“Counting the Cost: A Memoir”
Jill Duggar with Derick Dillard and Craig Borlase, Gallery Books (2023)
287 pages, $28.99
From the Clampetts and the Brady Bunch to the Simpsons and the Pearsons, television shows that focus on families have long captured the imagination of viewers. With the introduction of reality television, audiences no longer must search to find fictional families that they can relate to — there are endless shows that follow every kind of family, from the wealthy and famous to poor country folk. But what is the cost of following real families with real children and setting them up to address their personal problems in front of an audience of millions?
This is the premise of “Counting the Cost,” a new memoir by Jill Duggar, who was featured as one of the children in TLC’s popular series “19 Kids and Counting.” On the show, which lasted for seven seasons after several successful one-off documentaries, cameras followed the Duggar family as they went about their daily lives, homeschooling, going to the grocery store, and praying together. Viewers became fascinated with the family and especially with the older girls, who began courting their beaus with strict rules about always having chaperones on dates and no kissing before marriage.
Jill Duggar recounts that at first, her family’s reality show seemed to be the perfect set-up to share the Gospel with unbelievers. The family followed the fringe teachings of non-denominational Christian leader Bill Gotthard, who taught passionately about the authority of parents and the responsibility of children to give their parents unquestioning obedience as a sure way of sanctity. Jim Bob Duggar, the patriarch of the family, in particular saw his family’s reality show as an opportunity to present life under Gotthard’s teachings as joyful and orderly, offering the Gospel as a healing balm for families who experienced turmoil and division.
Behind the scenes, of course, there was much more going on than could fit in the half-hour episodes. The author writes about going grocery shopping on camera for the first time, where the producers paid the grocery bill and the family no longer had to scrape by with bean sandwiches and canned tuna. When a police report regarding abuse she had experienced at the hands of her older brother leaked to the press, she honestly shares what it was like to have her trauma on public display without her permission.
In the pages of her memoir, Jill Duggar recounts how she was particularly harmed by her father’s actions, which included encouraging her to allow cameras to record the birth of her first child, as well as her father’s defense of her brother Josh, who was found to have been unfaithful in marriage and was sentenced to prison for being in possession of child pornography. Viewers of “19 Kids and Counting” may be surprised as Jill Duggar seeks to remove the rose-colored glasses through which they have seen her family of origin.
More than just a memoir about being raised in the entertainment industry, Jill Duggar seeks to expose the harm that was done by her family’s belief system and the effects of the unquestioning obedience she was taught to give to those in authority. Her words are a powerful testimony to the danger of using God’s word to advance our own purposes or in an effort to control others.
As Catholics in particular, there might be a temptation to see the internal conflicts and beliefs of the Duggar family as a trainwreck that we can’t take our eyes from. It would be a mistake, however, to simply read this book for the shock value. “Counting the Cost,” provides an opportunity for people of faith to re-evaluate how they present the Gospel to those who do not profess faith in Jesus, recognizing that manipulating tactics that infringe upon the freedom of individuals certainly do not come from the Lord and are not Holy Spirit-inspired.
“Counting the Cost” by Jill Duggar is a worthwhile read for fans of reality television and for Catholics who desire to have a greater understanding of certain sects of American Protestantism. Prospective readers, especially those who have experience in movements like Gotthard’s, should be aware that some of the content includes child sexual abuse and manipulation, including painful memories connected to chastity education, that may be upsetting. Overall, Duggar shares her experiences as a reality television star with sobering honesty, a gift to those of us who seek to build the Kingdom of God in our modern media age.