“By the time I was old enough to balance a baby on my hip while I folded laundry, which I’m guessing was sometime around 8 or 9 years old, I was hands down the best approval hunter in the whole Duggar family,” Jill Duggar writes in the opening chapter of her new book Counting the Cost. She was a successful hunter, too. “Sweet Jilly Muffin” was praised for her obedience by her parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, and worked diligently to be seen as the most mature child in the room. But, she realizes now, being seen as a precocious child is different than being seen as an adult.
“We were often applauded for being so mature,” she tells Romper by phone. “But you’re treated almost like a perpetual child, or a perpetual teenager. So you grow up early, but then you stay in that phase of childhood adolescence well into adulthood … that’s when it becomes really, really harmful.”
As the fourth child in the prodigious Duggar family, Jill has been in the public eye since 2004, when she was just 13. One-off documentary specials on TLC about her large and deeply religious clan were followed by the series 17 (eventually 19) Kids and Counting, which ended in 2015 following revelations that Josh, the eldest child, had sexually abused several of his sisters, including Jill. The Duggars remained in the spotlight with Counting On, a similar series focused on the elder daughters in the family. Before its conclusion in 2020, however, Jill, along her husband Derick Dillard and their sons Israel and Samuel (to be joined by Frederick in 2021) quietly stepped back from filming. We now know this was done amid family disputes off-camera regarding compensation and, Jill and Derick say, duplicitous legal contracts with her father.
If this all sounds complicated and messy, that’s because it was. But until recently, no one in the family ever readily admitted that.
Counting the Cost, which Jill wrote with her husband and their collaborator, Craig Borlase, tells her behind-the-scenes story. In it, Jill highlights how her father, Jim Bob, effectively made the family a business in which he was and would always remain the CEO. A CEO, it seemed, who was disinclined to tolerate questions, dissent, or resignation.
To date, only two of Jill’s siblings have said anything about Counting the Cost. Jinger, who also released a memoir earlier this year, praised her sister for her book . Joy, whom Jill helped raise as an older “buddy,” said during a Q&A last month that she planned to read it, but has not said anything since. Romper has reached out to, but not heard back from Jim Bob and Michelle for comment.
Speaking with Jill, it’s clear she’s thought a lot about her childhood. She’s gracious in talking about her parents and 18 siblings, but doesn’t sugarcoat discussing how some of them have hurt her. She doesn’t skirt my more difficult questions, but answers them only to the extent she is comfortable. Put it simply: it’s clear Jill has been to therapy.
Though raised to be skeptical of therapists (described throughout her childhood as “someone you’re paying to be your friend”), Jill will be the first to tell you how much it’s helped her. Her notes app, she tells me, is full of things to bring up at their next meeting. “I feel like I am in a healthier place,” she says. “Through the love of Jesus and the support of my husband and therapy, I feel like I’ve been able to find my voice, find out more about who I am and when I see my worth and my value.”
While Jill remains a devout Christian, the trappings of her faith have changed. The Duggar children were raised under the influence of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a non-denominational, conservative Christian organization. For adherents, the Institute was synonymous with Bill Gothard, its disgraced founder. For mainstream culture, however, it was synonymous with the Duggars.
The IBLP’s various precepts include having large families, dressing modestly (especially women and girls), homeschooling, and a ritualized and chaste “courtship” over dating. But perhaps its most important commandment — never obscured but rarely discussed on the TLC shows — is a rigid hierarchy of authority known as the “Umbrella of Protection.” A father’s control over his family never ends, even after an adult child starts a family of their own. Step out from beneath that umbrella, adherents are taught, and terrible things not only could but would happen.
“I would say that IBLP definitely formed my guardrails and my thought process and made it easier for me to just go with the flow, subjecting myself to whatever system of authority I thought was what I was supposed to be under,” Jill says. “With the television show, I definitely saw the negative effect of that, where I felt like I had to put up with everything. Whenever things got rough, I felt like I had to pull myself up by the bootstraps and just keep on trudging.”
Jill says she never expected to have to trudge forever. Growing up, she always assumed that after marriage, she and her husband would have the autonomy to live their own lives. “But I think that [my family] honestly didn’t think that we would actually choose a different life,” she says. “It was kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s nice in theory, but when push comes to shove, we’re going to be able to either convince you or just make you fearful based on this IBLP ideology.’ As long as they could get us to believe that, then they could control.”
“I don’t think that they were that aware that’s what they were doing,” she continues. “They probably wouldn’t say it that bluntly, but when you boil it down, that’s what it means.”
Certainly, the realities of reality TV can make family life messy. But Jill doesn’t think that the cameras and the media circus surrounding her family created all of these issues; they only exacerbated matters. “The core problems were already there,” she says.
But these issues became worse in a particular way they might not have if the cameras hadn’t been rolling. After all, when the family is the product, milestones like new suitors, engagements, weddings, pregnancies, and births aren’t just happy occasions: they’re streams of revenue. And opting out of sharing that with the world not only diminishes income, but hurts the brand. And then there’s the added stress of the media machine that surrounds such public figures.
There was an obligation. An expectation that I do certain things based on that hierarchy of authority principal within IBLP, and this expectation that ‘We’re your parents, so if you love us, you have to do certain things.’
As Jill points out, not everyone is hounded by paparazzi. Not everyone has “some of the most painful challenges” of their life — not just abuse at the hands of her brother but the release of that information — turned into an interview with Megyn Kelly “with Josh watching from a couch just out of shot.” While she writes that she volunteered, without being asked, to sit for an interview in an attempt to save “Dad’s show,” it wasn’t born of a personal desire to speak out.
“I know that there was an obligation,” she says. “An expectation that I do certain things based on that hierarchy of the authority principal within IBLP, and this expectation that ‘We’re your parents, so if you love us, you have to do certain things.’”
And yet for all the frank discussion of the harms that resulted from an upbringing so focused on paternal authority, Jill writes and speaks with compassion and love for her parents and siblings, some of whom, she says, felt obligated to involve themselves in her disagreements with her father. Some might see it as wishy-washy, as a cravenly diplomatic way to write a tell-all without telling all. I see it as Jill’s acknowledgement that families are complicated. Not even 19 Kids and Counting is ever depicted as entirely awful or irredeemable.
“There are a lot of things that I love about my family and the way that I was raised,” she says, noting that she has “recycled” a lot of what her parents’ childrearing with her own sons. Her mother (whom she writes compellingly and with great affection) is still the first person she calls when she has a parenting question.
Jim Bob could easily have been written as the villain of this story. Many will certainly, and reasonably, see him that way. But it feels as though, at this point in her story, Jill sees him as more of an antagonist: what he wanted for his family was different from what Jill and Derick wanted for theirs, and he couldn’t reconcile with that. While Jill does not shy from acknowledging that her father was buying private planes while neither she nor her siblings were paid for the untold hours of content they produced for the various Duggar series, she also acknowledges a version of events where everyone, in their own, often deeply flawed way, is just trying to do what they think is best for everyone.
“I have a lot of grace for my siblings,” she says, “because I realized the ones that did try and get involved, they had the best intentions. They just want peace and harmony, and they want it to be resolved.”
Counting the Cost leaves Jill and Derick’s relationship with her father in a hopeful place: with Jim Bob coming to their home to meet his newborn grandson. But it’s clear from our conversation that there’s still work to do.
“My brother-in-law, Jeremy had a really good point: ‘You can’t expect the bully on the playground to change overnight, and what you’re asking here is to just send somebody back onto the playground with a bully.’ And while it’s nice in theory to say, ‘Hey, can’t we just all apologize and get along?,’ the behavior has to change before you’re just going to send a little girl back out on the playground with somebody who’s just going to do the same thing over again.”
Counting the Cost by Jill Duggar with Derick Dillard and Craig Borlase is available now wherever books are sold.