One of the most famous reality TV families, TLC stars the Duggars, have been riddled in scandal and controversy for years.
Now the Prime Video docuseries, Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, is exposing the cult organization behind this family, The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).
As ex-IBLP members state in the series, while much of the attention has been on the Duggars, from desires to have as many kids as possible to the reveal of Josh Duggar's abuse, there's a larger power at play.
“The Institute raises little predators," ex-IBLP member Lara Smith says in the docuseries.
'The Learning Channel' to 'The Lurking Channel'
Back in 2008, a new TLC show took the world my storm, 17 Kids and Counting, which followed the family of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar raising and providing for their 17 children. That escalated, eventually ending with 19 Kids and Counting in 2015.
"19 Kids and Counting is kind of the perfect reality show to teach us about why we like reality TV," sociologist Danielle Lindemann says in the series.
Lindemann adds that reality TV "at its core is incredibly conservative." Giving the example of the Kardashians, while there is Kim's sex tape, "they're super conventional in terms of how they're performing gender."
With the Duggars showing the women in the family cooking and cleaning, Lindemann identifies that watching that can be "comforting" for some.
By Lindemann's attestation, this is when "The Learning Channel" became "The Lurking Channel," where people wanted to see the "train wrecks" and "contemporary freak shows," which made the network a multibillion-dollar company.
Josh Duggar molestation scandal, child pornography conviction
Everything started to unravel in May 2015, when it was reported that Josh molested five girls in the 2000s, four of his sisters and one babysitter.
"Nobody should have ever known about it," Jill Duggar Dillard says in the docuseries.
At the time, Josh's girlfriend Kayleigh was the daughter of Jim Bob's friend Jim Holt, and his wife Bobye.
Holt revealed that in March 2003 he found about about what Josh had been doing, saying that he was told by Jim Bob that this had occurred since Josh was 12.
"What Jim Bob had said to us was, Josh has gotten into some trouble. He’s touched his sisters inappropriately. That was their big thing that they would say," Bobye said.
The Duggars revealed the intention was that Josh would tell Kayleigh when they were married.
"So are you basically saying you were kind of using my daughter as like a carrot to get him to behave the right way?" Holt recalls saying at the time.
Holt went with Jim Bob and and Josh to the state trooper, who let Josh go but told him not to do it again. Holt found out later that the trooper was a friend of Jim Bob.
No charges were ever laid in the situation but in 2019, Josh was arrested for possessing child pornography and was convicted in 2021. He is now serving a 12.5-year sentence.
Jill looks back at the infamous interview with Megyn Kelly where, along with her sister Jessa, they confirmed what was revealed in the report, but very much defended their brother's actions, saying that they don't consider him a child molester. Now, Jill regrets doing that interview, but suggests that they were pressured to do so in an attempt to save their family's show.
19 Kids and Counting was cancelled but the public could still follow the family on the spinoff show Jill & Jessa: Counting On. As the docuseries reveals, Jim Bob was adamant that the girls continue this TV career and they never had a say, with him controlling all the money from TLC for all the shows.
"For seven-and-a-half years of my adult life I was never paid," Jill says in the docuseries.
'The Duggar family is not a bizarre fascination'
While the Duggar story is shocking, the most terrifying reveal in Shiny Happy People is related to The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and its founder Bill Gothard.
"The Duggar family is not a bizarre fascination," Josh Pease, pastor and journalist, says in the docuseries. "It is a horrifying glimpse of a story that was told over and over, and over again in so many different families.”
Essentially, the Duggars' TLC show was a recruiting arm for this cult organization.
"They operate as a cult in plane sight. World domination was the goal," ex-IBLP member Chad Harris states.
Ex-IBLP member Lindsey Williams says that when the the Duggars' show was on TLC, she was "weirded out" and couldn't watch because she "lived it."
A core aspect of IBLP and its teachings is the "umbrella of authority" where you must obey the chain of command, including a wife having to obey her husband and children having to obey their parents.
Some revelations are bizarre, like the belief that the creator of Cabbage Patch dolls is a warlock putting demons into the dolls. Others are disturbing, like the very specific guidance on spanking a child to "break a child's will," and blanket training, where a toy is put outside of a blanket a very young child is laying on and when they reach for it, the child is hit.
Additionally, Gothard himself has been accused of sexual abuse, which he has previously denied, with an initial report of sexual harassment made by 30 women in 2014.
"When you believe that your body belongs to the church, ... it’s absolutely designed to groom victims to be ready for more predators later on as adults, as young adults," Eve Ettinger ex-IBLP member says in the docuseries. "Everything about it sets you up to be the perfect victim.”
The way IBLP worked is that there isn't one physical church, there's a headquarter and then Gothard's teaching, and homeschooling curriculum, is spread to other communities and training centres.
"It’s like Gothard franchised spiritual, physical, emotional, psychological abuse," Pease said. "He figure out how to package it and then put it in all these different places that he never actually went."
"Gothard turned every father into a cult leader and every home into an island."
As Harris shares in the documentary, while many of us were watching the Duggars on TV, "those of us who experienced the hurt and the abuse watched as people celebrated it on TV, and didn't have our stories told."
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have responded to the release of the docuseries, stating that it is "sad" because it shows "the media and those with ill intentions hurting people we love."
"Like other families, ours too has experienced the joys and heartbreaks of life, just in a very public format," the statement posted on "The Duggar Family" website reads. "This 'documentary' paints so much and so many in a derogatory and sensationalized way because sadly that’s the direction of entertainment these days."
"We have always believed that the best chance to repair damaged relationships, or to reconcile differences, is through love in a private setting. We love every member of our family and will continue to do all we can to have a good relationship with each one."