The morning of April 29, 2021, my mom woke me up with a text that Josh Duggar had been arrested by federal authorities for possession of child pornography. I had fanatically watched the Duggars and the rest of the TLC reality shows in the early 2000s that focused on having way too many kids—either through a fluke of fertility treatments (Jon & Kate Plus 8) or religious extremism. The news of Duggar’s arrest drove me straight down a Reddit rabbit hole, and I discovered the mob of fellow online Duggar obsessives on a thread called r/DuggarsSnark.
Josh Duggar is the oldest child of a now-famous family from Tontitown, Arkansas, that eventually grew to have 19 children, all of whose names start with “J” (one daughter is named Jinger). The Duggars could be described as Christian separatists: They don’t believe in sending their children to school, they preach about living “a debt-free lifestyle” to avoid interacting with the financial system, and their kids are tyrannically sheltered and essentially have arranged marriages to protect their modesty and purity. The Duggars have served as the poster family for the Quiverfull movement, which encourages adherents not to use birth control in order to amass as many Christian babies as possible to create a literal army for God.
I was lurking on the r/DuggarsSnark subreddit board when the charges against Josh Duggar were revealed. I thought then that I knew quite a lot about his family– I remember where I was the day inTouch magazine released sealed police documents that revealed that Josh had molested four of his sisters and one other girl when he was a teenager, with the youngest victim being only five years old at the time. I knew that Josh had been implicated in the Ashley Madison scandal while he was working at the Family Research Council and had been accused of sexual assault by adult film actress Danica Dillon. I knew that the Duggars’ second oldest daughter, Jill, had distanced herself somewhat from the family after a rift with her dad, but that most of the other adult children had stayed close to home and under their father’s thumb.
But after seven months on the r/DuggarsSnark boards, I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible about all 19 of the Duggar kids, their spouses, Josh’s crimes, the geography and culture of Northwest Arkansas, and the Independent Baptist church and toxic Christian Fundamentalism at large. This story also comes with a side of trash TV and Evangelical humiliation, which speaks to the Bush-era disaffected teen I still am deep inside. The inner workings of this incredibly well-developed online community are fascinating: It turns out Duggar snarking is an internet subculture with a long tradition, starting on the message boards of the brilliant but defunct TV recaps site Television Without Pity, migrating to blogs like FreeJinger, then landing on Reddit. Many of the early snarkers were just reality TV junkies, drawn to the spectacle of these shameless folks who would take 14 children to a restaurant with a “kids eat free” policy.
But with Josh’s arrest in 2021, the community started to change. Thousands of new people were drawn to r/DuggarsSnark, many of whom had a history of religious trauma, child sexual abuse, or both, who were personally invested in taking down Josh and the Duggars as proxies for their own abusers and the Evangelical movement. The already strictly moderated subreddit became even more so, with the mods working practically full time to enforce zero tolerance policies on speculating on the victims of sexual abuse, describing abusive material Josh was charged with possessing, or making rape jokes. The discourse evolved through negotiation—like when people pointed out that a more accurate and less harmful name for child pornography is “child sexual abuse material,” or CSAM. By the time of Josh’s trial this month, r/DuggarsSnark had over 100,000 members, as compared to its 8,000 early this year.
During Josh’s trial, the sub became more frenzied, impassioned, and active. From the time I checked in the morning until I went to sleep at night, there were often more than 20,000 people on the site at once. One of the moderators, who goes by Estes, told me in an email that she had “never experienced something so crazy” as moderating during the trial. “Every day it got more busy,” she said. “Our mod queue was always filling, it never stayed empty for more than a few seconds.” The five moderators worked in shifts, approving posts, deleting offending or repeat posts and comments, creating megathreads, making announcements, aggregating information, and fielding questions.
Maybe it’s because of this astounding commitment to creating a safe and sane space that r/DuggarsSnark became something of a clearinghouse for sharing and verifying trial news. This was a federal trial, so no cameras or cell phones were allowed in the courtroom, and news trickled out slowly. Members analyzed tweets and updates from local news sources and tabloids like The Sun for credibility, and there were occasional dispatches from members of the sub who had attended the trial as citizen journalists. Some would step in to explain common questions that came up about the legal system, the computer evidence used in the trial, the tenets of the Duggars’ brand of Christian fundamentalism and the history of the family and allegations against Josh. The day Josh was found guilty, the mods created nine general discussion threads, each of which amassed thousands of comments.
There has clearly been some mission creep from when internet posters convened in the mid-2000s to make fun of the Duggar diet staples of tater tot casserole and barbecue tuna. The evidence at the trial was horrifying, as tabloids reported on sickening details of the CSAM that was found on Josh’s computer, which officials described as “the worst of the worst” of this kind of abuse. And as Jen from the YouTube channel Fundie Fridays and many others have explored exhaustively, sexual abuse is too often the norm in fundamentalist circles. The Independent Fundamental Baptist church, the sect that Duggars are adherents of, has a particularly horrific track record of covering up rape and sexual assault and encouraging child abuse. This is quite clearly related to the church’s radically misogynist and patriarchal teachings, which not only subordinate husband to wife,d but younger children to their older siblings. Add to this a culture that is obsessed both with sexual purity and procreation and a persecution complex that teaches members to isolate from the outside world, and Josh Duggar starts to look like not an anomalous tabloid trash fire, but the logical outcome of his hideous upbringing.
It is no surprise, then, that Josh’s first victims, his sisters, became a focal point for r/DuggarsSnark during the trial, particularly considering that so many members of the sub had been victims of similar trauma. There was considerable buzz when it was announced that Jill might testify, and some members hoped someone would finally reveal the truth of what actually went on beneath the Duggars’ façade of family values and toxic positivity, though she never ended up taking the stand. Without these hoped-for revelations, snarkers were left to analyze the pictures of the family members attending the trial to look for signs of righteous fury from otherwise quiet and obedient Duggar offspring. They would post comments like, “Coming to burn shit down,” or “Those are rage eyes.” This hope against hope that the Duggar children might demand justice for what has been done to them at the hands of TLC, Josh, and their parents made the trial an unexpected stress test for r/DuggarsSnark’s most important and most complicated rule: No Fans.
The first rule of r/DuggarsSnark reads as follows: “No Fans: This forum exists to point out the Duggar’s shitty behavior. Users are allowed to mock, deride, and criticize the Duggars. Duggar positive comments that support the ideology are not allowed. Dismissing homophobia, transphobia, or xenophobia is not permitted. Hard no on cute baby comments. Stand alone complimentary comments will be removed.”
This is designed to keep out the still sizable population of misguided Duggar stans who might be drawn to the sub to defend the family or cause trouble. But it is also founded on the principle that, as one user’s flair put it, A.D.A.B: “All Duggars Are Bad.” Users have made posts compiling the bad behavior and offensive beliefs of the Duggars’ adult children, including the supposed rebel, Jill. These posts exist exactly because the line between victim and perpetrator is so fuzzy in this case. All of the Duggar children are victims of their parents’ extremism and their greed, having been forced their childhoods out on television and had their worst moments dug up and paraded for a greedy public. This impossible question is actually discussed quite often on the subreddit: How much can one be blamed for growing up abused, indoctrinated, and uneducated, even when they become adults and start repeating the cycle?
One of the sub’s moderators, who goes by “paps” online, told me that they have seen how the conversations have changed with the trial. “I feel like the community has shifted into a more empathetic place but still maintains its snark,” they told me in a private message. “We can be both empathetic to victims of abuse while also not supporting bigotry.” One can see this with the massive fundraising drive the sub ran during the trial that raised over $20,000 for a center for abused children in Northwest Arkansas. This is the line the snarkers have had to walk, between wanting to acknowledge the suffering these children have been put through and not wanting to become just a group of Duggar watchers who analyze or fawn over each new picture the family posts on social media.
Following the developments in this family’s lives is clearly part of the entertainment of the sub and what keeps it so popular and active. When there are 19 children, more than half of whom are adults who have been raised to eschew birth control and glorify family above all, there are always new pregnancy, birth, and engagement announcements, new Instagram stories and YouTube videos. This expectation of constant updates leads some snarkers to complain of a “Duggar drought” when there is a paucity of new announcements or social media content.
This plays into the family’s hands in obvious ways, not least in Instagram follows and YouTube views that translate directly into money. They may be considered cultural relics by most people, but the Duggars’ four oldest daughters all have over a million Instagram followers, and the TLC’s follow-up show to 19 Kids and Counting, Counting On, was until its cancellation in 2021 still giving them both large paychecks and a massive platform to spread right-wing fundamentalist propaganda on a major TV network. Jim Bob and Michele have a Trumpian lack of shame—after Josh’s first abuses of their daughters, they treated his alarming behavior with some Christian counseling and time at a boot camp for troubled boys and then brought him back into their home and made his courtship, wedding, and the birth of his first child focal points of the show. When these abuses came to light in 2015, they did a tone-deaf special with Megyn Kelly where they minimized Josh’s abuse and made their daughters tell America that being molested was not so bad.
Jim Bob and Michele were using the spectacle of their large family to grift free stuff even before TLC built them a house and they raked it in on the fundamentalist lecture circuit. They are first and foremost reality stars, who understand that public humiliation is still publicity. And many of the kids, particularly the girls, have had no choice but to follow in their footsteps, working as social media influencers because they have no education or recourse to do anything else to support their already large families. This is why people on r/DuggarsSnark are continually interpreting microfacial expressions from the kids as cries for help, like a redux of all of those Melania Trump memes. They want to acknowledge the damage Jim Bob and Michele have inflicted on their family because the children have so far mostly refused to do so.
It is astonishing how few cracks there have been in the Duggar façade, despite the incredible trauma the children have been through. This, I think, is one thing that continues to make the Duggars so compelling: the depths of their emptiness. They are deeply, persistently boring, having learned to distract from scandal or criticism with smiling, adorkable family bonding, and defaulting to that most uncontroversial of subjects: cute kids. They are such blank slates that you can project anything onto them, although Occam’s razor says that they are just as empty, craven, compliant, and problematic as they seem.
R/DuggarsSnark has become a trove of evidence of what the Duggars’ mind numbingly wholesome personae would try to make you forget. They publicized the connection between the Duggars and far-right nationalism: Many family members joined Parler, one of their sons mowed “TRUMP 2020” in giant letters on their lawn, and two sons of their friends the Bates family, another Quiverfull family with a TLC show, were allegedly at the Capitol siege. Snarkers also knew about Josh’s abuse through rumors and anonymous posts, years before InTouch made them public, so it makes sense that their community has become a home for victims to tell their stories. Posters share wrenching accounts of sexual abuse, parentification, domestic violence, and leaving fundamentalism.
When I talked to Estes about the role she sees the subreddit playing in the Duggar discourse, she pointed out the ways that the community provides an excellent education on the cult-like nature of Christian fundamentalism and the broader Christian nationalist movement. “It’s interesting [because] people come to [r/DuggarsSnark] to read about the gossip and goings on, but they end up learning about the cult itself, the patriarchal structure, the abuse, the secrets, the harm, the reality that is the Duggar family,” she told me. Just like the Quiverfull amassing armies for Christ, r/DuggarsSnark has been astoundingly effective at amassing an army against child abuse and fundamentalism, with 135,000 members (and counting!) attesting to the possibility of there being a wholesome byproduct of reality TV gossip.