Last week, ten days after TPM published my investigative story about Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles, the controversial ministry to which the Duggar family belongs, Gawker took note of Gothard posting on his Facebook page for the first time in two years. “I am so thankful for the outpouring of thoughtfulness and support during the last 18 months as I have faced the greatest trials of my life,” he wrote.
It generated an avalanche of negative comments in response—many of which Gothard deleted, but not before Gawker took screen grabs—confronting Gothard over his mistreatment of his followers. “With my own eyes at HQ,” wrote one commenter, “I have seen you perpetuate and order emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, physical abuse, and cover sexual abuse. And yes, I have seen and experienced your sexual harassment as well.”
Read casually, the barrage of comments might evoke an image of a prototypical fundamentalist hypocrite found out by long-gullible followers. But that comment about the range of Gothard’s abuses was a mere snapshot of life in Gothard’s world, where sexual abuse was not merely tolerated, but excused as part of Gothard’s strict theology, which also taught that women and girls who dressed immodestly or failed to “cry out to God” to stop their rapist were equally guilty for their assault. People stayed because they knew no other world; they had grown up knowing nothing other than how Gothard was to be venerated as nearly divine, and where they were taught to believe that questioning him would provoke harsh divine punishment.
I first wrote about Gothard in 2011, after then-Rep. Alan Grayson, the Florida Democrat, ran an ad against his Republican opponent in the 2010 midterm, Rep. Daniel Webster, over his ties to the controversial evangelist. The notorious ad, “Taliban Dan,” hit Webster for his adherence to Gothard’s requirement that wives submit to their husbands.
At the time, I had a couple of sources who had seen IBLP and its homeschooling program, the Advanced Training Institute, from the inside. They grappled with how to explain it to me. It was, in short, both so totalizing and so isolating that one didn’t know where to begin; their lives had been so sequestered from the world that they lacked a frame of reference for shedding light on it for someone else. From my side, the volume of Gothard’s publications and videos was too overwhelming to fully comprehend, a sort of alternative universe that fully rejected everything about the secular world and even mainstream Christianity. After all, as one of my sources told me then, ATI families “basically ate, breathed, lived, and slept ATI and Mr. Gothard.”
Although Gothard declined an interview for my TPM story, I spoke with him for the 2011 piece by phone. During the interview, he contradicted his own writings, claiming that he does not teach that wives must submit to their husbands. He insisted that following his teachings will bring a person “success and health and happiness and joy.”
At the time, I didn’t know about the allegations that Gothard had sexually harassed female employees—the whistleblower site Recovering Grace wouldn’t make those public for another year. After I interviewed Gothard, he emailed me twice. In one email, Gothard, then 76, made a point of telling me he “made vows for personal purity, such as not kissing until I get married, and not improperly touching any girl.” In the other, he asked me to send him a copy of the interview because “I would love to have it as a remembrance of our talk together.”
That interview, and Gothard’s subsequent email missives, gave me a window into what my sources, four years later, would tell me they experienced. Yes, their stories included sexual harassment and “counseling” in which they were blamed for their own rapes. But there was more to the torment—the enduring feeling of being trapped, of being forced to study Gothard’s teachings, of not knowing even how to function once they managed to extricate themselves from ATI. “The mindset is still there, and it still haunts us,” Joy Stillwell Simmons, one of my sources who had been out of ATI for more than a decade, told me.
Still, even hours of interviews could hardly encompass what daily life was like for ATI students, who were taught to interpret Gothard’s unconventional teachings as the mark of a revolutionary new thinker showing them how to be perfectly obedient to God. “Mark,” the former follower who told me about how women were forced to clean the carpet on their hands and knees at an ATI training center, said he had barely scratched the surface of what he had seen and endured there.
After a source sent me PDFs of all of Gothard’s Wisdom Booklets—his homeschooling curriculum that Michelle Duggar is shown using on 19 Kids and Counting—I began to sense the scale and scope of what children homeschooled in ATI are taught. Imagine being taught everything—math, science, history, and more—through the prism of nearly 2,000 cornily illustrated pages applying Gothard’s interpretation of the Bible to every facet of life. The source who sent me the Wisdom Booklets wrote in an email that “even talking about ATI is incredibly difficult because it’s hard to translate the nuttiness for people who haven’t experienced it and because the sheer volume of crazy [is] immense.”
That’s part of the reason why the former ATI members feel like their stories haven’t been told—along with their fear of crossing Gothard or the organization, or, in their mind, disobeying God.
After the story ran, a reader wrote to me that his family had been in ATI for a decade and “is now in shambles.” ATI, he added, is “toxic and destructive.”
This reader has lived with his experience for nearly two decades. “I’ve been out since late 1997,” he wrote, “and am glad the truth about Gothard is finally getting out.”
Sarah Posner is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches. Her reporting and commentary on religion and politics has also appeared in the Atlantic, Al Jazeera America, Politico, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The Nation, and many other publications. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.