yet I had a basic measure of personal freedom. Unlike the Duggar girls, I wore pants and kept my hair bobbed. My parents even put me in public school — eventually — and assumed I’d go to college, even if they did hope I’d meet a Christian man there. (I did not.)

The small freedoms I possessed eluded the Duggar children. I felt then, and still feel now, that the presence of cameras in their lives made escape more difficult, that a person can’t be entertainment and liberated at the same time. The Duggar children didn’t even have the distance actors can claim from their roles. Maybe the Duggar parents knew this, too. The cameras worked like a fence and kept the children inside while people gawked on the outside. That’s what it means to be a witness. The Duggars wanted to set an example to others, and TLC helped them do it for years. While the family performed for the camera, they involved themselves ever more deeply with the Christian right. Not content to limit the freedom of their children, they sought to limit the freedom of others. The long skirts, the overflowing household, and the early marriages of their children were never personal choices alone but lives they hoped to force on others.

The Duggars are what they claimed to be: an all-American family. If there’s anything to glean from the tragedy of Josh Duggar’s life and crimes, it’s this — extremism wears a familiar face. The Duggars could become popular only in a nation whose traditional values mirrored their own. Hypocrisy and cruelty are as American as the flag. The Duggars merely took on the qualities of their environment and perfected them, all for willing audiences. Josh Duggar’s story is, hopefully, at an end. The rest of his family may finally move on and out of the public’s lights. The rest of us will have to reckon with what they’ve left behind.

Josh Duggar’s Shame and Ours