You Aren’t Prepared for How Disturbing ‘Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets’ Is
The Prime Video docuseries interrogates abuse within the Duggar family as well as the insidious Christian organization, IBLP, they subscribe to.EntertainmentTV
The four-part Prime Video series Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, which premieres June 2, is structured like a double helix. On one side is an excavation of the “shiny, happy,” and God-loving image that the prolifically breeding Duggar family put out into pop culture via its TLC specials and eventual series, the most recent iteration of which was called 19 Kids and Counting. That series was famously halted in 2015 upon reports that the family’s eldest son Josh Duggar had sexually assaulted five girls—some of them his sisters, including Shiny Happy People subject Jill Duggar Dillard—prior to the family’s TV deal(s). The followup TLC series, Counting On, which focused on some of the grown-up Duggar siblings as they procreated, was also canceled after another bombshell: Josh’s 2021 arrest for the possession of child sex abuse material. He was convicted and sentenced to more than 12 years in jail the following year.
The other side of the docuseries concerns the Institute of Basic Life Principles, the Christian umbrella organization that the Duggars were a part of and (often subliminally) evangelized via their TLC shows. They homeschooled their children via the IBLP’s curriculum, which was created by then-IBLP leader Bill Gothard. Like Josh, Gothard faced sex abuse allegations—in 2014, more than 30 women accused Gothard of harassment and sexual abuse, and in response he stepped down from IBLP leadership. Gothard was then sued in 2016 by a number of alleged victims, though they withdrew their case in 2018 in part because the statute of limitations for the allegations had been exceeded.
Shiny Happy People co-director/executive producer Olivia Crist described the Duggars as the “poster family” for the IBLP, and though their direct connection to the church wasn’t always specified on their shows, its teachings were exhibited matter-of-factly in the Duggars’ presentation of their lifestyle. “When you watch it through this lens of understanding how the IBLP operates, you’re going to see stuff on the show that’s directly from IBLP,” said Crist. Other examples include the modesty standards, which had the Duggar girls and women wearing sack-like dresses (sometimes with bloomers), the process of courtships, and the expressed notion that one’s first kiss should be saved until marriage.
“It’s like these almost bullying institutions or individuals who really exert a great deal of power over a lot of individuals—usually women, children, other vulnerable populations,” said Shiny Happy People executive producer Blye Faust. “Oftentimes these things just flourish and hide right there in front of us. And it takes a lot of people to look the other way to allow them to amass the power and influence that they do.”
Whether or not TLC was aware that it had been distributing effective propaganda for IBLP, it is undeniable that the network and the Duggar shows’ producers played a role in blasting out their covert messaging of Gothard’s values. Jill Duggar Dillard, the only of the 19 Duggar children featured on 19 Kids and Counting to appear in Shiny Happy People, recounts her father negotiating his family’s participation in the show without any of the kids’ input (how patriarchal of him!). She says that the Counting On producers were shocked when she said she did not want to have her childbirth filmed by the show’s crew (she and her husband Derick Dillard, who is also interviewed in the docuseries, filmed it themselves). She says that when she asked TLC to compensate her for out-of-pocket costs related to childbirth, she was told, “Well, we paid the family.” Jill maintains that she was never paid for her participation in the multiple TLC series depicting her life (“No cash, no check, no nothing”) and that a contract her father had signed for her when she was underage carried through into her adulthood.
The many other survivors of IBLP and its teachings only further speak to the insidious nature of the church’s invocation of purity, godliness, and moral superiority.
“Listen, this is not a takedown of TLC,” said Blye. “We had reached out to members of the TLC production team that worked on the shows at the time and weren’t able to get anyone on to speak to us. So, you know, it’s a little bit hard to know what they knew and when they knew.” Crist said the question of TLC’s culpability is “one we pose in the show to the audience to kind of decide for themselves.”
Blye said that her team had reached out to “a number of the family members” beyond the siblings, and those who agreed appear in the docuseries. In addition to Jill and Derick, they include patriarch Jim Bob Duggar’s sister Deanna Duggar and her daughter Amy King (née Duggar), as well as former Duggar family friends Jim and Bobye Holt, who say they learned that Josh “touched his sisters inappropriately” in 2003—the year before the first Duggar special, 14 Children and Pregnant Again!, premiered on TLC. At the time, their daughter Kaeleigh Holt had been selected by Josh for courtship for marriage. In Shiny Happy People, the Holts recall Michelle Duggar (Josh’s mother/Jim Bob’s wife) saying that Josh only intended to reveal his abuse to Kaeleigh after they were married, and that when asked whether Kaeleigh was “a carrot to get Josh to behave,” they said Jim Bob responded, “Yeah, kinda.”
Regarding Jill’s interview, Crist said, “There was some hesitancy on her part and rightfully so, because of all that she’s been through.” In the doc, Jill maintains that her brother’s abuse allegations never should have been made public (she also says that if she had to do it over again, she wouldn’t participate in the interview that she gave Megyn Kelly in 2015 essentially downplaying the alleged molestation). Of course there was a compelling reason for the allegations to be made public: It shattered the “perfect family” image the Duggars were attempting to put out that could easily be read as propaganda for the IBLP. On that note, Jill attests she was raised in a “cult-like environment,” and there’s footage of Jim Bob recounting his condition on participating with TLC: “We will do this documentary as long as you don’t edit out our faith.”
“I think that when a person has experienced abuse, there’s a huge amount of shame involved in that, so even admitting that you’ve been abused is a huge weight to carry,” explained co-director/executive producer Julia Willoughby Nason, who along with Crist interviewed Jill. “I think the layers of her maybe telling a portion of it to one individual in a certain context at a certain time of her life was one thing, but developing it and having her story being put into a [public] context where she didn’t give consent adds insult to injury.” In addition to Jill, the docuseries contains interviews with other survivors of IBLP’s alleged abuse, including Emily Elizabeth Anderson, who was a plaintiff in the Gothard sex abuse case. (When reached for comment by the filmmakers, Gothard declined to participate.)
In aggregate, Shiny Happy People is a damning portrait of a Christian organization that created a power structure leaving so many of its followers open to abuse, and a profile of exactly how that played out in one family. The many other survivors of IBLP and its teachings whose testimonies appear throughout the docuseries’ four episodes only further speak to the insidious nature of the church’s invocation of purity, godliness, and moral superiority—a condescending facade for revolting exploitation.
The four filmmakers Jezebel interviewed expressed desire to continue on the IBLP/Duggars beat after the release of Shiny Happy People. “This is just a small portion of this world,” said Nason. “This is just a taste. It’s scratching the surface. It’s so many layers—compact layers of earth, of generations, of systems of social control.”
Stern said that one aspect of the docuseries she would like to expand on is the penetration of IBLP teachings into prisons. “I encourage people, after you watch this, to read how far it went into our prison system and how taxpayer dollars were used to make these things that were colloquially called ‘God pods,’ where women prisoners in particular had to read the [IBLP] teachings and be part of it. And they got special housing and they got special food.”
“There’s so many rabbit holes you can go down,” said Blye.