Around 2005, a group of TV obsessives on the internet started a forum to discuss a TLC documentary special called 14 Children and Pregnant Again and the family it featured, the Duggars. Led by parents Jim Bob and Michelle, they were strict Christians who followed the teachings of Bill Gothard, a minister who ran a group called the Institute in Basic Life Principles, or IBLP. Gothard and his disciples preached that there was only one way to truly live — his way.
The Duggars drew intrigue and gossip because of the ways they lived these principles out. Their quietly obedient children with their uniform opinions, outfits, and attitudes were a novelty to some and a horror to others, who declared there was no way all these kids were going to live under such a strict set of rules forever.
The forum’s founders named their site Free Jinger after the couple’s sixth oldest child. They felt that the then-10-year-old Jinger Duggar’s frequent eye rolls and declared love of big cities made her the most likely of the Duggar children to “break out” from her strict upbringing.
Nearly 20 years later, Jinger, now Jinger Vuolo, has proven them right: In her new book Becoming Free Indeed, which comes out today, the 29-year-old disavows her parents’ beliefs and those of Gothard and the IBLP. (In 2021, she wrote The Hope We Hold with her husband, about their love story and shared faith; 2014’s Growing Up Duggar, written with her sisters, is about their family’s life and beliefs.) The book’s title is a reference to the forum, but also a denunciation of the theology she said she felt trapped in for so many years.
“I’m hoping that in this book, I can share how harmful [the theology] is, and hopefully just send out a warning,” Vuolo told me over video chat earlier this month.
But in skewering the faith both she and her family preached to millions for more than a dozen years on television, Vuolo is also having to grapple with her own part in spreading messages that she now acknowledges were damaging and even dangerous for young girls.
The Duggars have lived in public for a long time. The 2004 documentary led to the 2008 TLC reality show 19 Kids And Counting, which ran for eight years and 15 seasons. Then came a show focusing on Vuolo and her sisters, Counting On, which ran for six years, meaning most of Vuolo’s life has been documented on reality TV. Vuolo was thrust into the spotlight from a young age and, along with her siblings, held up as a beacon of Christian girlhood for adults and children alike. According to her parents, that was the reason they offered the lives of Vuolo and her siblings up for public consumption: to share the “Bible principles” that govern their lives and to be an example for others.
Of course, that dream of proselytizing to the world through television has been irreparably destroyed due to the actions of Vuolo’s oldest brother, Josh Duggar. In December 2021, Duggar, then 33, was convicted of downloading and possessing child sexual abuse materials and was sentenced in May 2022 to more than 12 years in prison. Duggar’s conviction followed years of upheaval for the family. InTouch reported in 2015 that it had obtained 2006 police reports accusing a then-teenaged Josh of molesting four of his younger sisters and another unnamed girl in incidents dating back to 2002. TLC canceled 19 Kids And Counting and replaced it with Counting On, letting Vuolo and her sisters take up the family mantle. After Josh’s arrest, however, TLC canceled Counting On, and the family has maintained a relatively low profile since.
Vuolo no longer speaks to her brother and hasn’t, she said, for more than two years, calling his actions one of the “hardest realities” of her life. (About her other siblings, she’s tight-lipped on whether they still follow IBLP theology. “I have to let them speak for themselves,” she said.)
“He was living a lie,” she writes in the memoir. “Watching all the pain Josh’s sin has caused not only shows me the danger of hypocrisy but also reveals that external religion, a life of performance, has nothing to do with following Jesus.”
Josh’s crimes also meant that for the first time since childhood, Vuolo’s life is no longer on camera. She reflected on her long tenure on reality television to me, saying there were times that were sweet and fun. But it was also hard, and she couldn’t say for sure if she would have chosen to grow up that way. It was all she knew.
“I think walking through the most difficult season of your life, and that happening a couple different times, that's where you stop and look at it as an adult, and say, ‘Oh, wow, this is really hard,’” she told me. “I really wish, maybe, in this moment, people didn’t know who I was. And I could just live a normal life.”
It is in the aftermath of this implosion that Vuolo has chosen to be the first Duggar child to disavow the theology she and her parents and siblings sold to viewers for so many years. She says it’s not a responsibility that she wants.
“I would not say I’m the best person to do this,” she told me. “I hate conflict. I think it’s very difficult. But at the same time, I wrote a book with my sisters in 2012 [Growing Up Duggar] that promoted some of these teachings — it’s so damaging.
“If it helps one person to come out of this, it’s worth it,” she said.
To be clear, Vuolo isn’t denouncing religion. She’s still a devoted Christian (her husband Jeremy is currently studying for his doctorate of divinity at a California seminary school and often preaches at a Los Angeles–area church helmed by a pastor whose views are far from inclusive). Much of the book is dedicated to convincing the reader that Christianity, Jesus, and God are great — just not the version of them she was raised to believe in. Through her relationship with her husband and his brand of theology, Vuolo writes she has found peace and freedom that she never felt under Gothard’s tutelage and a true “relationship” with Jesus that she finds personally fulfilling.
Her intended audience for the book — besides, she says, anyone who is curious about her life — are other people like her who were raised in the toxic IBLP theology. She wants to encourage them not to leave the faith altogether.
“I’ve come to understand that in the Christianity of my childhood, elements of the true gospel of Jesus Christ were tangled up with false teaching,” she writes. “I’ve spent eight years unthreading my faith: separating truth from error.”
Readers hoping for a juicy tell-all will be disappointed. Vuolo strongly criticizes Gothard and the IBLP, describing him as a misogynistic and cruel leader who sought to control every aspect of his followers’ lives and blamed them when they faced hardships. (Gothard resigned from the IBLP board of directors in 2014 after being accused of sexual misconduct. He did not respond to our request for comment.)
“True righteous living comes from a heart that has been transformed. But Gothard missed this. And the consequences were devastating,” she writes. “He told us what clothes we had to wear, what our homes had to look like, and how long our hair needed to be. He gave us lists for how to earn God’s favor financially, physically, and relationally…But he couldn’t tell us how to truly live a life that honored God.” (Gothard did not respond to our request for comment.)
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with my family throughout the years about the differences that we have.”
But Vuolo avoids making a full-throated condemnation of anyone she’s close to, particularly her parents. In fact, she opens her book praising her parents, saying repeatedly that the book should not be taken as a repudiation of them and calling her childhood “wonderful.”
“My parents loved me and sacrificed so much for me. For all of us,” she writes. “They invested their time and energy and souls into raising me and my brothers and sisters. Their patience, kindness, and love are things I want to imitate in raising my girls. They pointed me to Jesus. So, this is not a book about them.”
Vuolo confirmed to me that her parents and some of her siblings still believe in and practice IBLP theology. This raises the question: How can you disagree with the way you were raised, but not blame the people who raised you? When I asked Vuolo what her parents think about her decision to speak out against Gothard, I expected her to demurely slap on a placid smile and assure me that all between them is well. Instead, her face went somewhat blank.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with my family throughout the years about the differences that we have,” she said. “A lot of times you just agree to disagree, because we know we're going to be on different pages at the end of the day.”
No matter her parents’ intentions, it’s clear Vuolo’s upbringing left deep scars. Despite her feisty television persona, her childhood was filled with deep anxiety caused by Gothard’s preaching.
“All I had to do was deposit the exact lifestyle Gothard advocated, and I would withdraw health, money, a wonderful husband, and a bushel of kids. But this cause-and-effect view was also terrifying because I thought I would experience devastating consequences for any mistakes I made,” she writes.
This led Vuolo to be terrified, she writes, of doing anything, worried God would smite her for making a bad decision. Being on reality television made it worse.
“I don’t remember exactly when a desire to please others started to dominate my thinking and decision-making,” she writes. “Perhaps it was when the cameras arrived — I was ten years old at the time — and I realized that millions of people were watching how I lived my life. Or perhaps I was always going to care about the opinions of others and want to hide my imperfections.”
Vuolo felt like she could never shirk the watchful eye of the public, who expected her to always be perfect. She recalls her family’s newfound fame sinking in when, as a child, strangers started approaching her mother. Anywhere she went, people were watching her, a feeling she thinks she will never be able to escape.
“It kind of changes things,” she said. “Inside your house, outside, you’re being filmed. So you are always on. Even if you’re walking through a grocery store, you never know who recognizes you. That’s always in your mind.”
Even stranger was the fact that many people thought they had an idea of who she was that didn’t match reality. Vuolo told me she heard about the Free Jinger website from friends and family shortly after it was founded, and she was aware of what people were saying about her. In hindsight, she thinks it’s ironic how people saw her as rebellious and eager to break away from her family’s strict guidelines.
“It was the total opposite,” she said.
In reality, Vuolo’s childhood and young adulthood were times of an almost obsessive level of obedience. In Becoming Free Indeed, she describes anxiety so crippling that she was afraid to join her family to play sports at church and developed an eating disorder over an obsession with appearing “perfectly thin.” She had little experience in the outside world or even interacting with people outside her family or church. After she married Jeremy and moved with him to Laredo, Texas, at 23, she realized she didn’t know how to be on her own, or even who she was. Simple interactions like meeting with a church member for a lunch left her sobbing with fear. She was completely unprepared for life outside the Duggar bubble.
“When you live in a community as insulated and isolated as mine was, you assume the way you live is normal and right,” she writes. “My first year of marriage was the first time I formed friendships with people I wasn’t related to, people who were not like me in many ways. I experienced a lot of anxiety.”
Simple interactions like meeting with a church member for a lunch left her sobbing with fear.
Perhaps because of the way her own childhood panned out, Vuolo and her husband keep her children’s faces off the internet. She told me she wants to give them the opportunity — or the freedom, you could say — to be anonymous. It makes me wonder if she wishes she could have had that for herself.
“We both decided that it would be best for our girls to be able to give them privacy because I know how there are joys of being in the public eye, and then there are major things that you have to walk through that are difficult,” she said. “It was pretty clear for both of us. If they choose to have an acting career or be in the public eye themselves, that's great. But we wanted to be able to give them that opportunity to choose.”
As for her own future, Vuolo is no longer on television. She’s raising her two children, but she’s also interested in understanding herself better. What does she like to do? Does she want to stay in the public eye? She knew she wanted to write this book, but she’s not sure what is next.
“We’ve discussed, like, just fading off into the distance, in the background eventually,” she said.
But it’s clear that Vuolo’s new life feels right for her. It may not be what those on the Free Jinger forum pictured for her all those years ago, but it has been transformative. And maybe that’s enough.
“I think there are endless possibilities for the future, which I’m just excited about,” she said. “I feel like every day I’m discovering new hobbies and passions and things that are just fun to do. I think it’s hard to say where and what the future will bring. It’s very freeing.” ●