The Duggar Clan and the Difference Between Nice and Good [UPDATED]

But he drew me close

And he swallowed me down,

Down a dark, slimy path

Where lie secrets I never want to know.

–Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

Allow me to digress, Fickle Readers, from my usual panoply of zany Shakespeare banter and bitter rantings about illness and the writing life. Stories like this one, about how Josh Duggar sexually molested five girls, four of whom were his sisters, tend to spring up in my backwater domain (all too often these days). Such stories fester in my mind, maybe because I have this overwhelming urge to rewrite them, or at least make sure they end the way I want them to.

The Duggar clan have long been on my radar of People to Investigate and Be Horrified at. You may know the Duggars best as the stars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, although there were many one-off specials about the family in their somewhat less-plentiful incarnations. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, the parents of the household, are part of the Quiverfull movement, a fundamentalist Christian sect that believes in having as many babies as possible for the glory of God and also in imposing their religious practices on everyone within reach. The Quiverfull people are isolationist and homeschool their kids, but apparently not so isolationist that they can’t try to influence American politics. Jim Bob was an Arkansas congressman from 1999 to 2002, and until yesterday Josh Duggar–the oldest of the Duggar children–was a member of the Family Research Council, a prominent lobbying organization that works against rights for gay and transgendered people and often claims that LGBT people are child molesters.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

But I’m not here to discuss how vile the whole situation is, or how revolting it is that people who claim to love children allowed their fourteen-year-old son to live with the four daughters he violated (and there were only five daughters, between twelve and eight years old, at the time this happened) after they sent their son for a three-month stay with a family friend who rehabs houses. (According to the police report, Jim Bob claimed that this was “Christian counseling.”)

Instead, I’d like to talk about the term “nice.”

It seems to me that we need to redefine the word nice to reflect what the word really describes. Most of the time, being nice is equated with being good. It is not. Nice is a way of behaving, a way of appearing, a way of putting the people you meet at ease with you and with their environment. Nice is a mask you wear in public. It’s a way of smiling and dressing, wearing your hair, explaining the mundane details of your life.

None of these things has any bearing on the private morality or behavior of nice people. Case in point: the Duggars. Even in the early TLC specials, which my husband and I watched like rubberneckers on a highway, I was incensed at how these so-called loving parents treated their daughters like slaves. One or two of these tiny girls would be tasked with cooking for the entire household, while the older ones cared for the babies their mother produced every six months. The girls’ chores were cooking, cleaning, washing the clothes, while the boys of the household did one-off tasks, like taking out the trash. And the bright, shining star of the brood was the oldest son, Josh, who narrated the details of his family’s wonderful life with a self-satisfied smirk.

So these parents who push their daughters like workhorses while their sons have real childhoods get money, houses, TV appearances, while other large families around the country struggle to make ends meet. Why? Because the Duggars are Nice. I even had a family friend, whom I love dearly and respect, rave to me about how nice and down-to-earth Michelle Duggar was. But does Nice entitle this family to all the care, attention, and the support they’ve gotten over the years? Should they be praised for being Nice?

I think we all know the answer to that. The Duggars may be nice, but they’re neither good nor righteous nor godly. The revelation that Josh Duggar had been molesting girls came in 2002, right at the end of Jim Bob’s term as congressman. He waited a year to tell his church, and the church members waited several months more to report it to the police. Apparently, they knew just the right policeman to report this information to–one that let Josh off with a “stern talking to”–because no charges were filed then, and now that same police officer is serving 56 years in prison for child pornography. The investigation that produced the police report now circulating on the internet only occurred because an anonymous whistle-blower emailed Oprah about the situation in 2006, right before the Duggars were going to appear on her show. The year 2006 was also when the Duggars moved into their giant house built for them by TLC. Recently, when the Washington Post sent a FOIA request to get the police report published first by InTouch, they received a notice that one of the victims had requested that the report be destroyed–on the same day the Post sent their request.

Notice a pattern here? The Duggars may be Nice, but they’re not about morality or Christian love. They’re all about power.

Nice is a functional behavior in society, but don’t be fooled. Nice is never a synonym for good.

UPDATE: Wouldn’t you know Stephen Sondheim got to the moral of my post before I did? Alert readers on Facebook noticed the resemblance between my last line and some lyrics from Into the Woods:

And though scary is exciting,

Nice is different from good.

The speaker is Little Red Riding Hood, describing her dark epiphany in “I Know Things Now.” I could point out the similar conclusions Red Riding Hood draws about being careful around Nice people, or the association of predatory urges with a “nice” facade. But I think I’ll let you Fickle Readers out there make your own judgments.

One thing I will say: I never thought the Duggars were particularly exciting, but they were scary to me. Maybe that’s why I tuned in to their shows. (Thankfully, however, it looks like I won’t be tempted to tune in anymore.)

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