In 2004, the Discovery Channel introduced America to a quirky family from Arkansas. While most families in the country have two children on average, a peppy narrator said, some families just keep “growing and growing.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the narrator announced, “meet the Duggars.”
At the time, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar had 14 children and one on the way. They were being featured in a one-hour documentary, 14 Children and Pregnant Again, which aimed to shed light on how such a large family handled logistics like chores, transportation, and parenting.
In what would become their signature, the children introduced themselves to the camera one by one. At the beginning of the line stood Joshua — Josh for short — the family’s eldest. With a plaid blue shirt buttoned up to his neck and a clean-cut appearance, Josh was the crown jewel of the image his parents were trying to convey to the world: a wholesome, religious boy who could be an example of the lifestyle they believed was right.
Things are very different now. In April, Josh, now 33, was arrested by US Marshals in Arkansas and charged with receiving and possessing child sex abuse images. During the trial, Homeland Security agent Gerald Faulkner testified that Josh had more than 200 images of children, some as young as 18 months, on his computer, describing some of the images as the “top five of the worst of the worst” he had ever seen. On Thursday, a jury in Fayetteville found him guilty of all charges.
Josh’s conviction is the latest fall from grace for the Duggars, who have spent the past two decades selling themselves as a family for others to emulate. Their fame came about not by accident, as they have sometimes implied, but by design.
Jim Bob and Michelle have been searching for the spotlight for years. As Jim Bob made a foray into politics in the late 1990s, serving in the Arkansas state legislature, Michelle worked on the family’s image, accepting Arkansas’s young mother of the year award in the early 2000s and writing an essay in Parents magazine about her unique life.
When reality television producers came calling, the couple took it as an opportunity to not only improve the family finances, but also fulfill their ultimate goal: inspiring others to live like them.
“Our desire in opening our home to the world has been to make Christ known and to share Bible principles that are the answers for life’s problems! We pray that everyone will find true hope in trusting Jesus Christ!” the family states on their blog.
But in their quest for fame, fortune, and being a spiritual example for the world, the Duggars inadvertently ended up accomplishing the opposite. Their hubris made them oblivious to the reality that it was disingenuous to preach family values to the masses when they were harboring a predator.
Because we now know that even before the first documentary aired, Jim Bob and Michelle were aware that they had a problem with Josh.
Looking back at the Duggars’ rise to fame, it’s hard to imagine why Jim Bob and Michelle chose to expose their family to the limelight, actively seeking more and more press, while dealing with such horrifying truths behind the scenes.
During the trial, family friend Bobye Holt testified that the Duggars had known since 2003 — before the family’s first special on Discovery aired — that Josh had been sexually abusing young children.
Holt told the court that the family had asked her and her husband, former Arkansas state legislator Jim Holt, to counsel their son as spiritual advisers, noting that Josh had been dating, or “courting” as the Duggars call it, their teenaged daughter at the time. In the meeting, then 15-year-old Josh admitted to touching four underaged girls on their breasts, vaginal areas, and under their clothes, she said.
“He told us so our oldest daughter would know why the relationship had to end,” Holt said, fighting back tears, according to reporters.
Holt didn’t name the victims, but the timing aligns with allegations, which were first revealed by In Touch Weekly in May 2015, of Josh sexually abusing his four younger sisters and another unnamed girl. After the magazine published its bombshell article, based on police reports it had obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, the Duggars began a public relations campaign, giving an exclusive, two-part interview to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, the first featuring Jim Bob and Michelle and the second featuring two of Josh’s sisters, Jessa Seewald and Jill Dillard. The sisters revealed that they were among Josh’s victims, but said they forgave him.
Despite having known about Josh’s actions, the Duggars still chose to chase fame and exposure for their family, filming that first special in 2004 and following it up with several others. In October 2005, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the family was filming two more Discovery specials, The Duggar Family: Raising our 16 Children and The Duggars' New Digs. Jim Bob, the paper reported, was also planning to run for state senate.
According to Holt, during this time Josh continued to confess about what he had done, traveling to her home in Little Rock in 2005 to “get things off his mind.” During one visit, Holt testified that he admitted to penetrating the vagina of a 5-year-old girl with his finger.
“You don’t forget something like that,” Holt said.
Jim Bob and Michelle told Kelly in 2015 that after Josh confessed, they had taken him to Arkansas State Police Headquarters to disclose what he had done. After that, they said, they didn’t hear anything from the police for months.
Meanwhile, the Duggars’ star continued to rise. They appeared on the Today show on Father’s Day 2005, during which the host declared they were “an inspiration to all of us.” When their 16th child, Johannah, was born that October, they made headlines across the nation. “Michelle Duggar just delivered her 16th child, and she's already thinking about doing it again,” crowed the Tallahassee Democrat. They continued to film television shows, like 2006’s On the Road With 16 Children and Raising 16 Children, among others.
In 2006, though, someone tried to expose the Duggars’ secret. That year, an anonymous whistleblower mailed a letter to Oprah Winfrey’s production company, Harpo Productions, warning the studio of the allegations against Josh shortly before the family was scheduled to appear on the show.
"You need to know the truth," it read. "They are not what they seem to be."
The family never appeared on Oprah. The production company alerted authorities, who began a formal investigation and interviewed the five alleged victims. But since the three-year statute of limitations had run out, no charges were brought forth. Remarkably, the incident also remained largely under wraps, although, as Gawker reported in 2015, it eventually leaked onto the internet, where it became a persistent rumor on message boards about the show.
The full details of the Oprah incident were not confirmed until Jim Bob and Michelle described it to Kelly in their 2015 interview. They told Kelly they felt like “failures” when they learned what Josh had done, but believed he had repented and forgave him. They also downplayed the severity of the abuse allegations. Jim Bob claimed none of the victims “really knew about this or understood what he had done until we told them,” and the family viewed the abuse as “something we would like to forget.” They also said they made “safeguards” to ensure their sons and daughters were not alone together after the investigation.
After the Oprah incident, the Duggars continued to evangelize, seeking bigger and bigger platforms. In 2008, they got their own series on TLC, 17 Kids and Counting, which ran for eight years and 15 seasons. The first two seasons featured Josh’s courtship and marriage to Anna Keller, which served as a feather in the cap of Jim Bob and Michelle. Their oldest child had followed in their footsteps and entered a good Christian marriage.
In the episode “Josh Gets Engaged,” both parents extolled the good qualities of their eldest, conveniently leaving out the pain he had been causing the family for several years. Instead, they praised Josh and Anna for setting a good example of how young couples can remain pure before marriage and live their faith.
“Saving that first kiss for your wedding day is like, really special,” Michelle said in the episode. “And I hope that it inspires others to consider that as well.”
Over the next few years, the Duggars’ empire continued to grow. They added two to their brood, for a total of 19 children, and Josh and Anna had their first baby, Mackynzie, in 2009 (they now have seven children, including a newborn). Jim Bob and Michelle released books for parents, and the Duggar daughters released one for teenagers. The family went on the Christian speaker circuit and created a website where they could further share their beliefs.
In a 2009 interview, Michelle discussed how the family viewed all of their media ventures: as a way to preach their faith.
"We feel like it's just an opportunity to encourage families to enjoy their children, enjoy children while they have them, and realize that they are a gift from God," she said. "That's our prayer. This is an opportunity to just encourage others to value family and just enjoy the time you have with them."
The Duggars couldn’t keep the skeletons hidden in their closets forever, though, and the past six years or so have seen the Christian empire they carefully constructed slowly crumble, culminating in Josh’s sentencing.
The first blow came in 2015, when In Touch Weekly published the police reports from 2006 that revealed Josh had admitted to abusing five minor girls dating back to 2002. Afterward, Josh, then a 27-year-old married father of three, apologized for his actions but insisted they were in the past.
"I sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life," he wrote. "I would do anything to go back to those teen years and take different actions."
Soon after, Josh resigned from his position at the conservative lobbying organization the Family Research Council, and TLC announced they were canceling the show, now called 19 Kids and Counting. After the cancellation, the Duggars embarked on their spin campaign, starting with the Megyn Kelly interview, where the parents and daughters decried the release of the police reports. Jessa implied that the family was under attack for its faith.
“I definitely feel like people that already don't really like our family would be the ones to really spread this around and maliciously do so, slanderously do so. Definitely, they didn't have the victims in mind,” she told Kelly.
Soon after, TLC announced it would be keeping the Duggars on the air after all. The new show, Counting On, first started as a three-part special in December 2015 featuring Jessa and Jill’s lives as newlyweds, and over 11 seasons expanded to include the other married Duggar children and their spouses. While Josh did not appear on the show, Anna appeared sporadically.
The Duggars picked up where they left off, continuing to preach their ministry, having their youngest daughters plus Mackynzie release a Christian worship album and making more attempts at entering local politics. There were cracks under the surface, most notably Jill and her husband, Derick’s, estrangement from the family, but for the most part, the Duggars continued on their path. Their attitude seemed to imply that if the family could move on from Josh’s sins, the rest of us should as well.
But Josh’s arrest for child sexual abuse materials and subsequent conviction may finally have ruined the family’s reputation for good. After Josh’s arrest in April, TLC announced it would cancel Counting On. Most of the Duggars and their adult spouses have kept a low profile during the trial, barely posting on social media or posting about their faith. Earlier this week, Joy-Anna Forsyth, the fifth Duggar daughter, posted that she was studying the book of Job, about suffering.
“Job went through so much suffering and yet he received the strength that God extended to him to endure,” she wrote. “Yes, Jesus. I will trust you.”
The current state of the Duggars raises the question of why they started all of this in the first place. Why, when you have a child dealing with such darkness, would you sweep it under the rug and push your family into the spotlight? Why would you preach about chastity, family values, and remaining faithful when you know you have such skeletons in your closet? And why would the Duggar parents make their children so famous that when the news eventually came out, the entire world would know?
It’s hard to answer these questions. But what is even more incredible, in light of the past two decades, is that Jim Bob and Michelle are still seeking more notoriety, or as they likely see it, more ways to evangelize.
In November, seven months after Josh’s arrest and just days before his trial began, Jim Bob, with Michelle by his side, announced that he was running for Arkansas Senate in order to fight for the “foundational principles that have made our nation great,” which he said are “under threat like never before.”
“Our family has been blessed by God in so many ways,” he wrote. “We’ve found His love and goodness to be our source of strength in both our most joyous occasions and our darkest moments. It’s important to us to give back and to help others in every way we can.”
Clearly, Jim Bob and Michelle still think they have lessons to teach us. The only question is if there’s anyone left who will listen. ●