Escape from Duggarville: How playing the good Christian housewife almost killed me
Vyckie Garrison was once a minor celebrity in the Quiverfull Movement, made famous by TV’s Duggar family. As a devout, Bible-believing Christian and the mother of seven homeschooled children, Garrison spent 16 years, with her husband, publishing a newspaper for families on a similar path. Today, via a website called No Longer Quivering, she publishes resources for women leaving the movement. Recently she addressed American Atheists about her experience. This article is an abridged version of her remarks.
Whenever I talk about my escape from the Quiverfull movement, Christians immediately dismiss my experience by saying, “Your problem was not with Jesus or Christianity. Your problem was that you were following an extreme, legalistic cult. Let me tell you about my personal relationship with Jesus.” It can be extremely frustrating. I was in a close, personal relationship with Jesus for over 25 years. But rather than telling you about the beginning of my relationship with this man, I am going to spare you the long story and skip straight to the break up.
The end of my life as a “Bride of Christ” came after a visit to Bright Horizons, which is the local domestic violence shelter in my hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. I went there for help in filing a restraining order against my husband, whose emotional and mental abuse against me and my children had escalated to the point that I was in the midst of a complete mental and physical breakdown. He had taken 6 of our 7 children to a town three hours from our home and was preventing me from having any contact with them unless I agreed to his terms for our “reconciliation.”
At the women’s shelter, I was given a form to complete … I wrote three pages describing the situation in our home, and after reading what I had written, the crisis volunteer said to me, “The judge will not grant you a protection order unless you actually accuse your husband of abuse.”
I told her that I didn’t really think my husband was “technically” abusive, and in fact, I had no doubt that he truly loved me and the kids. He always put us first … he basically centered his entire life around us! We were a good Christian family. The Bible commands husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the church.” That’s the sort of godly man I was married to: a true patriarch who ruled his home according to God’s principles for marriage and family.
We had studied the Bible carefully, and knew so much about “Biblical Family Values,” that we felt qualified to teach others via our “Pro-life, Pro-family” Christian newspaper, The Nebraska Family Times. In 2003, we were named “Nebraska Family of the Year” by the Nebraska Family Council … and this was in recognition of our work to help get DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) passed in Nebraska. That’s not something that I’m at all proud of these days, but at the time, being named “Family of the Year” was enough to convince me that we were on the right track so far as marriage and family goes. I had become somewhat of a leader in what is now called “the Quiverfull movement” – Christian fundamentalist families who are dedicated to actually living out the biblical model for marriage and family in their daily lives.
Probably the most recognizable and influential Quiverfull family in America is reality TV’s Duggar Family of “Way Too Many and Counting” fame. But unlike fundamentalist Mormons who tend to congregate in just a few places in Utah, Arizona, Texas, etc., you will find Quiverfull families in nearly all types of churches in every community. This is because Quiverfull is not a denomination, with a creed to sign and a church to join. And it’s not technically a cult in the strict sense of having one central leader … instead, Quiverfull is a mindset (a very powerful head trip) in which each family becomes a cult unto itself with Daddy enshrined as the supreme Patriarch.
Based on a literalist interpretation of Psalm 127, Quiverfull families eschew all forms of birth control. They have a high regard for the patriarchal family structure found in the Old Testament which emphasizes hierarchy, authority, and strict gender roles for men, women, boys, and girls.
The reason you can find Quiverfull families in nearly every type of Christian congregation is because Quiverfull beliefs are not actually a radical departure from traditional Christian teachings regarding marriage and family. It is my contention that Quiverfull IS regular Christianity writ large … lived out to its logical conclusion.
As Quiverull believers, my husband and I proudly embraced the ideal of biblical headship and submission. We believed, as the Bible teaches, that it is the man who is ultimately responsible for the spiritual well-being of his wife and children, and who must one day stand before his Maker and give an account. My husband understood this, and he took it very seriously … which is why he tried SO hard to be a loving, godly patriarch.
“So,” the woman at the domestic violence shelter asked me, “if he’s such a great, loving husband and father, what are you doing here? Why do you need a protection order?”
I tried to explain that, for some reason, despite how hard we were both trying to live according to Christian principles, our home had become an oppressive, miserable place in which none of us were happy, and it felt like we were all losing our minds. The problem was, everything I knew about relationships had been so completely redefined by Christian teachings that I did not have the language to name the abuse.
So I went to therapy. One of the first things Deb, my counselor, showed me was a “Power and Control Wheel” which is a tool for helping abuse victims identify ways in which they are being manipulated, exploited, mistreated and enslaved.
As Deb went over each aspect of the Power & Control wheel, I began to realize that, yes, of course, all of these elements were present in my marriage … it’s just that we had different names for these things … we had chapter and verse to teach us that power and control is actually good and godly. We called it “Agape Love” – it’s the kind of love which God has for His creation …this was the relationship we were supposed to use as our model between husband and wife.
For instance: the signs of emotional abuse include put downs, shaming, and guilt-tripping. Well, this is something my husband would never do … there really was no need since I was already fully aware of my inherently sinful nature, my “desperately wicked heart,” … He didn’t need to remind me that even my very best efforts were like filthy rags in comparison to God’s holiness.
Plus, I knew that as a woman, I was particularly susceptible to deception by Satan. How many times, when we were discussing an important decision, had my husband said to me, “What you are suggesting SOUNDS reasonable, but how do I know that Satan isn’t using you to deceive me?”
Well, according to the Bible, it was very likely that Satan WAS using me “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through child-bearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:14-15… As a good Christian woman, the last thing I wanted was to be accused of having a “Jezebel Spirit”!! Jezebel is the bossy, bold and dominating woman, who ‘wears the pants’ in the family, and in the Bible account, things ended badly for her: “’Throw her down’Jehu said. So they threw her down and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot.” (2 Kings 9:33)
Intimidation creates fear … but how can fear be a bad thing when, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?” Was I afraid of my husband? Not in a physical sense, but I was always hesitant to contradict or “disrespect” him because God had placed him in authority over me, and God-given authorities can be considered “umbrellas of protection.”
Patriarchy is God’s umbrella of protection. By honoring and submitting to their husbands, wives receive the privileges of their spiritual protection. If a wife resists her husband’s instructions, she forfeits her place under his protection – not just for herself, but for also for her children.
My husband didn’t intentionally isolate me and the children … it just kind of happened as a logical progression of our decision to live radically for Jesus. First, I dropped out of college and quit my job in order to be a “keeper at home” as the Bible commands. Then we cut out all meaningful associations with unbelievers, and most of our extended family who didn’t share our dedication to righteous living.
We taught our kids at home to protect them from the evil influence of godless humanism which we believed was the religion taught in the “government schools.” We eventually got to the point where we were so “biblical” that we felt the local Independent Fundamental Baptist church in our town was too liberal, too compromising … so we began homechurching with a couple of “like-minded” families who also were leaving their family planning up to God and homeschooling their many children.
Minimizing, denying, and blaming … this one was obvious to me, because IN LIGHT OF ETERNITY, whatever suffering or adversity I might encounter as a result of our commitment to live according to biblical principles were merely “light and momentary afflictions.” Sure there were times when submitting to my husband’s decisions was a hassle, and yes, the pregnancies nearly killed me every time, BUT … who was I to complain, considering everything that Jesus had done for me? If I thought “almost” dying was bad, just imagine how horrible it was for Jesus, who actually died!! Motherhood was my mission field. Missionaries often risk their lives in order to spread the Gospel. And just like the missionaries, if I died in childbirth, in Heaven, I would wear a Martyr’s Crown.
“Using children” didn’t really ring true to me. Everyone knows “Jesus love the little children” and the whole reason we were knocking ourselves out to follow the biblical model for marriage and family was in order to create a safe, loving home for our children, so no … I told Deb, “Using children? I don’t think that one really applies.”
… oh, except the part where using any form of birth control was tantamount to playing God, so I was kept perpetually pregnant or nursing, or both for more than 11 years. That verse in Psalm 127 says, “Blessed is the MAN who has his quiver full of them” … and it goes on to say,”he shall not be ashamed, but will speak with the enemies in the gates.” We were taught that in Bible times, the city gate was the place where male leaders made decisions regarding local government.
So this was about political domination. The whole point of having a quiver full of babies is to … out-populate the “enemy,” … that would be all of you; and to shoot those many arrows “straight into the heart of the enemy.” And by that, we meant that our children would grow up to be leaders in all the major institutions of our society. This was our plan for taking back America for God. So the children were like arrows (which is the ammunition) in God’s holy war. So, yeah … “using children” … definitely put a great big checkmark by that one.
Oh … and for those who are curious, but too polite to ask what it is like for these Quiverfull wives who are breeding like rabbits, I have a little story for you. A guy bunny meets a lady bunny in the field, and he says to her, “This won’t take long, did it?” (My kids hate it when I tell that joke. They say that it’s TMI.)
I wouldn’t say that my husband used male privilege to control and dominate me and the kids. Male privilege was his rightful position. As Paul says in the book of 1 Corinthians, “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. And man was not created for woman, but woman for man.
Biblical marriage is supposed to be a living portrait of the relationship between Jesus and the church, the “Bride of Christ.” Jesus has all power, all authority which is given to him by HIS Father (the same way power and authority are given by God to earthly fathers).
… So even though I’d heard that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I couldn’t believe that God-ordained authority could be abused because “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for a friend.” Jesus had that perfect love … He was a “servant-leader” …. and husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, right?
We believed that while men were “privileged” with greater authority, they also were burdened with ultimate responsibility … so a woman’s absolute dependence was really more of a hardship for the man than for the ones over whom he held God-ordained dominion.
Economic abuse? Well sure, money was always tight, but hey, finances were no picnic for my husband either, and besides, we had these promises …
My God will supply all my needs,” and “I have never seen a righteous man forsaken or his children begging for bread” … It was really just a matter of trust, plus careful money management.
God always provided for us financially … like the time He led me to deliver my 5th baby at home with just a midwife …. never mind that homebirth was insanely risky considering the health issues which led to my first four babies being delivered by c-section … the baby and I both survived … and we saved a ton of money.
What could possibly make more sense than God’s financial plan?
Coercion and threats … “No,” I told Deb, “he never threatened me.” I *willinging* went along with all the harsh demands of the Quiverfull lifestyle, and in many instances, I was the one who pushed patriarchy and headship ON HIM. Why would I do that?
Because I believed our family had an ENEMY who was determined to steal, kill, and destroy our souls, and the souls of our children, for all eternity! Our only protection from spiritual disaster, was within that one little secret spot of safety which Corrie ten Boom called, “The Hiding Place.” “The Hiding Place” isn’t any physical location … instead, it is a very specific, very narrow position … directly in the center of God’s will. There, and only there, we could safely trust in God’s protection.
He never had to raise his voice to keep me and the children in our place. And when he did raise his voice, well that was “speaking the truth in love.” When he constantly criticized and complained about all the ways in which the children and I failed to live up to God’s perfect standards, he was “hating the sin, but loving the sinner.” He didn’t have to brandish a weapon in order to control our every action, indeed even our thoughts and feelings. All he had to do was fulfill his God-appointed role of Patriarch; to love us as Christ loves the church.
After going through all the points on the Power and Control wheel, I was ready to admit that, yes, I was in an abusive relationship. I told my counselor, “I want out!”
Deb said me, “You have to protect yourself and your children! You need to divorce this man!”
She was talking about my husband, and I was thinking, “Well, yeah … him, too.”
I did file for divorce and rescue myself and my kids from the tyranny of patriarchy. But for me, the primary break up was with Jesus. You see, being in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is a set up for dysfunctional game-playing and crazy-making head trips. According to Christianity, Jesus subjected himself to torture and death, so that we could have the “free gift” of eternal life … and by “free,” he means, it’s only going to cost you everything you have and everything you are.
When the very definition of perfect love is sacrificing your children and martyring yourself, there is no place for emotionally healthy concepts like boundaries, consent, equality, and mutuality. I could not say that my husband’s patriarchal behavior was abusive so long as I was committed to a relationship with “The Big Guy” who exemplifies the abusive bully, and who commands his followers to imitate His very warped and twisted idea of “love.”
I started a blog, No Longer Quivering, as a way to process my Quiverfull life and try to understand how I’d come to embrace such a fanatical lifestyle. The response was surprisingly phenomenal and over time, NLQ has grown to into something like a movement of women escaping and healing from spiritual abuse. There are now dozens of former fundamentalist women (and a few men) who are sharing their stories, and many of the kids who were raised in these homes have started their own blogs, including Libby Anne, who runs the amazing, Love, Joy, Feminism site on Patheos. Getting out is extremely hard. Leaving an abusive relationship is challenge enough, and when you have half a dozen or more kids, no marketable job skills … BUT, Quiverfull women are already used to doing the impossible, so when it comes to rescuing themselves and their children, “extremely hard” feels like a relief!
[Editor’s note: Vyckie doesn’t say so, but in contrast to publishing resources for Quiverfull families, publishing for women in recovery doesn’t pay. Some of the women at No Longer Quivering recently launched a fundraiser to keep Vyckie from losing her house.]
Some Quiverfull kids are making the break, too. Growing up in a Quiverfull home means being raised by a narcissistic father and having a mother with a huge martyr complex. The kids are treated as property to be hoarded. They are isolated, coerced and manipulated, abused and deprived socially and educationally. As surrogate moms, the older daughters bear the brunt of the work: cleaning, cooking … even homeschooling and disciplining their younger siblings when the Quiverfull mothers become too worn down and burned out from perpetual pregnancy and trying to keep up with this unsustainable lifestyle.
When they finally encounter the “real world,” these kids are pissed. They feel ripped off … and rightfully so. The backlash is awesome to witness as they’ve channeled their anger into activism and begun to fight back with their own websites such as Homeschoolers Anonymous and Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. All of these sites are linked at No Longer Quivering and I encourage you to check them out.