How I Escaped From The Shiny, Happy, People But Still Had Survivor’s Guilt

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Survivor’s — or escapist — guilt?

Occasionally, I would come across other former ATIA peers and I felt heartbroken by some of their stories of divorce, estrangement from families, judgement by families, a lack of education that created limits for them. The limits were especially oppressive and limiting for women.

As I watched the “Shiny, Happy People” series and read some essays and reviews about the show, I found myself triggered and angry at odd times and locations. At the same time, I was heartened by the voices in the film including some of the Duggar children who made their own escape and spoke up about the flaws they saw in Gothard’s IBLP or the Duggar family model.

At the end of this school year, I found myself strangely tearing up while I watched my kids perform at an elementary talent show or walk through a graduation ceremony. I realized the emotions were driven both by sadness that I didn’t experience these kinds of events as a child but also great joy that I was able to experience them now with my children. I was also filled with joy that I am part of a community of families who have many different backgrounds and beliefs yet share a mutual care for our community and its children.

In church, during sermons and worship songs, various words and phrases trigger emotional responses in me. I often cannot sing or say certain words or phrases about God that remind me of IBLP. And some words and phrase that relate to deconstruction and reconstruction of my faith in healthy ways cause me almost too much gratitude, joy and emotion that I have to listen rather than speak.

One professor colleague of mine, Dr. Anthony Bradley, listened to me talk about this once while we walked down stairs at an ancient Buddhist site in Indonesia. “I think you have PTSD,” Bradley said. He was right. Those of us who have journeyed through and out of truly cult-like religious communities often have an ongoing “spiritual PTSD.”

One recent Saturday morning, I called my older sister, Rachel, to catch up and to talk about the “Shiny, Happy People” series and its impact on us. In the conversation, I told Rachel that I realize I have some kind of “survivor’s guilt.”

The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology defines “Survivor’s Guilt” this way:

Remorse or guilt for having survived a catastrophic event when others did not or for not suffering the ills that others had to endure.”

In one sense, I felt some guilt for disagreeing with and abandoning my own parents and siblings when I was in my late teens and early 20s. In truth, my exodus from IBLP was the beginning of a slow exodus for my entire family and a gradual healing that is still in process.

Even though it was not my fault, I felt guilt and shame that my family was ever part of something like IBLP.

I also felt guilt that circumstances had lined up better for me than some of my peers in IBLP. Perhaps I was lucky to find mentors and opportunities? Perhaps I was lucky to receive a scholarship to college? Perhaps I was lucky to find a vocation I enjoyed after college? Perhaps I was lucky to be a male, rather than a female who had more agency to leave behind a fundamentalist upbringing? And did my luck mean others were unfairly left behind, suffering in a spiritually destructive existence? Should I have said or done something more? Something different? Should I have done something to expose IBLP for what it was the way my sister and some of the Duggar children are now doing?

”No” my sister, Rachel, said. ”You did things your own way. We fought you and your ideas. We, your own family, treated you poorly for doing your own thing. We made you feel like you were a black sheep. I made you feel like that. I am sorry. I am terribly sorry.”

At this point I was taking my dog for a walk in the park, wearing sunglasses which hid the tears. After regaining my own composure, I was able to tell Rachel, again, that I am proud of her for her courage to process her own experiences and speak up about Gothard and IBLP and what she and other women experienced as abuse.

Sometimes it’s important to have a good talk with your siblings, and a good cry. Our experience was not so different than Jewish children raised in an ultra-orthodox community, exiles from Amish or Mormon communities, or children raised in a fundamentalist Muslim context. Parents in these communities often love their children and think they are doing the right thing for them. And, true, perhaps the experience is not ALL bad. For example, children from faith communities learn to memorize and analyze sacred texts. Those are skills from which modern youth hooked on screens could perhaps benefit.

Our parents were not monsters. They sometimes enrolled us in soccer, wrestling, choir, tennis, chess and many other enrichment activities. They provided as best they could. In their own ways, they have tried to understand the way IBLP affected our family and its members.

“I’m grateful we get to do things differently with own own kids,” I told my sister, Rachel.

“I know,” she said.

It doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect parents or raise perfect children or have any kind of perfect, idealized family. If anything, I want to accept my imperfections.

And I hope to keep an ear tuned for wisdom, to hear insights like those from the random running mates on an early morning in downtown Indianapolis. I want to downplay the rules and letter of the law when it comes to faith and to play up the knowledge, spirit and transcendent elements of religion when it comes to family faith formation.

I want to run away from legalism. I want to run toward the person, words and message of Jesus. I want to keep running toward healthy, life-giving, restorative, healing, forgiving, loving faith.

This is my letter to help readers who might want to judge or belittle or dehumanize people from communities of faith like the Amish, the Latter Day Saints, the Hassidic jews, the extremely conservative muslims or the shiny, happy people of IBLP. People trapped in fundamentalist thinking — especially children — are still humans. Please do not dehumanize them. And let’s not forget that even secularists and folks on the progressive left can become as dogmatic or close-minded as religious fundamentalists from the right. Enlightenment and empathy may run on parallel tracks.

This is also my letter to people who have been through something similar to me and escaped or are in the process of wrestling, escaping, surviving, deconstructing or reconstructing. This is my heartfelt letter hoping my words and story might help someone else. This is my letter of thanks to my sister and others who have been speaking up and discussing the problems of IBLP for years over social media and now documentaries like “Shiny, Happy People.”

This is my penance for being silent for so long on this topic because of my own shame for ever being unwillingly part of IBLP. This is my letter to the Duggar children and the Duggar parents. This is my letter to people who lost their faith because of IBLP. This is my letter to people who were hurt or still are stymied because of IBLP. I haven’t left you behind. This is what I would tell you if we were having coffee, driving on a road trip or going for an early morning run.





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