Why she stays…

TW: Sexual assault and the American evangelical movement

 I grew up in the cult the Duggars are in. I was in that cult throughout my childhood and early adulthood. Today I’m going to tell a story I’ve never told publicly in the hope that it will help you understand some of what might be happening with Josh Duggar’s wife Anna, and why she might be making some of the choices she’s making. Mostly I want to talk about why I believe her to be a victim even though it may not look like that from the outside and why this isn’t just a “cult” problem but why it’s an American evangelical church problem. Please know this is a 5 page blog of a 28 year long story. I want to talk about the lie of purity culture in the evangelical movement. I want to talk about why that lie grooms little girls to be women who diligently serve their abusive spouses and why those little girls and their future children are the true victims of evangelicalism and purity culture – not just a cult or sect. 

My family, though very deeply in the cult, was considered quite liberal. It’s laughable from any other perspective, but in the IBLP/ATI/Bill Gothard cult, we were liberals. I was allowed to wear pants, learn to drive, and work. I was also educated fully k-12 and completed a 4 year degree at a top tier school. Many of my peers lived in homes that followed the cult rules more literally and were not allowed these things because they were women. 

I was in a “courtship”, which is cult terms for an arranged marriage. It was abusive almost from the start. I have letters and diaries from that time. Reading them now, 20 years later, the abuse is evident and cannot be ignored. However, it was. As is normal in cult courtships, communication begin in letters and emails, all the letters were sent first to his father, then to my father, then to me. So that means that two grown men read these letters and approved them before sending them on to me. It was grooming. It was gaslighting. It was abusive. Quite frankly, reading them now is shocking and seems like it couldn’t possibly be real. 

The courtship officially lasted for about a year, but the intention was clear between the boy (we will call him “J”) and me since we were small children. Everyone in our church/cult was aware of the intention by the time we were 15. The courtship officially began when we were 17 – a typical age in the cult to be matched for marriage. Cult courtship is seductive. I loved J. I had been groomed by everyone for my entire life that he was God’s choice for me. He cheated on me for the first time before our courtship even began. He cheated on me regularly throughout the courtship. The courtship became sexually abusive when I was about 17 years old. We were starving for each other, starving for touch and togetherness. They don’t talk about that part – but if you go back and watch the episodes of Josh and Anna Duggar’s courtship you can see it so evidently. Anyone that has been in a courtship knows that feeling. It’s starvation. Your entire life’s grooming is to be a perfect wife. His entire life’s grooming is to be a total and complete leader. The cult starves us from each other in order to keep us “pure.” Courtships are always chaperoned. They tend to be very short because the emotional and physical starvation becomes too much. However, my courtship was not short. And our chaperones were siblings who were younger and knew that if they were lenient with us, we would be lenient with them when the time came. So, we were often not directly supervised but just had siblings nearby. J came to me one day, when I was 17 years old, and said if I did not fulfill his sexual needs it would cause him to view pornographic material and/or be with another girl who would fulfill those needs and therefore sin against God. My entire life I had been groomed to “protect my brother” with my modesty. Now I was promised to this boy who told me if I didn’t meet his sexual needs, I would be causing him to sin. When you question why Anna Duggar had 7 children with Josh while he was suspected/known to be abusing minors – remember that grooming. It is carefully crafted in us from the time we are tiny little girls. Please also remember the  near total isolation in which girls are raised. We knew next to nothing outside of “staying pure.” J was asking me for sexual things and I had no idea what the words and phrases even meant. I was 17 years old and had no idea what he was even asking for. Each time I tried to “protect my brother” with modesty and insisting we shouldn’t, he would tell me if I didn’t he would sin against God because it would drive him to pornography and/or other women who would fulfill those “needs” and it would be my fault. 

The courtship ended in one of the most traumatic experiences of my life when I was 18, the details of which are another story for another day. His father broke it off with my father, and I was considered “ruined,” very a la Jane Austin. I was labeled as no longer pure because I had a failed courtship and I left the cult shortly thereafter. He had very little to no repercussions. It was almost a decade later when I was sitting in therapy and my therapist asked me if I understood that I had been sexually abused, sexually assaulted, and forced against my will. It was a turning point for me. I absolutely was sexually abused, assaulted, and absolutely forced to preform sexual acts against my will. It took me a long time to be able to say that and understand why that was true.

Groomed consent is not consent. 

It was not quite 2 years later that I met my first husband. I was fresh out of the cult and now in what felt like the very liberal Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) and at Covenant College (a very conservative PCA school). Everything about my relationship with him felt freeing compared to a “courtship” and cult. But it wasn’t. It was just a more socially acceptable brand of purity culture. It was just a more socially normal presentation of grooming young women to become victims and have their children become victims of the church and men in the church. We will call my first husband T, although his name and relationship to me are a matter of public record, I don’t feel his identity is pertinent to this story. It’s my story and the story of many women like me. 

T and I dated for a little over 2 years. I went to my father and told him we needed to get married before graduation because we could not “remain pure” unless we got married. That was the primary reason for getting married. Not that we were ready, but that we felt it was God’s will for us to be together and in order to remain pure, we had to get married before we “sinned.” So, at 20 years old, we got engaged. We went to pre-marital counseling every single week for the full year of our engagement. The vast majority of pre-marital counseling was focused on maintaining our sexual purity and teaching him how to be a godly leader and teaching me how to be a godly and submissive wife. I did everything right. I went to every appointment. Met with every pastor. Met with all the elders. Read all the assigned books. Prayed hours and hours both alone and as a couple every single week for God’s blessings. I fasted, I prayed, I sought wisdom from the elders. I did everything right. After dating for over 2 years, we were both 21 and got married the summer between our junior and senior year of college.

Two weeks after walking down the aisle he hit me for the first time.

I did everything right. I left, got in the car, and drove straight to our pastors house. I showed up with massive bruising and was sobbing on the pastors doorstep. The pastors wife made me tea and the pastor went to find T. I was devastated. It came out of nowhere. We weren’t even in a fight. Two weeks into my marriage I began marriage counseling. I was encouraged to stay with him and go to counseling by the clergy. I went to marital counseling every single week for the next 5 years. In that 5 years, not one single Christian therapist (there were many), PCA Pastor (there were many), or PCA Elder (oh, so many!) ever told me to leave. They didn’t tell me to leave when he hit me the first time. Nor the second. They didn’t tell me to leave when he broke windows. Remote controls. Coffee tables. They didn’t tell me to leave when he stopped coming to the counseling appointments after the first few months. They didn’t tell me to leave when he stayed out all night and I couldn’t find him. They didn’t tell me to leave when I discovered the first affair. Or the second. His parents (both clergy) didn’t tell me to leave. I didn’t tell my parents or most of my friends – because I was told that when he repented, telling them would have jeopardized his relationship with them and the success of our marriage and his leadership. Let me be clear, I was not told this by one rogue pastor in a cult. I was told this by MANY therapists, pastors, and elders all within the mainstream faith of the Presbyterian Church of America. I was told this while T was actively serving as clergy himself. I was told this as I was actively serving as a clergy wife. So, I did everything right. I kept it a secret. I stayed. I prayed. I submitted. I trusted that God was faithful and would fulfill what he promised me. I listened to my mother-in-law and my father-in-law who told me this was God’s plan. This was God shaping and molding us into His perfect servants. He was teaching us something that “would give us a great ministry.” I did have the good sense to make sure I did not get pregnant. I also had the great privilege of having control of my reproduction. In the last year of our marriage I began to make a plan. I also had the great privilege of working outside the home and having an education and marketable skill. I made friends outside of the church and created a support system and an emergency fund. I still kept all the abuse a secret, but I made a plan. In a last-ditch effort, after almost 6 years, I begged T to go with me to see a secular marriage counselor with a PhD. It was the first secular professional we had seen. He agreed. Less than 30 minutes into our appointment this doctor, a man who’s name I don’t even remember, saved me. He looked straight at me and asked me why in the world I was still there. He told me to leave. He told me to save myself. And at 28 years old, that’s exactly what I did. It was the first time in all those years of abuse that anyone had ever given me permission to leave. Ever. 

That was 10 years ago. T is remarried and so am I. I never received any kind of repentance or apology from him. His family is still in the clergy. All his groomsmen in his 2nd wedding knew the truth of the abuse and our marriage and were present throughout and saw my bruises, helped repair broken windows, and were his “accountability partners” throughout our marriage. He is still actively involved in the PCA. I left the faith in 2013.

For me, what I personally realized is that the mainstream conservative evangelical church was honestly not very different at all from the cult. This is not the time or place for any “not all Christians” argument. Hush. Listen. For once, just listen.

Purity culture did not ruin my life, but it robbed me of my first 28 years. It made me a sexually abused, physically abused, and emotionally abused woman – all within the context of a godly marriage where I followed all the rules. All under the complete knowledge and disclosure of the pastors and elders.

My story is not unique. The only unique thing about my story is that I’m telling it.

We are everywhere. Children of the fundamental Christian movement. Abused adults of evangelicalism. Survivors of purity culture. I do not know Anna Duggar, but she’s not so different than me. The main differences are that I had the privilege of money, status, education, and control over my own womb. Anna has none of those things. Anna Duggar is impoverished, has very little to no education, has no status, and no control over her own womb.

Remember, this is a 28 year long story told in 5 pages of a blog post. It is not my whole story. It is meant to be an example of how purity culture and the fundamental and evangelical movement of Christianity is creating abused women and abused children. It is an example of how American evangelicalism is a machine of abuse and supporters of abusers. Please do not look at the Duggars and think, “Oh, look at those crazy cult people.” No. No, my friends. Look at the Duggars and realize they are your church. Your youth group curriculums. Your evangelical counselors, pastors, and elders. Yes, the IBLP/ATI/Bill Gothard cult is a very organized and outspoken sect – but do not be fooled – they are evangelical. There are members in your church, your friend’s church, your parents’ church, and the church on the corner. The Duggars are not outliers. They are not rare. Anna Duggar and her children are absolutely victims of Josh Duggar, but they are much more so the victims of the evangelical Christian movement of purity culture. And that, American Churchgoer, is you.

I am comfortable and able to answer your questions if you have them. I have a brave and wonderful support system and a great therapist.

Published by abigailwitthauer

Lover of animal behavior, impassioned for social justice, demander of service dog reform. Please bring wine and cheese.

5 thoughts on “Why she stays…

  1. Thank you for your unflinchingly courageous words. It will take a few more readings for me to take in your words and be able to reflect on the many layers here.

    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS

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  2. Thank you for sharing your story, it resonated so much with me. I agree about the correlation and see that now. Even after leaving the church those remnants of purity culture wreaked havoc on my life. I also stayed in an abusive relationship because I was doing all the things I was trained to do, even though we were non religious it was there. I only recently realized how that impacted my current relationship with pleasure. Those concepts continue well past ATIA from my parents, from the more liberal church, and the judgement of those around me. Thank you for your openness, I imagine it would be very difficult and raw to open yourself up like that. Reading stories of those who were impacted similarly to me both in IBLP/ATIA and in other evangelical branches aids in my deconstruction and healing. Thank you so much.

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    1. Thank you for reaching out. I’m so sorry for the pain you have suffered. I encourage you to write down your story, even if you don’t share it. Sharing it has been incredibly cathartic for me. There is that weird sense that my entire world changed when I decided to share it and very few people noticed. I appreciate your comment so much.

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