In Spite of It All, Jill Duggar Portrays Her Dad Jim Bob as a Pretty Swell Guy in Memoir

"Counting the Cost," which had such potential, is marred by vagueness and a wishy-washy perspective on a "cult-like" upbringing.

In Spite of It All, Jill Duggar Portrays Her Dad Jim Bob as a Pretty Swell Guy in Memoir
Image:Gallery Books; Amazon Prime

There’s a reason why the section of Jill Duggar’s new memoir in which the author yells at her father, Jim Bob Duggar, “You treat me worse than you treat my pedophile brother,” was released to People as a publication-day excerpt: It’s the juiciest part of the book.

Most of the words in Counting the Cost are far less fiery. This is a tell-some book by someone who lived an extraordinary existence, first as the fourth-oldest child in a gigantic family (her number of siblings would climb to 18) and then as a young person who was roped into appearing in a series of documentaries and reality shows about her family, whose episodes numbered in the 300s by her estimate. Jim Bob had agreed to work with TLC on the condition that it wouldn’t water down the family’s religious beliefs, which were derived in part from Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a patriarchal system run by a man accused of sexual abuse that encouraged its followers to breed prolifically (hence Michelle Duggar’s 19 children). Thus, 19 Kids and Counting and other Duggar-related shows became a platform for spreading toxic notions of purity culture, female submission, and Biblical fundamentalism. They were envisioned as a ministry by Jim Bob, and a rather insidious one as that, as TLC marketed them as candid reality fare with a wacky, ginormous clan.

But Jill Duggar, even in retrospect—even after her brother Josh was convicted for receiving child sexual abuse material (and had been revealed, earlier in life, as an abuser of children, including Jill and her sisters)—has no problem with this tele-ministry. In Counting the Cost, she writes:

Thanks to the show, we ate well, lived in a beautifully furnished house, traveled the world, and got to feel like we had a sense of purpose and calling as we dedicated ourselves to the ministry. It’s one thing to give a kid a drill and show them how to put rivets in a partition wall, it’s a whole other level for a kid to have those parents invite them in to share the God-given task of telling the world about how great it is to grow up in a Christian home.

Jill, who very recently described her upbringing in Amazon Prime’s Shiny Happy People docuseries as “cult-like,” was bottle-fed the Kool-Aid and, even at age 32, some seems to remain in her system. It’s not entirely concentrated—she and her husband, Derick Dillard, resolved to send their son Israel to public school, renouncing IBLP teaching, for example—but there’s a palpable lingering.

This is disappointing, because though she has been estranged from some members of her family—stated in the book with her trademark lack of specificity as a decision with her husband to “put a little distance between us and the family”—she still has one foot in the life that Jim Bob chose for her. An upbringing is, of course, a hard thing to shake, and it’s not that Jill is trying to portray her life as perfect, as her mother’s dazed eyes and zombie smile into the camera suggested. “I picked up some wounds along the way,” she writes, continuing: “The highs aren’t automatically erased or invalidated by the lows.” But she isn’t far enough removed to have enough of a countering perspective for her book to appeal to many outside of those who already know her from the various programming she started appearing on at age 16. Nor does she have enough writing aptitude to effectively impart the sometimes conflicting feelings she has about the life she was born into.

And it was, by any outside judgement, a strange life. Jill describes going to the beach in long sleeves and pants as a child, being barred from dancing, and being fully immersed in modesty culture. (“Us girls had been told often how much harder it was for boys to keep their thoughts pure. I couldn’t imagine the battles they were fighting out there on the sand.”) It was to such an extent that a seismic shift occurred when she ultimately decided to start wearing pants well into her 20s. She spends several pages on that decision.

She also writes that she “never” experienced her parents as domineering. “I never felt the need to push against their rules, and I never found either of my parents restrictive or constraining,” she says. “If anything, I was grateful for the boundaries they laid down for our family.” Initially, it seems that she’s using her childlike worldview as a device to implant the reader into her head at the time (writer-actor Guinevere Turner used this device in her far superior memoir about life inside and out of the Lyman Family cult, When the World Didn’t End). But Counting the Cost starts to come off as undercooked the more Jill fails to render a vivid picture from such outrageous material.

What was it like to live with so many siblings that there simply weren’t enough hours in the day for her parents to give lots of attention to all? Was it frustrating to have to eat what Jill calls “our usual stocks of canned beans, ramen noodles, and forty-eight-cent frozen beef and bean burritos” before TLC stepped in and started buying their food (and lining Jim Bob’s pockets with enough money that he could buy a plane)? Was it weird to have a father who referred to his children as “his number one hobby?” Not helping matters is Jill’s simplistic (to put it as kindly as humanly possible) prose, which relies on cliches when it manages to be figurative at all. (“From then on it was Groundhog Day: the same challenge over and over again.”) It all amounts to an unforgivably dull book that manages to overstay its brief length (287 pages with lots and lots of pictures).

Jill does get very specific about money stuff—she alleges she was never paid for the shows, by Jim Bob’s design. By her account, he effectively deceived her into signing a binding contract and shut her out of receiving money, while paying for her living expenses. This happened well into her adulthood, after 19 Kids and Counting had been canceled by TLC and replaced with a show in which she featured prominently, Counting On. She estimates that Jim Bob earned about $8 million from the broadcasts, in total, and he shared very little of it with his kids. Thanks to the IBLP’s teachings, we’re to gather that Jim Bob felt entitled to doing so, regardless of Jill’s status as an adult. She writes:

When he said he was giving me to Derick at the wedding altar, it was an empty gesture. IBLP teaching was clear that his authority over me would never diminish. If I disobeyed him or didn’t honor his wishes and stepped out from under the umbrella of protection, I would be exposing myself to potential harm.

Likewise, there are some good glimpses behind the curtain of reality production: the pressure to keep things fresh, the need to rehearse. Jill writes how some of her most precious personal information became the dominion of TLC. Regarding her first pregnancy, she writes: “First, we were supposed to tell the producers, then—when they were ready to capture it on film—we were allowed to tell our parents. I bent the rules a little, telling a couple of my sisters and buddies first, but when it came time to tell my parents and Derick’s mom and stepdad, I made sure I followed the rules.” You can see how shifting between the structured, restricted life of IBLP and the structured, restricted life of TV production wasn’t much of a leap at all.

Of course, Jill avoids rehashing the abuse she experienced at her brother Josh’s hands—she has always contended that the information that got out never should have been released. She writes in her book that when she finally looked at the 2015 InTouch piece that revealed details of her abuse (which a judge pointed out was released “seemingly ignorant of the privacy rights Arkansas affords to sexual assault victims”), what she saw disgusted her. “This was tabloid journalism at its worst. The most graphic, the most scandalous, the most painful parts of the story had received the greatest prominence. It was written with one aim and one aim only: entertainment,” she writes. Far be it from me to give tabloids any credit for their benevolence, but clearly there was more to it than just “entertainment”—and few would describe the details of child abuse as such. That reporting was obviously a way to shatter the deceptive “model family” facade the Duggars tried so hard to uphold.

“Counting the Cost” starts to come off as undercooked the more Jill fails to render a vivid picture from such outrageous material.

Jill writes that the release of details of her abuse was retraumatizing but she fails to explain how or what that looked like. This is not to doubt her experience, but to illustrate how superficial her memoir can come off even about the deepest issues. The entire point of a book is to elaborate, and too often, Jill Duggar does not seem to have the interest (or maybe capacity) to do so. Her perspective as someone who turned her back on the strictness of IBLP but held firmly onto a lot of her other Christian beliefs is somewhat limited. She rightly points out Gothard’s hypocrisy and misconduct, and her father’s controlling nature, but we’re left to guess why another man, her husband, Dillard, is listed as a co-author here. Also, the patriarchy that restricted her as a kid is also present in the spirit of her current missionary work, which she reports on proudly. She defends her use of contraception with what I read as a dig at reproductive rights. (“We had agreed as a couple that it wasn’t wrong for us to use non-abortive contraception.”) Even when she deigns to try wine, after much hand-wringing, she ultimately decides it’s not for her. (“I didn’t like it. It made my mouth feel like it had just been disinfected. I was kind of disappointed.”)

Jill has nothing but kind things to say about her “calm, self-sacrificing, and entirely loving” mother. She reveals that though the “ease of communication” between them has changed, “She is the first person I call whenever I have a question about our baby’s health, and I love that we can still connect that way no matter what family drama is occurring.” Even her father, who gets the worst dressing down, is still portrayed as an ultimately swell guy. The book ends on a reunion with her parents upon the birth of Jill and Derick’s third child, Frederick. She concludes the book while flanked by the parents whose decisions created so many issues for her, and whose repeated response to their son Josh’s misconduct was not therapy but to ship him away for a period of time. Counting the Cost doesn’t so much come full circle as suggest a certain developmental inertia.

Correction: Gethard’s first name is Bill, not Bob.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin