HUFFPOST PERSONAL

My Family Was On A TLC Reality Show. Here's The Dark Secret That Never Aired.

Cynthia Jeub, 19 years old, holding baby No. 16, Elijah, in Monument, Colorado, in 2011.
Cynthia Jeub, 19 years old, holding baby No. 16, Elijah, in Monument, Colorado, in 2011.

In 2007, when I was 14, I appeared on “Kids by the Dozen,” a reality show that aired on The Learning Channel and featured my family and other large families like mine. Our part of the series was shot over nine days that year, just long ― and short ― enough for us to keep up appearances as one big happy family. My father, Chris Jeub, controlled both my education and my occupation. A Gen X middle-class man, he first carved a place in my small world by controlling the uterus of my mother, Wendy, who gave birth to me and my 15 siblings.

I am the third child born in our family ― my mother had my two older sisters as a teenager, and my dad adopted them when my parents married. My two older sisters had already endured the consequences of questioning my family’s beliefs. Alicia, who is nine years older than me, committed the unforgivable sin of wanting to date boys. Alissa, who is six years my senior, converted to Islam when she was in her 20s, making her dead to our family. She would later reconcile with my parents after capitulating to my parents’ demands and undergoing “Christian counseling.”

“Kids by the Dozen” led to a staged “reconciliation” between my parents and Alicia. In the eyes of our tight-knit Christian community, a rebellious child is a great shame and failure on the part of the parent. To address and compensate for the show’s strict depiction of their parenting, my parents self-published a book called Love in the House: Filling Your Home With the Greatest Commandment. In it, they highlighted Matthew 22:36-40, in which Jesus says that the “greatest commandment” is to love God and others. For us kids, this meant we had to give unconditional love to our parents without questioning their beliefs or authority. For our parents, it meant that God wanted them to have more children. I know, that’s not what love is at all, but, sadly, I didn’t know that for the first 23 years of my life.

The cult-like beliefs that shaped my upbringing belong to what is known as the “Quiverfull” Movement. It is based on Psalm 127, which reads, “Children are a heritage of the Lord, and fruit of the womb is his reward; happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.” The metaphor of a quiver full of arrows defines children as weapons to be used to win the world for Christian conservative values. 

My parents believed that God created the universe in six days about 6,000 years ago, and they refused to have my mother give birth in a hospital or to vaccinate me or my siblings. I was home-schooled from pre-kindergarten through high school, and my curriculum touched briefly on science as a subject that merely magnifies the handiwork of God, while for history I was taught that divine providence had bestowed America to Christ’s faithful.

Jeub, age 5, holding baby No. 6, Micah, after a home birth in Kent, Minnesota, in 1997.
Jeub, age 5, holding baby No. 6, Micah, after a home birth in Kent, Minnesota, in 1997.

I wore a purity ring, which I received from my parents when I was 16 years old and signified I had promised to remain a virgin until marriage so my dad could hand a “pure” daughter over to my future husband.

Democrats, I was told, just wanted to kill innocent babies waiting to be born in their mothers’ wombs. Once born, children were welcomed as blessings but brought up, above all, to be useful and to honor every whim of their parents. Our home was often filled with chaos ― children scattered everywhere; piles of laundry and toys and dishes deep enough to wade through; one child or another practicing piano or riding through the house on a Big Wheel; my mother yelling and sometimes wielding a heavy cutting board or pizza paddle to dole out spankings. I was put to work early and quickly learned to do everything from bathing five children at a time to waking up in the night to tend to fussy toddlers while I prayed for the strength to handle my Sisyphean workload. My parents convinced me that my work was a duty to God, so it was impossible to view it for what it was: exploitation.

My dad loved to use the word “assets” to describe my siblings and me. At home, it meant breaks from work were a reward for good behavior. But when he quit his job as a web designer for Focus on the Family, the right-wing religious organization he worked for, and made his personal ministry into our main source of income, we each became employees ― though we were not always paid, much less paid fairly. I handled editing the speech and debate curriculum we published, provided customer service, oversaw different accounts related to the ministry, and helped manage our camps and conferences ― all for minimum wage ― starting at age 13. He often directly transferred money from my siblings’ and my bank accounts without notice, or, when my bank account looked a bit too full, he would talk me into spending my earnings on an upgraded phone or laptop for the ministry.

It’s been 12 years since I was on TV, in my denim dress and exhausted eyes, happily describing for the cameras how I planned to live the rest of my life like this: diapers, baths, dishes, laundry, supervising children. But it’s only been four years since I started to see that something was wrong with us. What happened?

After being home-schooled all my life, I started attending local college classes at age 19. At first, I believed that my university was something of a “mission field,” or place to preach about my beliefs. In those first years, I developed a following of Christian young people who admired me for my dedication and passion for my faith. But I also made friends with people who had never existed in my world before: atheists and people who are LGBTQIA+.

I was put to work early and quickly learned to do everything from bathing five children at a time to waking up in the night to tend to fussy toddlers while I prayed for the strength to handle my Sisyphean workload. My parents convinced me that my work was a duty to God, so it was impossible to view it for what it was: exploitation.

It wasn’t until I started college that I began to be honest with myself, and new friends from worlds far beyond the borders of mine, about how performative my life was. I was depressed, and had been for a long time, but had learned to stifle my feelings for the sake of my family. I was having conversations about astronomy and the validity of the Bible and how religion had hurt so many people. However, I still lived with my parents, and the questions I brought home with me each night were creating a power struggle with my parents over how the younger children might be influenced by what I was learning.

Then one day in 2013, my parents kicked me and my little sister, Lydia, out of their house. I was 22 and she was 19 ― plenty old enough to leave the nest, but we had no cars, no savings and nowhere to go. Like our older sisters, we were never told exactly why we were kicked out. Dad went on and on about how expensive we were, and how we’d have nothing without him. I had loved Jesus with all of my heart, dedicated my life to serving him ― and my parents ― and did whatever I could to stay pure of heart for them and my future husband. I knew my protests would be futile as my dad logged into his bank, which was linked directly to our personal bank accounts, and transferred hundreds of dollars into his own account for imaginary debts he claimed we owed him. Then he said he would start charging us for rent, effective immediately ― $500 each for the small bedroom we shared in a house full of 16 people.

We left. I don’t think my father expected us to find somewhere to go, but some kind friends took us in. That day was a breakthrough because it triggered memories of what I’d been forced to minimize and see as isolated incidents over the years. I dropped out of college a few months later ― my poor home-schooling had made academic success virtually impossible, and I couldn’t afford it. I sank into a horrible depression and began seeing a professional therapist, who was alarmed at my poor sense of boundaries and all of the traumatic memories that poured out of me.

Getting kicked out gave me the freedom to question. Maybe being gay wasn’t a sin. Maybe birth control and abortion weren’t the same thing. Maybe I didn’t have to give birth over and over and over again in order to be worthy. Maybe there wasn’t an invisible being that knew my every thought that would burn my soul if I didn’t do all the “right” things.

Realizing that my parents and the religion I had been raised in couldn’t be questioned without severe consequences was like waking up from a dream. I wanted ― needed ― to get my siblings out. But legally, siblings have no real recourse to protect each other, even if a sibling ― and not the parents ― is actually the one who is doing the majority of the caretaking.

Jeub in 2019.
Jeub in 2019.

I still visited the family often, desperate to get through to my siblings. I stood up for them and called my parents out on being unfair, for the first time in my life. For most of my childhood, I didn’t advocate for my siblings, because I had nothing to compare our experience to, no way of knowing it was not normal or fair.

The tension escalated as I continued asking questions, and began reminding my siblings of the times we were all taught to forgive and forget about ― how we always had impossible expectations and responsibilities. But I wasn’t living there anymore, and my mother could always come along and tidy up the thought process of a doubting child. She’d done the same for me for the first 19 years of my life.

Soon, my parents banned me from talking to any sibling without their supervision. Then I received the dreaded phone call from my dad: an ultimatum that I could either submit to Christian counseling with them ― and endure more controlling, emotionally devastating attempts to bring me into submission ― or I would lose complete access to my family.

I had to let go of my brothers and sisters, which is by far the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. As soon as I got the phone call about losing access to my siblings, I began writing on my blog about my parents’ abuse. The best evidence I have to back up the abuse claims I detailed in those blog posts came from my dad’s attempt to save face. The day after the first post, he released a podcast in which he blamed my delusions on mental illness and left the microphone open for my siblings to respond to what I had written. My dad deleted the podcast within hours. I reported my parents to local authorities for child abuse, as did my therapist. I don’t know whether an investigation was conducted, but the following year, six of my siblings were enrolled at the local charter school, and today the eight youngest are in school.

In 2015, I moved from Colorado to Seattle in search of a new life. Within a year, I was homeless. With no college degree and limited schooling, I only qualified for jobs doing physical labor. I worked at a grocery store deli while sleeping in a car. I showered at a gym and changed into my uniform in the bathrooms of other grocery stores. While I was living in a car, I lost my entire blog and the hundreds of posts I had published, because I couldn’t afford to pay the web hosting renewal fee.

Twelve years ago, my family’s lifestyle was made into a spectacle for entertainment, alongside a host of controversial shows on The Learning Channel... [My siblings and I] were being under-educated, overlooked due to the sheer number of us, and the older kids were raising the younger ones, while also catering to our parents’ every whim.

This past year, my partner, whom I met through mutual friends in 2016, and I found a community in Olympia, Washington. Here, we are among others who were cast out by extreme religion, most of us LGBTQIA+ and facing poverty and chronic homelessness. We exist to fight the patriarchy and colonizer-capitalism ― and to embrace our lives and love without the guilt our families and the church foisted on us for so many years. Thanks to the help of many friends and strangers from around the world, my blog archives have been restored, and I have some financial support from online patrons of my work.

I suffer from chronic pain and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). I do not own a car. I can no longer work on my feet because my body is so damaged from being overworked as a child, so I write. Between therapy and the relentless inconvenience of poverty, I write. I write about trauma and recovery, about poverty and injustice, about what I know now.

Twelve years ago, my family’s lifestyle was made into a spectacle for entertainment, alongside a host of controversial shows on The Learning Channel. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV as a kid, so while my peers were getting to know fourth-wall-breaking humor through comedies satirizing the genre like “The Office,” my siblings and I were uncertain in front of the camera crew. We were being under-educated, overlooked due to the sheer number of us, and the older kids were raising the younger ones, while also catering to our parents’ every whim.

I have not spoken to my parents in three years. I’ve been told their “door is open” and that they are willing to welcome me back if I can set aside everything that makes me who I am today. I’ve never had a chance to come out to them as bisexual. As for my adult siblings, most people guess that our shared experience would bring us closer, but this has not been the case. Deeper still than the religious element of our upbringing was an emphasis on work ethic, being a “good asset” ― and it was this that came between my sisters and me in recent years. When I was homeless, my two older sisters blamed me for my own poverty. My parents’ snare has always been our siblings, and Lydia couldn’t bear to lose them. In our last exchange, she told me she was back to taking advice from our parents ― financial advice from my father and advice on essential oils from my mother for her own unvaccinated children.

Four of my adult siblings are still part of the Quiverfull movement. My parents’ primary message is that people should have more children, and my siblings are on their way to having large broods, too. Sometimes I receive a phone call from one of my brothers, but the chasm between what I believe now and what they believe makes communication nearly impossible. I miss them, and I hope someday I can build a relationship with them that isn’t based on adhering to my parents’ beliefs. Though deluded people with nefarious intentions still run the world outside of the one I eventually escaped, my pyrrhic victory is I don’t have to delude myself anymore.

Cynthia Jeub is a freelance writer based in Olympia, Washington. She blogs about justice and recovery at cynthiajeub.com.

This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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