Jill Duggar Dillard grew up in a “filming family,” she writes in her memoir, Counting the Cost. The title references 19 Kids and Counting and Counting On, the TLC reality shows Jill spent many years participating in with her family. The title also quotes Luke 14:28: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (King James Version).
Jill counts the cost of familial obligations tied to her time on reality television. The memoir is written in Jill’s voice but is a collaboration including her husband Derick Dillard and writer Craig Borlase. The writers strike a strong match of candor and careful pacing, shedding light on injustices and darkness Jill has endured.
Jim Bob Duggar, Michelle Duggar, and their 19 children were known as reality TV’s wholesome Christian family with strict morals. Women wore modest clothes, especially dresses and skirts with hemlines past their knees. Duggar kids skillfully played the piano, violin, or harp, but dancing was forbidden. Throughout their two shows’ 26 combined seasons, viewers tuned in to see the Duggar family’s unique way of life. TLC captured them at home in Arkansas and sent them on family trips across the world. Courtships and dates (chaperoned, per Duggar rules), weddings, births, and family celebrations played out before millions of people. With her book, and her appearance in the documentary series Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, Jill peels back layers of life on reality TV. Readers see what it means for her to reckon with the aftermath of spiritual trauma and damaged family relationships.
As Jill lays the groundwork and explains the mechanics of the Duggar household, she names her parents’ positive attributes where she can, but there is an ominous tone in her memories.
The author recalls that she and her siblings “had grown up being constantly reminded not to ‘stir up contention among the brethren.’” (A reference to Proverbs 6:19.). Jill, who was 13 when her family’s first television special aired and 17 when they landed a long-term reality show, explains, “It was a way for our parents to keep us siblings from talking badly about each other, or putting anyone down, but over time it became something else—something more sinister. By preventing us from discussing anything controversial or sensitive with each other, the instruction not to ‘stir up contention among the brethren’ became a tool for silence, for control, for guilt.”
Jinger Duggar Vuolo’s January 2023 book, Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentangling Faith from Fear, reads as more of a guidebook for finding freedom in Christ. Jinger (the sixth Duggar and two years younger than Jill) shares how she struggled with legalistic religious teachings. With Counting the Cost, Jill is less focused on sharing spiritual lessons and more focused on voicing the hardships of challenging family relationships. However, she still cites the errors of her family’s religious system, the Institute in Basic Life Principles. The IBLP, a nonprofit institute founded by Bill Gothard (who has since been accused of sexual harassment and abuse by multiple women), twists Christianity into rigid rules that especially affect women. They are instructed to procreate abundantly and to dress modestly, refraining from wearing pants. Jill mentions the “umbrella of protection,” a structure of authority in IBLP that places the father under Christ’s authority, the mother under the father’s authority, and children under the watch of the parents. Jill makes it clear that in her family’s culture of faith, children were to remain under the umbrella and continue obeying their parents into adulthood.
Jill writes of a tragic time when this umbrella did absolutely nothing to help her, when she was retraumatized as a victim of prior child sexual abuse. Josh Duggar, the eldest Duggar child, had molested Jill and additional Duggar sisters when they were children. In Touch magazine made Josh’s crimes public knowledge in 2015, leading to the cancellation of 19 Kids and Counting and the beginning of spin-off Jill & Jessa: Counting On. The two sisters spoke with Megyn Kelly on Fox News in 2015 about the abuse and the unauthorized release of police records regarding it.
In the book, Jill writes that she holds “Josh responsible for his actions.”
“And I hold In Touch, Bauer, Kathy O’Kelley, Ernest Cate, the city of Springdale, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Rick Hoyt responsible for illegally releasing and publishing the report—for inflicting on me and my sisters the trauma of a second victimization, a trauma that was made so much worse than the first by the fact that it was so public,” she writes.
Jill wished her father had shielded her from the Kelly interview. She and Jessa answered Kelly’s questions and acknowledged the wrongfulness of their brother’s crimes, but the sisters also defended Josh and said they had forgiven him. “I’d spent much of my life listening to IBLP teaching on the ‘umbrella of protection.’ When I’d needed it most, it had failed me. It felt as though I, as a woman, was expected to do all I could to protect Pops and Josh. Nobody appeared to see it differently,” Jill shares. Counting On was canceled in 2021 after Josh Duggar was indicted and arrested for receiving and possessing child sexual abuse material. He began a 12.5-year prison sentence in 2022.
In Counting the Cost, Jim Bob Duggar comes across as manipulative, controlling, deceitful, and selfish. Jill explains that by the time she and Derick were married, she had worked as a volunteer without pay on 19 Kids and Counting. As a kid, she hadn’t expected any money, but her expectations changed as the reality show intruded on her adult life. “Ironically, this ‘family filming ministry,’ which emphasized putting your family first, was sucking the life out of ours,” Jill writes. Eventually Jim Bob and Michelle agreed to offer payouts to some of their children. However, when Jill and Derick inquired about an accounting discrepancy (a much higher declaration of income than what they’d received), Jim Bob said they had a “spirit of ungratefulness,” Jill explains. Communications remained strained, with she and Derick sending her parents a 27-page letter and Jim Bob threatening via email to decrease Jill’s inheritance. This exchange points to the lack of protections in place for children of reality stars or influencers, a crucial conversation to continue.
The “costs” that Jill counts in her memoir are financial, familial, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Authority figures failed to safeguard Jill’s well-being in these areas. The very first dedication Jill makes in her book is “to those who have been harmed in the name of ‘religion.’” Spiritual abuse is a sensitive topic and a complex source of trauma. Rachael Clinton Chen, director of teaching and care at The Allender Center, which offers care and training to help people heal from trauma, recently shared a helpful definition with Sojourners. Spiritual abuse, she explained “is a distortion and exploitation of spiritual authority to manipulate, control, use, or harm others, mostly through shame and fear.” Victims of religious trauma or abuse may find encouragement and hope from Jill sharing her story. She and Derick spent beneficial time in therapy and share openly about that in the book.
It is worth wondering whether anyone is excluded from Jill and Derick’s narrative of hope, of giving voice to those whom religion has hurt. In 2017, Derick Dillard shared transphobic ideas on Twitter, including misgendering Jazz Jennings, the star of TLC’s I Am Jazz, and in 2018, he wrote homophobic tweets about interior designer Nate Berkus and his family.
Jill writes in Counting the Cost, “Derick had been making comments on Twitter, speaking his mind about various topics and making a few enemies.” It is important to remember that in the same way scripture has been used to police women’s dress, lifestyle, and power within the church, scripture has also been wielded as a dangerous weapon by those who choose to harm the LGBTQ+ community. In 2020 Jill stated publicly that homosexuality is a sin. She has shifted her opinions on several topics over the years, but she has not made a current statement on LGBTQ+ issues as of this writing.
In Counting the Cost, Jill describes a home she and Derick lived in that came with “a hornet nest by the back step, occasional visits from garter snakes, and mice in the kitchen.” She uses those images for different metaphors, including her fear that friends would discover she and Derick were using contraception: “It turns out that living with fearful thoughts is a lot like living with hornets and garter snakes. Once they find a way in, you can block as many holes as you like, but the struggle to keep them out will require constant vigilance,” Jill writes.
This weighty psychological struggle extended to her relationship with her father. Growing up, her parents had cited scripture to prevent the women and girls in the family from wearing pants. But after reinterpreting those verses as an adult, Jill started wearing pants and pierced her nose. Jim Bob lashed out at the piercing, in particular. “[M]y relationship with Pops was nearly all hornets and garter snakes,” she writes.
Jill expresses her love for her family but concludes in the author’s note that “the degree to which we felt this book needed to be written, was the degree to which we felt like voices were still being silenced and real harm was continuing to be done by not telling it.” Perhaps additional Duggars — and readers who have been harmed by family and faith communities — might tell their stories or find freedom in their own ways. It is important that they know they are not alone.