The Duggars weren’t famous until someone introduced them to the world. That someone was me.
My editor at a national magazine suggested an “as told to” story about an Arkansas family with 14 children. Michelle Duggar cheerfully agreed.
My motive was to share a tale about unusual people, in the same vein as my profiles of a hairdresser for mall Santas or the director of an association for nude recreation. I didn’t volunteer to Michelle that I was a Jewish, feminist mother of two who had very different ideas than her about how to raise children, and who associated huge families with the era before birth control and sustainability concerns.
The story was filled with homespun observations of how the Duggars managed the laundry and trips to the grocery store, and how chores were an opportunity to serve the family and God. Their motto, Michelle told me, was “joy ― for Jesus first, others second, yourself last.”
In the family’s paired “buddy” system, the older siblings made sure their younger buddies were changed, washed and dressed. Older siblings helped their buddies with meals and schoolwork, and tucked them in at naptime. It sounded to me like the older children were co-parenting the younger ones, with responsibilities I wouldn’t have asked of teens.
Parents ran the story in September 2003 under the title “Count Our Blessings.” In an accompanying photo, the kids line up behind their parents from tallest to smallest ― except for Joshua. He was away at a “Christian program” from March 17 to July 17, 2003, according to a police report filed three years later. His parents sent him there, they later said, after they discovered he had molested five young girls, including several of his sisters. Of course, I had no idea about any of this when I wrote the story.
After my article was published, someone at Discovery Health Channel read it and commissioned a documentary for the channel about the Duggars, according to Michelle on the family’s website. That eventually led to the TLC reality show “17 Kids and Counting” ― a show that ran in some incarnation for seven years, but that I never once watched.
“For years, my tie to the Duggars was a funny story accompanied by an eye roll. ...I could ignore the Duggars until May 2015, when In Touch Weekly ran a story, '19 Kids and Counting Son Named in Underage Sex Probe,' identifying Josh Duggar as the alleged offender.”
For years, my tie to the Duggars was a funny story accompanied by an eye roll. I didn’t follow their political activities, like Michelle’s 2014 robocall against a proposed local anti-discrimination ordinance in Arkansas. (“I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas reserved for women and girls,” she said in the recorded message.)
I could ignore the Duggars until May 2015, when In Touch Weekly ran a story, “‘19 Kids and Counting’ Son Named in Underage Sex Probe,” identifying Josh Duggar as the alleged offender. Within a few weeks, Michelle Duggar and her husband, Jim Bob, told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that Joshua had molested five girls, including four of his sisters.
The Duggar reality show, which had been renamed “19 Kids and Counting” after Michelle had two more children, ended with the network saying its abrupt conclusion was a mutual decision. It didn’t take long for the dynasty, and the network profits, to continue with “Counting On,” a new TLC show that initially highlighted Duggar sisters Jill and Jessa.
Joshua Duggar resigned from his lobbying position with the conservative, anti-gay Family Research Council. “Twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends,” he said in a public apology that May. “We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling.” Joshua’s alleged victims didn’t file charges.
He wasn’t arrested at that point, but he was in the news again a few months later, when Gawker reported that he was a member of the Ashley Madison website for adultery. Duggar neither confirmed nor denied the report, but on the family’s website he wrote: “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife.” He later edited the post to cut the porn addiction reference. Following time at a religious rehab center, he opened a used car business.
In April 2021, police arrested Joshua Duggar on charges of receiving and possessing child pornography, also known as child sexual abuse material. Though he pleaded not guilty, a federal jury found him guilty of two counts following a brief trial late last year. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on May 25, and could spend up to two decades in prison. Prosecutors said he stored more than 200 images of children on his computer at the used car lot. Duggar’s attorneys plan to appeal the conviction, according to Insider.
Like millions of others, I’ve felt deep sadness about the effects of Joshua Duggar’s behavior. I’ve thought about my unsuspecting role in the family’s rise to fame, and what I may share in common not with the parents, who are about my age, but with several of their daughters. I myself am a child abuse survivor.
My late mother never sexually abused me. But her ongoing physical and emotional attacks, like the sexual offenses that reportedly happened in the Duggar household, occurred where a child is supposed to feel safe, with someone a child is supposed to trust. Some attacks occurred in my bedroom. Once I woke before dawn to my mother opening and closing scissors above my eyes. After that incident, I barricaded the door at night.
With hindsight, it’s easy to feel queasy about Jill and Jessa defending their brother in a June 2015 interview with Megyn Kelly, where Jill identified herself and Jessa as “victims” of the inappropriate touching.
What Josh did was “very wrong,” Jessa said, but she wanted to “speak up in his defense against people who were calling him a child molester or a pedophile... That is so overboard and a lie, really.” She described what happened as “mild, inappropriate touching on fully clothed victims, most of it while girls were sleeping,” by a boy who was “a little too curious about girls.”
“We didn’t even know about it until he went and confessed it to my parents,” Jill said.
The sisters were shocked to learn about the incidents from their parents. Jill described feelings of sadness and anger as well.
“You had no memory of it?” Kelly asked.
“I didn’t understand this is what’s happened until my parents told me,” Jessa replied.
She added that Joshua had been “very sly” so the girls didn’t catch on. “It was like, if he catches a girl sleeping, you know, like, a quick feel or whatever,” she said. “In the situations that happened when the girls were awake, it was like they weren’t aware of what was happening. It was very subtle.”
Joshua asked his sisters for forgiveness, Jill said. He then left home for the “Christian program” mentioned in the police report, missing the photo shoot for my Parents article in the process. When he returned, “he was a totally different person,” Jessa believed. “It was just like, I can see he’s made some life changes here during this time and he’s never going to go down that path.”
“Did you feel scared at all that he might resume?” Kelly asked.
They didn’t. “You forgive someone, and then you have boundaries, forgiveness with boundaries. And so trust comes later,” Jill said. For her, seeing the news splashed across a magazine cover was “a re-victimization that’s even a thousand times worse,” because “we’ve already forgiven Josh. We’ve already moved on.”
The touching wasn’t strictly over clothes while girls were asleep, according to several sources. The police report indicates that Joshua, whose name in the document is blacked out, put his hand under a girl’s dress while they were in the family’s laundry room. At the pretrial hearing for Joshua’s recent trial, a family friend said Josh had told her years ago he’d “digitally penetrated” a young girl while she sat on his lap and he read her Bible stories, according to a prosecutors’ supplemental brief filed on Nov. 30 and reported by E! News.
I feel dizzy typing those lines, especially as the mother of a daughter. But in truth, inappropriate touching among minors is a complex subject. Anywhere from 50% to 70% of child sexual abuse incidents are perpetrated by other children and teens under the age of 18, according to Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University. Children in puberty are especially prone to making misjudgments regarding consent, Letourneau told me in an interview.
“A family friend said Josh had told her years ago he'd 'digitally penetrated' a young girl while she sat on his lap and he read her Bible stories ... I feel dizzy typing those lines, especially as the mother of a daughter.”
As kids get older, they typically become far less likely to engage in sexual behavior with younger kids, Letourneau said. Youths who engage in harmful sexual behaviors can be treated, and treated kids are far less likely to touch inappropriately in the future.
Joshua Duggar reportedly molested five girls, not one. His parents later agreed to a reality television show in a decision I can only attribute to unabashed chutzpah. At least one daughter’s perspective on her family has changed over time: Jill left “Counting On” in 2017, and within a few years was distancing herself from her family. Once Joshua was convicted last year, Jill and her husband said in a statement: “After seeing all the evidence as it was presented, we believe that the jury reached a just verdict today, consistent with the truth beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Duggars still generate eye-rolling tabloid headlines. (“Jill Duggar defends feeding her dog breast milk.”) But some of the parents’ reported beliefs are no joke. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” recently explored their possible ties to Christian Patriarchy, also called the Quiverfull movement, which Bee described as a sect of Christianity that uses the Bible to subjugate women and reject their participation in higher education.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar denied they were Quiverfull followers in their book “A Love That Multiplies,” though HuffPost noted in 2015 the family’s similarities with those in the movement. As a graduate of a women’s college, I’m horrified at the idea that Jim Bob and Michelle might eschew rigorous college education for women. (Reportedly Jessa and two other Duggar sisters took some type of online courses. Jill trained as a midwife.)
In any case, I never imagined I’d be giving this family the platform to become such an influential force when I wrote a fluffy feature about them 19 years ago. I can only hope other extraordinary people I’ve written about, or will write about, attract a modicum of the same recognition for actual achievements, rather than for being really religious and having lots of kids.
But that’s the thing. It’s often impossible to know how our decisions will play out, or to foresee how an innocent personal interest story might change so many lives in so many ways. I tend to feel responsible for everything ― call it the legacy of being an abuse survivor ― and partly because of this, I feel a little responsible for unleashing the Duggars onto the world. But I also know if I hadn’t written about them, another writer eventually would have.
Since Joshua Duggar’s conviction, I’ve found myself dwelling on his sisters’ comments to Megyn Kelly about seeing a licensed counselor after Josh reportedly molested them. “It was really helpful for us to just kind of close that chapter and move past it,” Jessa told Kelly.
Though Jill has said more recently that therapy has been helpful to her, it’s impossible to know if Jill and Jessa ever grappled with the questions that face many young survivors of abuse by a family member, including me: Is this how your loved one is supposed to act? Did I do something to deserve this? Am I ever going to feel safe? And later, as an adult: How do I create a healthy family of my own?
“Moving past it” is not the way forward ― at least it wasn’t for me. As I see it, therapy helps you express the confusion, the anger, the tears. You ponder how assaults or other trauma affect you at different stages of your life. You gradually incorporate the experience into who you are, knowing it doesn’t define you, but that it leaves a mark that will always linger.
Perhaps the young women in the Duggar family did that hard work, and will do more, on the day their brother is sentenced and in their lives for years to come. All I know is, that’s a story they’ll have to write themselves.
Andrea Cooper’s essays have appeared in Vogue, Salon, The Washington Post and Reader’s Digest, and on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.