"Shiny Happy People" Not Only the Duggars
Recently, I watched the new documentary, "Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets" on the Duggar family and, "The Institute in Basic Life Principles," most commonly known as IBLP. It greatly disturbed me to see the number of similarities between this radical organization and the horrific experience of life in the convent for me along with a multitude of other survivors of abuse in religious life. The reason for why there are so many commonalities is because both the organization and the convents that so many of us entered were run as cults.
According to Psychology Today in the article, "Understanding Cults: The Basics" cult psychology is defined as the following:
Cult leaders want people who will be obedient to them and their rules. They look for ways to “break” people; they want people who will work hard and long hours for little or no pay. They want “willing” slaves. Authoritarian religious cults often use members for labor trafficking. When the mind is controlled, a victim may appear happy and willing to suffer for the profit or benefit of the leader/group.
For members, happiness comes from "good" performance within the group, along with elitist thinking—believing they have the "truth" or the the best way of life. But strict obedience is required. They are manipulated by fear and guilt and may be stuck, with no way out!
Former members of the IBLP movement speak of "obedience" used to enforce authoritarian rule over women and children. The words of scripture, such as "submissiveness" are twisted to promote physical, psychological, and emotional abuse to place women and children in a position to be dominated and controlled by the patriarchs of the family. Wives have no rights, and children eventually break. Even babies are taught obedience by the "blanket training method" where a baby is placed on a blanket with a toy just out of their reach. When the baby reaches for the toy his or her hand is slapped to break a rebellious spirit. Each time the baby reaches for the toy his or her hand is slapped again. Children receive what is referred to as "encouragement," which is a means of discipline, according to Jim Bob's niece, Amy King. She exclaims, "But it was, like, in the sweetest tone ever. Like: ‘Do you need encouragement? I think you need encouragement.’” Then her cousins were beaten with a rod, which King observed. Jill Duggar speaks of how they were not allowed to show emotions, and always had to have a smile on their faces.
The older children in the movement are worked to the bone day in and day out taking care of the younger children and completing their chores. Michelle Duggar in the video even mentions how after their children were weaned then they were given to a "buddy" to take care of them, and it resulted in the "buddy" having a daily experience that left them extremely fatigued and exhausted.
There was a cover up of sexual abuse by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar concerning their oldest son, Josh Duggar, who molested two of his younger sisters, and was later arrested and jailed for possession of childhood pornography on his business computer. Within the IBLP movement it is difficult for women to speak out and report abuse because women are blamed for enticing a man to commit a sexual act unless she calls out to God during the act. Some women who were called to headquarters report being touched inappropriately by Bill Gothard, the leader of IBLP, and that sexual abuse was frequent at the various centers. In the documentary an ex-IBLP recalls how she was a part of a group invited to share out their stories of rape and sexual abuse, and to explain how they were responsible for the act to others.
Daughters are under the authority of their fathers until marriage when they become under the authority of their husbands. A woman always has to be under a man's authority according to IBLP. One of the ex-IBLP explained how a father chooses a potential spouse for his daughter, and even if she does not have feelings for him she must adapt to the situation. Women have no voice in IBLP even if they are being abused by their husbands. One woman from the documentary recalls how she escaped her abusive husband one day with her children. She saved their lives by fleeing because when he left the house one day after mistreating her for several hours, it turned out that he was going to his office to retrieve his gun.
"Submissiveness" also has a contorted meaning in a number of convents, where women in the name of God, and in the name of "obedience" are physically, psychologically, and emotionally abused by both other nuns, typically a superior or formator, and priests. Women in formation are beat down until they break. They are treated as if they are children needing to ask permission for everything and not being permitted to have any thoughts of their own other than what is indoctrinated into them by their formation program.
I was taught during my postulancy that even to throw out a piece of garbage, such as a wrapper or piece of paper on the floor, I needed to ask permission. I was permitted to go for a walk on the convent grounds, but only up to the mailbox. We were not permitted to have locks on our doors and there was no privacy, and at any time my formator could walk into my bedroom and she did. One time I was preparing to take a shower and in only a robe, and my directress barged in demanding she talk with me at that moment. Whenever I needed to go to the doctor's I was not permitted to go alone, and my formator even went into the examination room to ensure that nothing was said against her or the community.
When I was spoken to and offered "corrections" even if they were made up I needed to remain in silence and accept the chastisement, belittlement, and condemnation behind a closed door whether it be in the sacristy, the kitchen, or even my bedroom. Crying was not permitted, and only smiles could be shown on our faces at all times. I was taught in formation to do facial exercises so that no one would know if I had been crying. I recall my eyes one time becoming teary eyed from helping in the kitchen to cut onions, and I was asked to leave because the other sisters might think that I was crying because of something my directress did to me.
Each day I walked on pins and needles waiting to be attacked throughout the day over and over again by the use of manipulation and gas-lighting where I began questioning my own sanity. Majority of two years that I spent in the convent I was screamed at daily by my directress and called "stupid," "crazy," and that I was a tree that would never bear any good fruit because there was nothing good about me and needed to be chopped down. I was alone and could tell no one because I was only permitted to see or speak to my parents on the phone once a month, I was timed in Confession and forbidden from speaking or writing to any priests, and eventually even letters to family and friends would not be sent out in the mail by my formator. I was too afraid to meet with the priest during our retreat when we could have spiritual direction because my formator was in charge of the list that said which sisters were going for spiritual direction and at what time.
Sisters in formation are often treated as inferior beings and slaves in convents. Superiors and formators seem to forget that all of humanity is equal in dignity, even the formation sisters. The junior sisters were worked nearly to death. Whichever sisters were sent to the Bronx convent would always lose a lot of weight and be sent back to the Motherhouse for some time to become healthy again.
One of the junior sisters was only in her early twenties and she would have to be at the parish at 6 AM, and I remember one day when I was visiting the Bronx convent she did not return home from the parish until 11:00 PM and at that point still had to make her holy hour. At the Motherhouse I would see some of the junior sisters cleaning the ovens at 9 PM at night, and another junior sister was assigned infirmary work where she would spend the entire night in the infirmary, and then have to sleep during the day for some time before waking up and doing her day duties. I recall one evening after dinner when the infirmarian sister was so tired and frustrated that when there was the dirty stovetop she just had no energy left to clean it and threw the sponge into the sink while shouting, "I am done" before storming out of the kitchen.
If a formation sister was ill it was not an excuse to be placed out of commission for a time unless the sister’s illness caused her to become a spectacle in public. I had the flu as a novice, and was only excused from chapel duties for a few days after nearly fainting during Mass, and according to my directress, embarrassing her because I had to sit during the standing parts of Mass. After a doctor’s visit where my formator sat with me in the examination room moaning that I made her ill too, I was made the following day to return to chapel duties despite the doctor explaining how I should rest for at least a week. I remember feeling dizzy while lighting candles, and praying that I would not faint in the sanctuary.
When it snowed we would be in and out all day because there could never be even the slightest amount of snow on the surface. There were final professed sisters who could have lent a hand, but that task was too below them according to the nun hierarchy. But the Mother Superior or my novice mistress would be sure to stand outside and point if we missed a spot or to reprimand us for putting too much or too little rock salt. Then the junior director would come out to take pictures of us with smiling faces pretending we had been building snowmen for most of the day or sledding when in reality the fun was only about fifteen minutes, and by that point we were already freezing and exhausted. But those pictures would be posted all over their social media page to show how nuns are "shiny happy people," especially the nuns in their community.
When we went on a vacation day the last summer that I was at the convent it was at a Jersey Shore house in Brick, New Jersey. When we got there we were met by three priests and a house filled with children of the owners of the house. The Mother Superior insisted that she did not know that the priests would be remaining with us the whole day and that there were children around, but since we traveled so far she made the decision for us to remain there.
It was a very uncomfortable experience, especially when the same priest asked me twice to change into my bathing suit. I replied with, "No, Father, I don't want to go swimming" both times he asked me. I knew I could not go to my directress and express how I felt about the situation because I would have been accused of leading the priest to lust. I had already been accused previously and reprimanded for walking too "sexy" and being too "pretty" in the habit. That was the reason I was not given a light blue habit, and was given only the navy blue habit when I became a novice because I was told that I would outshine the Mother Superior, and bring too much attention to myself.
I hope that more survivors of abuse from the IBLP movement come out and speak the truth. And I pray that their voices can inspire others, such as those who have been abused in religious life to also come forward and share more of their stories. The time for fear and silence is over, and the truth needs to be told to prevent these abuses that destroy lives from continuing to happen over and over again.