In the wake of the revelation that 19 Kids and Counting star Josh Duggar had molested several children, TLC ran a special entitled Breaking the Silence, a commercial-free hour of survivor stories and sexual abuse prevention tips. And while the special was ultimately informative, it was also missing something very important: Josh Duggar.
Interweaving factual information—such as the reality that 80-90 percent of sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and the reality that more children suffer sexual from sexual abuse than cancer or car accidents—with stories of survivors, the show did an excellent job of balancing the difficulty of talking about a subject that’s so taboo with an uplifting message that survivors can move on, be happy, and lead successful lives.
But as strong as some segments of the documentary were, the show featured a Duggar-sized hole that many viewers may not have expected. Jessa, Jill, and Michelle Duggar were featured for a total of about two minutes, but watching them on screen, it felt like TLC was really doing the bare minimum to acknowledge what happened in their household. In fact, if one didn’t know about Josh Duggar’s crimes, watching his sisters (who have been confirmed as his victims) and mother speak would suggest that they were brought onto the show just as celebrity ambassadors, a couple of close-knit family members that just wanted to share the message that childhood sexual abuse was wrong. “Do you think they shot this before the accusation came to light?” I asked a co-worker, because it certainly felt that way; as if TLC had put the special together years ago and just dusted it off because they figured it was finally time for the public to take molestation seriously. Or it was time for them to throw a Hail Mary pass to salvage their very profitable and very tainted Duggar franchise.
Josh Duggar’s name was not mentioned once, removing the news hook from the documentary’s context. If the point of this special was to bring light to the devastation that sexual abuse wreaks upon victims, it was strange that the reason the special exists in the first place was scrubbed clean from its content. TLC’s message may have been good, but the way it was presented, in a sanitized way that ignored the reality star’s contribution to its creation (in the face of allegations that the network had known about the molestation for some time), felt insincere. As did the time TLC chose to run the show, right in the middle of MTV’s Video Music Awards, when many would be watching Miley Cyrus parade around in increasingly bizarre costumes instead of engaging in a documentary about an issue that many would rather pretend not exist. As Erin Merryn, one of the survivors profiled in the doc puts it, most people would like to wish the subject away when the reality is that it’s happening in their backyards.
Jessa, Jill, and Michelle were featured in a short segment about a seminar run by Darkness to Light, an organization devoted to preventing and stopping the abuse of children. There to learn about five ways in which adults could react to and abuse. Ironically, during this Josh-scrubbed segment, Jessa Duggar pointed out that sexual abuse of children was an incredibly important topic that shouldn’t be taboo.
Jill Duggar, too, made an effort to discuss ways in which she’d make sure to recognize sexual abuse, and while it was important to have the sisters there to learn how to stop the perpetration of molestation, it was surprising that their father as well as some of the other family members (such as the sisters’ husbands) were not present, making it almost seem like preventing abuse was a job for women and mothers as opposed to the entire family unit. Michelle Duggar’s response to the seminar, especially, felt hollow and forced as she smilingly focused on the bonding experience she and her daughters had as opposed to the fact that such abuse had been knowingly swept under the rug in her family.
Despite the fact that the few minutes spent with the Duggars offered almost nothing to the documentary—they were paraded out and then quickly pulled away in the blink of an eye—the rest of the documentary is definitely worth both a watch and a discussion. While younger viewers will be incredibly disturbed by Erin Merryn’s discussion of her own molestation (teens would likely be able to handle it), they might benefit hearing from 12-year-old Kaelin, who has gone public with her story in order to speak to kids from their own perspective and make it easier for them to be open if abuse like the kind that happened to her is being visited upon them.
As the show closed, I felt more hopeful than disturbed. While cable television banks on finding drama in the mundane, this particular special provided information about child sexual abuse in a way that appeared well thought-out and sensitive, but also with the message that survivors could get their lives back, and that speaking isn’t shameful, it’s a way to get back one’s voice and strip the power from their aggressor. It’s unfortunate, however, that TLC didn’t fully utilize the opportunity to admit some of their own culpability in this case or use at least of the time discussing why this specific documentary was created, even though that fact is open knowledge. What message is the network sending when it condemns sexual abuse and the silence surrounding it while continuing to avoid its own responsibility in the Duggar scandal?
More information on how to prevent, recognize, and react to childhood sexual abuse can be found here, on Darkness to Light’s website. Additional information about speaking to children about sexual abuse can be found here. Anyone looking for confidential help, support and resources can call RAINN anonymously at 1-800-656-HOPE or access the organization’s chat line.
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