Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The enormous Duggar family has been in the public eye since their TLC reality series, 19 Kids and Counting, premiered in 2008. In the lineup of TLC shows about oddball families—the twins-plus-sextuplets family; the polygamist family; the little-people family; the hundred-proof hillbilly family—the Duggars are distinguished by their amazing fecundity, and by their commitment to baby-names starting with J (Josh, Jana, John-David, Jill, Jessa, Jinger, Joseph).

They are distinguished, too, by their vocal affiliation with Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull—hierarchical and pro-procreation movements within Evangelicalism, which strike some observers as creepy and cultish. The Duggar kids are homeschooled and don’t mix much with the outside world; this, too, strikes some observers as creepy and cultish. All of the Duggar girls perm their hair and wear long skirts—sartorial tics that some observers find creepy and cultish. Did I mention that all the Duggar kids’ names start with J? (Josiah, Joy-Anna, Jedediah, Jeremiah, Jason, James, Justin) At a certain point, this starts to look creepy and cultish.

All old news. What we know now is that the Duggars’ eldest son, Josh, molested five young girls circa 2002–03, when he was fourteen and fifteen years old. (At least two of the girls are presumed to have been his sisters.) We know also that Duggar patriarch Jim Bob, once informed of these acts, dealt with them in-house—neither involving the police nor seeking therapy for Josh or the victims. We know these things because, after the statute of limitations had run out, a police report was filed. It was dug up this year by InTouch Magazine.

Headline: Christian-Fundie TV Stars, Who Campaigned for Huckabee and Recorded Robocalls Against LGBTQ Rights, Harbored Sexual Predator for Years.

So now we know. Though some observers claim that they always more or less knew. Because, well, PATRIARCHY.

* * *

When the news broke, Josh, who is now twenty-seven, resigned his position with the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council. The Duggars posted Facebook apologies. Jim Bob and wife Michelle: “When Josh was a young teenager, he made some very bad mistakes and we were shocked. . . . That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before.” Josh: “I sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life. I would do anything to go back to those teen years and take different actions.” His wife Anna: “[Josh is] someone who had gone down a wrong path and had humbled himself before God and those whom he had offended.”

Some critics object, fairly I think, that what Josh is copping to here is worse than “mistakes.” Arkansan or not, the Duggars should have avoided that Clintonian word—especially since underplaying has been a theme. Jim Bob could have acted more sternly back in 2002–03, with an eye not only to the future (prevention) but also to the past (just punishment). Mistakes were made.

A second objection seems to me less fair—but totally predictable. Josh, we are told, should not be confessing that he did wrong, then went and sinned no more. He should confess instead to being mentally ill. InTouch interviews psychologist Julie Armstrong: “‘[Josh’s apology] is extremely self-centered and narcissistic,’ she says, noting that [he classifies] his conduct as religious failure rather than pathological behavior.” Again, psychologist Paula Bruce: “There is no awareness about this being a psychological problem. It is framed from [the Duggars'] perspective as a religious failing, that he humbled himself before God and it’s all done.”

For the Duggars, the important thing is for Josh to confess guilt before his father and his God. For Drs. Bruce and Armstrong (as for many people with blogs), the important thing is for Josh to confess pathology before a therapist, then receive “evidence-based treatment” for his problems. (Interestingly, no one is really demanding that he be punished by the criminal-justice system.)

This may be sound advice. But watch the tense. Josh must admit that he has (not had) a problem—that he is (not was) a sex offender. Say the bloggresses (paraphrasing): “Pity the poor wife, married to a sex offender! She must be brainwashed if she really believes he's not one anymore!” But as far as we know, Josh has not offended since 2003, when he was fifteen. He is almost twice as old now as he was then. Will there never come a day when we can consign his offenses to the past?

Nope—once a sex offender, always a sex offender. In the popular imagination, sex-offending is a condition, not an action. A sex offense is not something you did or do or may do; a sex offender is what you were and are and always will be. It is your ontology—or rather, your pathology. It is “a problem,” like alcoholism, that may go into remission with therapy but will never go away, and so becomes your identity, which you must confess—“My name is Josh and I’m a sex offender”—to the end of your days.

This is why we have sex-offender registries. These registries are public (check out the hotspots in your neighborhood). A person convicted of a sex crime must register as a sex offender, and he will never get un-registered for as long as he lives—even if he never offends again. (Did you know that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is estimated at 1–3 percent after three years—the lowest for any crime except murder? Or that studies suggest public registration may in fact make recidivism more likely, by demoralizing offenders, so that they feel they have nothing to lose by re-offending?)

Yet one can't imagine not registering sex offenders and publicizing their home addresses, as we do—even though we rarely do this for other criminals who, if they re-offended, would certainly endanger their neighbors. Few states have public drunk-driver registries, or arsonist registries, or meth-cook registries. So profound is our fear of sex offenders—of what they have done, and of what they are.

As D. L. Rosenhan wrote during the anti-psychiatry movement: “Mental illness endures forever.”

* * *

Minor detail: There is actually some unclarity regarding when a sex offense is properly considered the result of mental illness. In the current edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the American Psychiatric Association categorizes pedophilia (the paraphilic “orientation” to prepubescent children) as “disordered” only when it distresses the subject or causes him to victimize others. (Stay tuned: This is exactly the shuck-and-jive the APA did with another “orientation”—homosexuality—before declassifying it in 1973.)

Another criterion: To qualify as pathological, the offender must be sixteen or older. A kid under sixteen who commits one or more pedophilic offenses, then repents and never relapses, is not pathological according to the DSM. (And recidivism rates are even lower for juvenile sex offenders than for adults.) As far as the DSM is concerned, and despite all the huffing and posting, Josh Duggar gets a clean bill of mental health.

Obviously there is some B.S. at work here, as ever with the DSM. Also at work, though, is our need to pathologize evil. We have a sense that there is something “sick” in any person who would do such things to a child—but beware the slippage between the metaphoric and literal usages of this word. As a Catholic, I am familiar with the difference between desires that are morally “disordered” (vide the Catechism) and desires that are psychiatrically disordered (vide the DSM). I am also familiar with the tendency of the rest of the world to mix these categories up (vide Andrew Sullivan). One cause of this confusion is surely the fact that most people are determinists, and so are unable to conceptualize moral disorder except as mental disorder by another name.

If Josh has indeed stayed clean since 2003—and without the benefit of “evidence-based treatment“—then it seems likely that his offenses were not symptoms but sins, not illness but evil.

* * *

Regarding “evidence-based treatment”: In the Internet chatter about the Duggars, this phrase is going slightly viral. Properly it is used by medical professionals to distinguish policy that incorporates formal research (medicine as science) from policy that emphasizes the judgment of the individual practitioner (medicine as art). Proponents are aware that it can devolve into a slogan. Used loosely, “We favor evidence-based treatment” means “Congratulations to us for we believe in SCIENCE.”

Appropriated by roaring bloggresses in the Duggar case, it means “We favor any type of medical or psychiatric treatment at all, which obviously those Arkansan hillbilly quiverfullish woman-shackling creationist fundie weirdos never will undergo, because they believe in a busted god-myth and deny SCIENCE.” Which may all be true, and yet it strikes me as ironic since where child sex abuse is concerned, “evidence” by any sane standard has historically been fairly irrelevant.

Ask casualties of the repressed-memory craze (1980s and following) about the evidentiary basis of the allegations that put them in prison or otherwise ruined their lives. Indebted to an unfalsifiable pseudo-Freudian theory of psychological trauma, the repressed-memory movement assumed the “silencing” of victims by means internal (repression or amnesia) and external (authority figures). The more traumatized the victim, the less likely to report. You see how convenient this theory was for issue-advocates who wanted to claim that child sex abuse was pandemic. Just because abuse wasn’t being reported didn’t mean it wasn’t happening; indeed, the fact that it was seldom reported showed just how often it was happening. Child sex abuse was everywhere—and the evidence was the lack of evidence.

Repressed memory, as a psychiatric mechanism, was discredited in the late 1990s—but the statistical truisms that arose from the movement are still abroad. To take a random and typical instance from the Duggar case: USA Today informs us that no one knows how common child sex abuse is, but it’s more common than you think, and as many as 25 percent of American adults may have been sexually abused as children.

Incidentally, if this stat were accurate, then the Duggar children would be faring better, or hardly worse, than the national average. In the best case, two of the nineteen Duggar children are sex-abuse victims (10.5 percent). In the worse case, five of nineteen (26 percent). But actually, that should be nineteen and counting! As more Duggar children enter the world, the percentage who are victims will decline. We hope, anyway.

* * *

Or do we? Some of us seem to want these ghastly percentages to go as high as possible. Recall the campus-rape numbers quoted by everyone making hay out of that mania, up to and including our president: One in five coeds will be sexually assaulted during her time in college! Um, no.

People believe this stuff, or put on to, for lots of reasons—one being political utility. “Rape culture” is a handy thing for feminists to be able to talk about. And the notion that pedophilic incest is as likely as not to occur in the average American household can bolster leftish critiques of the bourgeois or patriarchal family. Child sex abuse is just the logical outcome of the power dynamics of the traditional family, in which father knows best, mother submits and colludes, and children are seen and (their traumas) not heard.

The Duggar household is now the perfect exhibit in this case against patriarchy. Patently, men and boys get what they want (nineteen and counting). And the Duggars adhere publicly to a cartoonish ideology of patriarchal domesticity. Josh’s scandal has churned up various troubling things about Christian Patriarchy, including this brief prompting the female victim of sex abuse to consider how she may have incited her attacker. (Was she showing too much ankle?)

Then again, we don’t know how rigorously the Duggars implement the various particulars of Christian Patriarchy. I see no evidence of victim-blaming on the part of Jim Bob, who probably has never read that brief. I am more compelled, actually, by non-ideological speculations about how Duggarish folkways may have provoked or abetted Josh’s offenses: Lacking close parental attention in a large family, he sought other forms of intimacy; lacking contact with girls not his sisters, he tried out incest; given quasi-parental authority over his younger siblings, he abused it.

These are things that make the Duggar case an outlier—functions of their freakishness, which got them on TLC in the first place. That won’t stop some critics from trying to make the Duggars representative of Christian Patriarchy generally, or the traditional family generally, or America generally (25 percent and counting). If you get the sense that certain parties are actually a bit pleased to have learned that this dreadful thing happened, this would be why.

Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University and an MFA candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things onTwitter.

More on: Rape, Incest, family

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles