My childhood best friend – we call each other sister – grew up in the same cult to which the Dugger family belongs. It is/was called the Advanced Training Institute, run by Bill Gothard. He started out hosting seminars for young couples and singles, and when those couples got married and had kids, perhaps it seemed a natural progression to join his burgeoning homeschool convention. It probably looked innocent enough: sign up to receive packets of Wisdom Booklets for your homeschool curriculum. Oh, and come to our annual conventions in Illinois or Tennessee. Oh, and have your kids come separately to their own conventions where they’ll wear navy blue and white uniforms. Oh, and sign this covenant detailing how and when you will have sex with your spouse….
I remember listening to his tapes with her family in their minivan, on our way to the grocery store. It was the Big Man himself, exhorting families to let their light so shine before men. The problem with evangelism is the danger of exposing oneself, and one’s children, to the dirty world. Instead, one should find ways to show off one’s good works for the general edification. Another family in town had three of their eight kids give violin recitals for the benefit of Target shoppers, next to the checkout lines. They looked so clean cut, so oddly adult with their clean, smiling faces, neat blonde curls, long flowery dresses. They were quiet and polite, a startling contrast to the unwashed heathens pitching fits in the cereal aisle.
My friend showed me Wisdom Booklets and ATI newsletters, hidden together in the laundry room with a flashlight, at midnight, giggling in the dark. There were featured families to emulate, complete with awkward 90s family photos of multiple blond children wearing Peter Pan collars. I saw pictures from conventions of my friend and other “maidens of virtue” wearing the navy uniforms. We snorted over a description of the Perfect Family detailing each member: the Daughter Who Guards Her Heart, the Obedient Children, the Secure Babies (I’m not making this up).
The Duggers had these same materials. They heard the same sermons, read the same newsletters, studied the same Wisdom Booklets, attended the same conferences. The pressure was on to present your perfect, holy family to the world as a City on a Hill. When they got the call from TLC, it must have seemed like a message from God. Here was the perfect opportunity to be a witness without corrupting their own children. Sure, they had to hide things from the cameras, like blanket training and switches. But they had to make it easy for the masses to understand, put a spoonful of sugar into the medicine. The faithful would see the Pearls’ child-training manuals on their recommended list and understand. The worldly could be eased into godliness one episode at a time. All they needed to do was make sure the kids followed their script. That part was easy though; their kids had already learned songs about obeying with a smile at their ATI conventions. Now was the time to put that training into practice.