The Duggar’s: Abuse and Conservative Religion

Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea who the Duggar family was. To my surprise, it appears that many people in North America have been following this conservative Christian family. Further, the Duggar’s seem to be very influenctial among various Evangelical Christian lobbying groups. It seems that they have become a sensation because of their reality TV show, 19 Kids and Counting. Even as I read some things about the family in the news in recent weeks, it seemed to me that the Duggar’s were faux celebrities much like the Kardashian’s and Paris Hilton: they never really did anything but yet they seem to be famous.

I received an email from one of my colleagues, a psychologist in another part of the country, who asked what I thought of the Duggar’s and the current sexual abuse scandal. It was her question that prompted me to learn more about the family. While I have clearly never met the Duggar’s nor have I watched their TV show, what I found in the press seemed to fit the pattern of domestic abuse.

There’s a common misperception that various types of domestic abuse, i.e., sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, or spiritual abuse, are different from one another. At root, they are all very much the same. Abuse is manifested in various forms but both the inner dynamics of the abuser and the family system within which abuse occurs are very much the same no matter what type of abuse occurs. In other words, psychological or spiritual abuse isn’t in some way better than sexual abuse. However, sexual abuse seems to both offend and fascinate the general public more than other forms of abuse.

While there are exceptions about most everything, there are some very typical patterns involved in abuse. Abusers are generally individuals who have a great deal of shame about themselves. Because their inner life (both thoughts and emotions) seem to be out of control for them, abusers generally become very controlling individuals. Abusers generally find that external structures like conservative religion, military life, or other kinds of regimentation, provide a sense of order to life to balance their internal sense of a lack of control. When that order is threatened, they often abuse others. When they find themselves becoming stressed, anxious, or filled with rage, they hurt others around them: physically, sexually, psychologically, and spiritually.

Abuse is typically inter-generational. Abusers were typically victims of abuse, often by someone older in the family. This doesn’t mean that if a person was abused that the person will become an abuser. The cycle can be stopped. Not all victims of abuse become abusers but it is rare for an abuser to have not been a victim earlier in life.

One way to understand the cycle of abuse is with the psychoanalytic concept called introjection. When someone abuses another, the abuser introjects (or inserts into the other) the capability of abuse to the victim. That happens as the abuser shatters the world of the victim and leaves this abusive tendency in the ruble.

It seems to me that the Duggar family fits much of the profile of a family living with abuse. Father Jim Bob is known for outbursts of anger. He’s also known for shaming others as is his wife, Michelle. The family embraced a rigid form of religion and, for a long period of time, cut itself off from outside influences like public schools and less rigid church groups. Once they became more public through their reality TV show, they displayed a high level of judgementalism and intolerance for those who lived less rigid lives than theirs. Interestingly, while neither Jim Bob or Michelle have any mental health training, they pride themselves on being counselors, particularly marriage counselors. (Jim Bob is actually a real estate agent, which is a fine profession — but not a qualification to be a marriage counselor.)

While the media has focused on the sexual abuse in the family surrounding son Josh as the perpetrator, as I read articles and quotes from the family, there are clear signs of psychological and spiritual abuse. Given the comments that other children in the family have made about Jim Bob’s anger and a very angry grandfather, I wonder about the potential of physical abuse as well, which may have been couched in terms of punishment for the children.

I strongly suspect that Josh didn’t just start engaging in sexual activity with younger siblings on his own. It is likely that Josh is himself a victim of sexual abuse. I wonder if the poor way in which the family dealt with Josh’s known abuse (it wasn’t a secret in the family) was a way to avoid admitting the family history of abuse.

I find the Duggar’s to be a very helpful example of what not to do in regard to family abuse. Abuse of any form is woven with judgementalism and shaming of self and others. Highly structured religion is often used a way of trying to keep things together because the emotions can be overwhelming. Tragically, there are families like the Duggar’s living in many communities and neighborhoods. I’m sure that there are people all of us know who have lived with abuse, whether we are aware of it or not. More often than not, abuse is kept as a secret.

Perhaps the good that can come from the Duggar’s is that more people can be aware of abuse and the need for quality professional services to break the cycle. It’s not something that goes away. Unless the cycle is broken and deep healing occurs, abuse continues from generation to generation.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to The Duggar’s: Abuse and Conservative Religion

  1. melanie says:

    To make a plural, an apostrophe is not required. So it’s “Duggars,” not “Duggar’s.” Could you please correct? Drives me nuts.

  2. Nancy Litle says:

    So very true! I grew up in a very strict denomination much like the Duggar. I call it the “NO Church…No you can’t go to dances, No you can’t go to parties, No you can’t go to extra school activities, No you can’t have friends that aren’t in our denomination, No you can’t play card games, No you can’t go to the movies, No you can’t watch anything with the word “Movie” on it on tv, No you can’t wear jeans or pants, No you can’t wear anything that zips up the front, No you can’t run in church, No you can’t sit with friends in church, No you can’t wear makeup, No you can’t go to sleepovers, No you can’t go roller skating and the list goes on….

    My sister and I were very isolated and had very few friends. My parents used anything handy for “discipline” including but not limited to paddles, rulers, dad’s belt, hairbrushes and hangers. My Mother also pinched where no one could see bruises, twisted ears, thumped heads. She would kick me and then look at me and say” I didn’t kick you, your foot was in the way”!

    My dad was a very happy man one moment and then if you didn’t respond to him in an INSTANT all HELL broke loose. He would explode in anger. Things flew, dinners were ruined, and I learned to hide under things. I hid in closets, behind the couch, on the side of the dining room cabinet. I was terrified of his ANGER! He beat my Mother often. We ALl learned to lie about her large bruises at church.

    I was being Sexually Abused by my Mother and it also happened in the church…and because we were NOT allowed to discuss anything about Sex at home I did NOT have the words to tell anyone what was going on at home. We were taught early to never EVER discuss what happened at home!

    I also had JRA(Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis) from the age of 3. My parents refused to treat it Medically only relying on God. When I wasn’t being healed I was told I had “sin ” in my life and when that didn’t work I was told I had Demons!

    I managed to escape eventually and I never looked back. It has taken a lot of counseling to move past what happened growing up. It angers me to see what the Duggars have done to their kids. I know what it does to a person! I can only hope that someone shuts this show down for good! They are DANGEROUS!

  3. This article helped me to understand the “Duggar style” abuses in my own family.

    For years, I felt angry and envious towards the Duggars because, while my family was almost identical, their kids turned out right…and I didn’t. I was unhappy…”rebellious”…”worldly.”

    Then came the Josh scandal…and I wasn’t at all surprised, frankly. If it looks too good to be true…it is! Narcissism screams from the situation. I should’ve seen it, but it was so familiar, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

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