It's easy to dismiss the Duggars as being a big, eccentric reality TV family with some pretty strict views on purity and marriage, but what many people don't know are the ties the family has to a controversial ministry. The Duggars are followers of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a non-denominational religious organization that former members have flat-out called "a cult." IBLP's founder, Bill Gothard, was even accused of sexual assault back in 2014, but that still hasn't stopped the Duggars from speaking at his yearly conferences, igniting new interest in Bill's teachings that, for former followers of IBLP, is downright scary.
Although the Duggars portray a picture-perfect image of family togetherness in public, survivors who were raised in the same ministry as the TV family say the reality is a lot less wholesome. In order to truly understand, we reached out to former followers of IBLP/ATI to share their experiences and discuss how harmful its teachings are, and get their advice on what they'd say to the women of the Duggar family. Their stories vary, but all of them have one thing in common: that Gothard's teachings have had a deeply negative effect on their upbringings.
Growing up, writer Micah J. Murray's childhood was typical of most homeschooling Christian families. When his family officially joined ATI in the early '90s, not much changed. "Conservative homeschooler culture was just our normal way of life, with all the rules that come with that," Micah told In Touch Weekly in an email. However, it wasn't until he was older that he started to see the harms of ATI's teachings, particularly with how it oppressed both women and men. "Young men in patriarchal cults such as IBLP are heaped with a tremendous weight of responsibility that was never ours to bear," he said. "Instead of preparing me to be a collaborative partner with my future wife, the teachings of IBLP weighed me down with the false belief that I had to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, alone."
Below is Micah's story, which we condensed into the major points below:
ATI taught things like "white bread is a sin" and other ideas that he now realizes were crazy.
Micah described his strict upbringing as just a "normal way of life" for families affiliated with IBLP. He wasn't allowed to watch TV or movies, couldn't listen to music with a beat, and was isolated from anything mainstream or worldly. However, it wasn't until he was an older, skeptical adult that he realized how harmful the rules and ideas he followed were and how badly it affected him growing up.
Micah as a teen at an ATI training center.
"There are the big things, the overarching ideas which f–ked my soul in really fundamental ways," he said. "[Ideas such as] you are not inherently good just the way you are, you deserve punishment instead of love, you have to do certain things in certain ways to earn the blessing and approval of God, if you are lonely or sad or sick or unhappy it is your fault because you did something wrong, if you are unsatisfied it is because you aren’t trying hard enough, if anyone outside the system questions us it’s because they just are not as enlightened as we are, we understand God and the universe better than regular people, we are special, we are going to change the world."
But it didn't stop there. ATI also taught many bizarre things that he would later realize were completely ridiculous. "Then there are all the silly wacky things they taught that were also super f–ked up in their own ways," he explained. "The devil is trying to sneak into your house through Cabbage Patch dolls and Trolls and My Little Pony; white bread is basically a sin and God wants you to eat whole wheat bread instead; the rock beat in music is inherently evil and will make you want to have sex (and will also kill houseplants); the ritual purity laws in the Old Testament are the key to a good sex life and fertile offspring; if God hasn’t answered your prayers it’s because you haven’t yelled audibly at God, etc."
He went through the courtship process when he was 21.
In ATI, dating was forbidden, and even having a crush or admitting to liking someone was against the rules. "I spent most of my teen years trying to repress my very normal attraction to women," he said. "I referred to it in my journals as a 'monster', some sort of evil thing that I had to destroy or else it would destroy me. I knew that I wasn’t allowed to be in love until I had my parents’ permission, and I wasn’t allowed to tell a girl that I was interested in her until I had her parents’ permission and was prepared to marry her."
In ATI circles, young people don't date, they "court," which means dating with the intention to get married. For Micah, he got his parents' permission to court a girl when he was 21. He followed all the necessary rules, got the girl's parents' permission, and even waited until his wedding day to have his first kiss. But the marriage didn't last. "As it turns out, the whole framework of courtship isn’t a great foundation for a healthy relationship," he said. "We were divorced before our sixth anniversary."
"It was a terrible place to be a 19-year-old."
After graduating from high school, Micah enthusiastically joined an ATI training center, working at several locations throughout the country. "At first I really liked the training centers because I got to be around other people a lot and felt a sense of purpose and belonging," he said. "But as time went on, I felt the walls closing in and my soul being suffocated." The longer he stayed there, he started to fall into a deep depression as he felt exhausted by the environment and the strict rules. He had a 9 p.m. curfew, wasn't allowed to wear jeans or T-shirts, couldn't speak to anyone of the opposite sex, and had to do mandatory fasting on Sundays. "The culture there was one of non-stop religious performance — always trying to do more for God and be more perfect," he said. "It was a terrible place to be a 19-year-old."
While there, he also witnessed things he would later realize were totally inappropriate. "None of us knew at the time about the allegations of sexual impropriety by Bill Gothard that would be forthcoming, but we saw the girls who he’s picked out as his favorites," he said. "We all knew he had a type, and we knew that he gave extra attention to those girls — promising them special roles in his various programs and outreaches."
After being at the centers for two years, he started feeling jaded about ATI. "During my time there, I saw up close that it was a system of extreme authoritarianism, and I began to question the fundamentalist approach to Christianity that was pervasive everywhere I went," he said. "I started to feel the cognitive dissonance between what we were taught and what Jesus had said."
After leaving ATI, he spent years trying to "deprogram" its teachings.
Many former followers have opened up about the psychological repercussions they dealt with after leaving ATI, and for Micah, it was no different. "Everything about ATI and IBLP is detrimental to healthy childhood development, mental well-being, and a generally stable sense of self," he explained. "It immerses you in perpetual shame, fear, and anxiety. It presents a version of God that is distant and demanding. It breeds codependency, depression, and attachment disorders."
He watched IBLP leave a negative, lasting effect on his peers, too. "Too often, a system like that just leaves people trapped in destructive patterns of self-defeating habits and unhealthy relationships, even years after they have left the program," he said. "I have spent many years (and thousands of dollars) on therapy trying to deprogram and undo all the negative patterns and ideas that were lodged in my head because of the teachings of IBLP and my time in the training centers. I’m in a pretty good place now, but I’ve gone through some really painful and difficult years to get here."
In 1990, Marcela Metlich was pulled out of private school after her parents met an IBLP-affiliated American missionary family who got them interested in homeschooling. "My parents were the first Mexican homeschooling family in Mexico," she told In Touch Weekly in an email. Her parents, both medical doctors, thought homeschooling was a way to provide better education and be able to travel more. But once they joined ATI officially, everything changed. "Rather than wanting a better education, it all shifted to being 'sheltered' from this world," she said.
Isolation was just the first effect of ATI, and it quickly spiraled from there.
Every ex-ATI follower had to endure a long list of strict rules enforced by their parents, and Marcela's story was no different. She wasn't allowed to watch TV, socialize with anyone outside the home or church, and had a strict dress code. "The only sport I was actually allowed to do was swimming, but I had to go to the state's public swimming pool with a loose (clown costume type) long swimming suit that covered me from the neck to the ankle," she said. "You can imagine as I swam, that full slap of cloth swimming around me. I was never allowed to compete."
Although Marcela admits that the rules seem ridiculous now, at the time she didn't realize how strict and sometimes even "borderline abusive" they were. For example, growing up it was her job to wash her younger sibling's cloth diapers once a week. She had to wash them in a toilet with no gloves, and she wasn't allowed to flush the toilet until she was done.
"You can imagine the smell of my twin siblings' diapers," she said. "I thought that was perfectly normal, though I hated doing it. Until some years ago when I mentioned this to my extended family (which I was never allowed to talk to when I was a kid) they looked at me with such a strange look and said, 'Don't you realize they were your mom's children, not yours, and that you were not the one that decided to use cloth diapers?' No, I was 36 and had not realized until then."
The tragic death of her daughter made her realize how harmful ATI was.
Growing up, Marcela had to deal with many damaging things that were taught to her through ATI. One of them was the "umbrella of protection," which claimed parents had complete authority over their children. But for Marcela, having to blindly follow her mother's orders, who she described as a "narcissist" who enjoyed controlling people, led to her feeling uncertain over her own actions. "I had such a strong fear of doing something that my parents did not wish me to do," she said. "I lived reasking myself and reevaluating everything I did all my life." This blind obedience led to a tragic consequence.
Ten years after she left ATI, she gave birth to a baby girl. While taking care of the newborn, she listened to her mother's unhelpful advice on how to take care of the infant, from ignoring the baby for the whole night (because she'd grow up to be uncontrollable and disobedient) to not using a pacifier (because she would be used to addictions). "I did everything you are not supposed to do, but following my mother's wishes, I did it," she said. "[When] she died, my world tumbled over. She was my only girl."
It was through this experience that Marcela realized how harmful ATI was. "That is the most damaging idea," she said. "That your parents are somehow God in this Earth and that God will backup everything they say just because they are your parents, and if you dare do something different all kinds of evil will fall on you."
After leaving ATI, she continued having nightmares about the abuses.
When Marcela was 25, she got married and left ATI for good after a "nightmarish" courtship process. "I realized that was not what I wanted for my children," she said. But after leaving, she continued feeling shame and guilt for years, leading to her having nightmares about her mother and the abuses she endured. "Many times I had my legs purple from spankings, all the way from my waist to behind my knees, because of a misunderstood answer," she said. "Such as, 'When will you finish cleaning the drapes?" and me answering, 'I don't know.'"
However, the hardest part about adjusting after ATI had been the realization that her whole belief system just wasn't true. "I had always believed my life would be good because I had done EVERYTHING right," she said. "I was extremely careful to do everything as I was supposed to, tithing my time to God, reading the Bible and praying, meditating, preaching, volunteering in hospitals, having an orphanage, not watching TV, reading worldly books, or hearing wrong music, dressing super modest and the longest set of family rules, which were surely 'God's' rules."
Although these days Marcela is doing better, she still wishes there was more awareness over the suffering of ATI kids. "I just wished someone from the outside world would have seen what we endured and would have told us children that THAT was not normal," she said. "That was abuse."
Tiffany Lewis' experience is a lot different than other former ATI followers. Her parents prioritized education, didn't force her to abide by draconian rules like 24-hour skirt-wearing, and were determined to raise strong daughters instead of doormats. But despite how loving and modern her family was, even they couldn't outrun the trappings of ATI. "Not being able to express frustration, to always be cheerful — that affected me a lot well into my adulthood," she told us. "It took me a long time to find emotion again." Below is her story, which we condensed into the parts below:
ATI "wasn’t close to any sort of education."
Tiffany's family first officially joined ATI when she was 14. ATI is a homeschooling educational curriculum that most IBLP followers use. There's a yearly fee that involves "wisdom booklets" where students can learn Biblical lessons alongside subjects like science and history. However, when her parents started her on the books, she was skeptical of the material. "I just didn’t agree with a lot of the conclusions they were coming to," she said, referring to the quizzes that would appear on the front page of every booklet. "And you know they would cherry-pick verses. My mom and I would go round and round and round for years about these stupid things." Because her parents were "super fastidious about academics," she managed to make the most of her homeschooling education despite the questionable curriculum of the wisdom books. "They were probably like a 45-page, almost like a magazine format," she said. "It wasn’t close to any sort of education if that was all you did."
She witnessed brainwashing methods while attending a training center.
When she was 17, she attended a program at the Indianapolis Training Center to learn about counseling and tutoring. However, while she was there she ended up learning a completely different set of skills. "I learned a lot about psychology while I was there," she said. "They know about it because they’re using it to brainwash you.” One particular moment that stood out to her was when all the kids in the center, hundreds of them, were forced to line up at the phones, call their parents, and confess everything "bad" they had ever done. "If you snuck watching TV, if you listened to a rock song on your walkman. All this stupid, petty stuff," she said. "My parents would have never required us to do that ever."
While in EXCEL, she witnessed even more strange things she didn't agree with.
While attending EXCEL, a program for women in their teens, she found herself disagreeing with things she was taught. When morning exercise was suddenly abolished at one of her classes, staff members had the craziest reason why. "[They told us] if women did aerobics their parts would fall out of their uterus," she said. "That’s what they told us. Now, I was old enough at that point that I knew that was stupid."
In addition to rules like "never looking men in the eye," they were also taught that adoption was wrong. "Because the sins of the father follow that child, and you don’t know what they are," she explained. "That very much flew in the face of my family’s values. My favorite aunt was adopted, and my grandma did foster care for years and years… So that was something my dad specifically said, ‘No that is not what we believe,’ and stood up for.”
ATI's influence ended up costing her a college education.
In ATI, students are taught that, after high school, they don't need degrees because they'll "lose their faith" in college. This lesson ended up affecting Tiffany the most. "I was in the top one percent of the nation on SATs, and I didn’t get to go to college because of that," she said. "And I was OK with that… We were convinced through ATI that we didn’t need to go to college." However, ATI's push for classes and apprenticeships in place of real education left its effects on many young people, many of which Tiffany encountered while attending programs. "I was stunned to see people who couldn’t read really," she said.
Bill Gothard flat-out told her friend she was "too overweight" to work at headquarters.
Within IBLP circles, working at headquarters is considered a "rite of passage" and "an honor." So when Tiffany's friend, who she met in EXCEL, expressed a desire to work there, Bill's staff told her she was too overweight to come and that her appearance wouldn't be "a good example" for the others. "That really hit a chord with me and really made me angry," Tiffany said. “I’ll stand up for anyone…so that ruffled my feathers and made me very protective and just, ‘How dare they.’"
ATI would cover up abuses.
While in EXCEL, Tiffany witnessed many alarming situations that were brushed aside by ATI staff members, from a girl being told she "deserved" being beaten by her father to a woman who was exorcised when she expressed having feelings for other women. "They tried to cast out the demons in her," she said. "She was told that, because she had those feelings, she was demonically possessed." The more Tiffany saw these things, the more she started to mentally move away from ATI. "In your spirit, you just knew it wasn’t right," she said.
"I don't like when people vilify the Duggars."
Tiffany transitioned quickly out of ATI, getting married to her husband at just 19. "I got married to get away," she said. "First of all, I had to sneak around to date him; we weren’t allowed to date. I had to sneak around for a year." She said her own experience reminded her of the older Duggars who are now getting married and branching out away from their parents.
"They seem like a really loving family like my own," she said. "I don’t like when people vilify them as a family and be upset that they have a spotlight… Compared to the first episode to now, they’re so much less…Gothard-y. No more prairie dresses and weirdness. They have a little bit more worldly presence to them, and it’s given them exposure to travel a lot. And I think there’s something good that can come from that for their kids."
Although her upbringing was like most standard Christian homeschoolers, everything changed when her family joined ATI when she was 12. "My mother wanted to be like these other more 'mature in the Lord' families and because all the evidence we/she saw was good at the time," Crystal told us in an email. "We made the plunge and joined." What followed was a childhood full of strict, patriarchal rules that left her "brainwashed" and a lingering sense of shame that still affects her today. "It’s crazy what this dogmatic doctrine did to me, what a stronghold I have to constantly and consciously rebuke away," she said.
Below is her story, which we summarized into the points below:
She was taught she was "defrauding" men at age 12.
In IBLP, "defrauding" means "to stir up in them desires that cannot be righteously satisfied." In other words, this is a religious way of saying "to lead someone on." IBLP teaches that women defraud men by the way they "dress, talk, or act," and this rule was taught to Crystal at the tender age of 12.
"I was in dance, but suddenly I wasn’t allowed to be in jazz anymore, or shake my hips because I was defrauding men at age 12," she said. "I suddenly felt very sinful [when] I began developing breasts and a butt that began filling out my clothes more. Apparently, too much boobs showing was the cause of all bad things that happened to women."
In addition to dressing modestly, she wasn't allowed to have crushes because she was "sinning," was made to feel "terrible and dirty" about sex long into adulthood, and she was even blamed for her own rape at the age of 21.
"When my dad showed up at the emergency room the only words he uttered to me were 'I still love you,'" she said. "I broke." The counselors she was sent to weren't much help either. "The first Christian counselor they sent me to also told me it was my fault, that I shouldn’t have put myself in that situation alone with this guy, that I shouldn’t have been wearing that, that I shouldn’t have been around alcohol. Needless to say, I was pretty messed up over this. I still have violent flashbacks and nine years later have to remind myself it wasn't my fault."
She was taught that if you don't have a ton of kids, you’re not "blessed."
The Duggars and the Bates aren't the only families to have dozens of kids. Large families are encouraged in ATI, and women are taught that children are a blessing and they should have as many as God will allow. However, for Crystal, this rule was particularly damaging since she's infertile and can't have children naturally. "I was raised to see that children are the reward for being godly — that they are a blessing from God, which actually means that if you don’t have tons of kids, you aren’t blessed," she said.
"This has been probably the strongest catalyst in my digression from not only ATI but also Christianity as a whole," she explained. "I have had people tell me that I was full of sin and this is why I wasn’t being blessed with children. I cannot begin to communicate the way this effed up my life for years."
If you don’t obey your parents, you’re opening yourself up to the “fiery darts” of Satan.
"I was taught that God speaks directly to me through my parents, that basically they are my lifeline to him and that whatever instruction or rules they gave me were inspired by God," she said. "Therefore, even if I disagreed with them, I was to honor my parents anyway. OK, interesting enough. But here’s the real kicker: If I didn’t, I was opening myself up to the 'fiery darts' of Satan — that there would be no protection for me, and my life would be ruined one way or another. I’m dead serious. This is what I was taught."
ATI teaches the "umbrella of authority," which is that there's a spiritual hierarchy that has God on top, followed by fathers, then wives, and then children. If one was to step out from under their "umbrella," they'd be opening themselves to sins "[It] is the single-most heinous and patriarchal piece of doctrine that ATI teaches in my opinion," she said. "It is perfect for controlling parents — both moms and dads alike. If the father is controlling (mine wasn’t as bad), he can basically make his family and kids do whatever he wants them to (or not wants them to). If the dad is complacent (like mine was most of the time), this leaves the mother to do God’s bidding, and most of the time I never got a better answer than 'God just gave me a feeling.' How furious this made and continues to make me."
She started doubting her faith when her sister was kicked out of the house.
When Crystal was 22, her 19-year-old sister started seeing a boy her parents didn't approve of. "They flat out kicked her out. They told her she was not welcome in her own home," she said. "I witnessed this. I couldn’t believe it. They never ever gave the guy a chance, and he was a good guy." It was around this time that Crystal began doubting her faith, although she still wasn't quite there yet. "I had a VERY difficult time reconciling this in my head," she said. "But I still lived with these people. My hands were tied."
After the incident, she met up with her sister and tried to defend her parents and explain the situation the best she could. "I told her that 'as long as you were under Mom and Dad’s authority, you can’t miss out on God’s will for your life. That even if you were sure that Boy X was the one for you and that mom and dad never gave him a fair chance, it’s just not meant to be because you have to be under their authority, whether we thought it was fair or not,'" she said. "I wince at typing these words. I cannot believe I told them to my precious sister. I have since apologized and my sister understands that. Though I was a couple of years older than she, I was just as brainwashed and victimized."
Her experience has ruined her relationship with religion.
Today, Crystal says she is "all but in name an atheist" and says her experience has left her feeling alienated from religion in general. "The more I delved into the preposterousness of all things ATI, the more difficult it has been to separate the 'baby' from the 'bathwater,'" she said. "I see so many flaws in even moderate or 'worldly' Christian methods to living, the things we accept and the things we condemn. None of it holds up under scrutiny and I have all but lost my religion and God."
Her advice to the Duggars is to judge their own religion the same they judge others.
"Think! Judge! Don’t be afraid to be wrong," she said. "If I’m not mistaken, they feel blessed to have been born into the One True Religion, right?? What about all the other people who were born into a different sect of Christianity, or even a different religion entirely? What about them? If they also feel blessed because they believe their parents’ religion is right, does that make them right? No, it doesn’t. And they can’t all be right. So if you’re so sure that yours is right, then prove it. And as you do the research, all the cards will fall into place. But don’t be afraid to ask that first question."
Tiffany, who didn't want her last name disclosed, had an otherwise normal Christian upbringing before her parents got involved in IBLP. After her dad went to an ATI seminar and fell in love with Gothard's teachings, he came straight home and told his wife that they needed to start having more children. Her mother initially refused, but eventually "the Lord changed her heart," and she gave birth to seven more children. Tiffany was eventually pulled out of private school, forced to wear skirts, and watched as her family became increasingly more conservative and reclusive. "It turned my whole childhood upside down," Tiffany told In Touch Weekly. Below is her story, which we condensed into the major points below.
As the eldest daughter, she pretty much had to run the house at age 14.
Like most ATI kids, Tiffany's childhood was full of strict rules that kept her isolated from society. "I ended up with very, very few friends as a result," she said. Because she was also the oldest of eight, she was in charge of homeschooling her younger siblings. Because her mother was on bed rest a lot after birthing so many children, Tiffany was expected to step in and run the house when she was only 14. "[My mother] would stay in her room for half the day, many days. And I would clean the house and take care of the kids," she said. "She would never admit it and would never go to the doctor, but I'm pretty sure there was some depression mixed in there." After she moved out of the house at 22 to work at an IBLP-affiliated training center, her younger siblings would later tell her they were heartbroken. "They still say I 'abandoned' them," she said. "It's like they had a stronger bond with me than with their mother."
Although turning daughters, who should be enjoying their adolescence, into "second moms" wasn't something ATI explicitly taught, it was certainly implied. "That's your duty as a daughter," she said. "The sons are expected to get a job within the family business. As a daughter, you're not expected to ever get a job or get an education. The ultimate goal is to get you married off as early as possible."
And those yearly ATI conferences weren't cheap either.
There are two sides to IBLP, which include the yearly conferences and the learning curriculum. To attend the family conferences, one family will have to pay $200 or higher depending on which seminars they sign up for and how many children they have, which according to Tiffany, can rack up into the thousands. For the ATI curriculum, followers pay a yearly tuition of $675 and then a $630 renewal fee every year after that. "You're talking about large families that have next to nothing, living on single incomes," she said. "My family lived more comfortably than other families that I knew, but it was still not always easy to come up with the money to pay for that every year."
Working at an IBLP-affiliated training center made her start doubting her beliefs.
When Tiffany was 22, she left home to work at the Indianapolis Training Center for the EQUIP program. The program specialized in helping troubled teens, from runaways to cutters, who couldn't be controlled by their parents. Since Tiffany always had an interest in education, she jumped at the chance to be a mentor. However, the experience was very different than what was promised to her. "It was advertised as a way to get this excellent training and mentor these kids and add it to your resumé," she said. "[But] looking at it now…[Gothard] was basically just recruiting a workforce."
She and the other workers at the center had extensive chores they had to follow, from waking up at 5 a.m. to prepare breakfast to cleaning 10 floors of hotel rooms, sometimes only having as little as 20 minutes to turn around a room. On top of that, she had to do it all while mentoring a troubled teen. "You can't even sleep soundly for the night cause you don't know if they're going to be getting up sneaking out of the room or going to the bathroom to cut themselves," she said. The work was so arduous, it had lingering physical effects on some workers. "There were some girls that went home with their health broken after that," she said. "Some never fully recovered from the exhaustion of being there."
Despite the back-breaking labor and the long hours, Tiffany wasn't even paid a cent for the two years she spent there. "The kicker to it was that we weren't paid and we weren't allowed to do it for free," she said. "We had to pay to go live in that training center. So you would go and pay a good amount of money. Like, to do the EQUIP program was $1,700, and then for every six months after that it was either $500 or $1,000, I can't remember. We were basically the workforce the entire training center relied on."
Although she truly believed in the program when she got there, after a year and a half, she realized the center's treatment of troubled teens didn't make any sense. "Their whole philosophy was to shelter them even more than I had been sheltered," she said. "One of the kids I worked with was a severe cutter, had been in and out of mental hospitals, was on drugs for her mental health. Their philosophy was to get her off all the drugs and they were gonna retrain her." She said this resulted in many teens never getting any real help.
"You're taking these kids out of situations where they have access to everything, cause some of them went to public school, and you're putting them in a completely secluded situation where they have no access to that. They're not even allowed to talk to anyone of the opposite sex while they're at the training center. Then at the end of a year or 18 months, you send them straight back in that situation and you never give them tools to deal with that. All you've done is taken them away from it and supposedly strengthen their faith and teach them Bible lessons and things like that, but you never actually help them." She added, "[That's] when I started to see holes in their logic."
She also started to find Gothard's behavior "concerning."
While at the training center, she witnessed Gothard pulling several young women into his office, including one of the girls she mentored who was a cutter, and trying to impress them with propositions of new opportunities within his ministry. "He was trying to flatter her," she said. "And I saw him do it to two others girls that were under my care during that same six-month period. He told them that, 'God has a specific calling in your life, and he told me that it's this, and I want you to help me start a new ministry.'"
Gothard's "new ministry," Tiffany recalled, involved a program where he would rent a 12-passenger van, fill it up with foster kids, and drive it across the country. "It was so bizarre," she said. "Like how are you going to transport these foster kids across state lines? And he basically promised this girl she would be a founding member in this program he had, and then he never followed up. It really crushed her when he didn't follow through with it. That's when I realized he was not everything people have always said he was."
"Just getting used to a life that normal people live."
After her experience at the Indianapolis Training Center, and later, the Oklahoma City Training Center, Tiffany moved out of her home for good when she defied her father's orders and accepted a job at 25. Since then, she's been gradually unlearning the things she was taught in ATI and dealing with something many former followers deal with: realizing the things they were taught were a lie. "I didn't know what to believe for a very long time," she said.
Although she's still dealing with the repercussions of her upbringing, today she's now doing what she's always wanted to do since her childhood — teach at an inner-city school. And she just started working toward her master's degree as well. "If there's something you really want to do, it can happen," she said. "No matter what you were taught."
Although "Emily," who didn't want her real name published, didn't grow up as an official member of ATI, its damaging teachings affected her deeply throughout her life. Her family attended a church that was full of ATI members who repeated many of the same lessons that Gothard taught. "I internalized all of the ideas. It wasn’t until I was older and started talking to my mom about what I had experienced did she realize the amount of damage it all had on me," she told us in an email. "The damage has left huge scars on my life. I found myself afraid of people. I became a shell of a girl — someone who was afraid of people getting angry at her. I hid in the bathroom (since that door locked) some days and just wished that I could disappear."
The pressure to be perfect bred "hidden pain."
Because ATI stresses the importance of being flawless to a degree that no human can realistically adhere to, Emily constantly felt she had to look perfect, from dressing modestly to even feeling like a "horrible slut" for simply buying yoga pants. "This cult stresses the idea that we must be perfect or else we are somehow less than," she said. However, she said "courting," the act of allowing parents to interview and choose who you'll marry, is the rule that still haunts her today. "I signed a contract with my dad about not courting or marrying anyone that he did not approve of when I was 13," she said. "The damage of this is huge. It causes a lot of shame, even if all you’ve done is think a guy is cute without your dad’s approval."
Women have no access to God — only the husbands do.
"Women are second-class citizens," she said. "There's no doubt about it." In addition to being shamed into skirts and being blamed for their own sexual abuse, Emily said women in ATI are also taught to step back and encourage the men to be leaders. "I was always good at school and good at
public speaking, but I always felt second to the boys," she said. "Often I was smarter and more capable for a leadership position, but I was told to encourage the boys to lead instead. I felt small. Eventually, I started to make myself more docile and submissive. I thought it was what God wanted from me. I thought that it was a measure of my devotion to God how much I submitted. I felt less than everyone around me and it hurt my confidence."
"It is a culture of abuse and cover-ups."
Because women had so little rights, abuse ran rampant, according to Emily, who said she was punished for "everything you can imagine." She said other children in ATI had their wills broken through physical punishment, isolation, and even sleep deprivation. "The adults were trapped in a stressful situation and often took it out on the kids," she said. "There were a lot of kids that were abused and no one did anything."
She didn't realize she was raised in a cult until last year.
Because Emily was never an official ATI member, she never technically "left." But after she went to college, she gradually realized her upbringing wasn't normal. "It wasn’t until November 2017 that a friend from those circles opened up to me about her experience," she said. "I started to realize how twisted it all was. Once I knew the truth and the fog no longer blinded me, I could not stay involved in any way."
Although Emily has had a lot of support and help via Facebook communities like ATISS, a group for former followers of ATI, she says she still suffers from PTSD, nightmares, and flashbacks from her experience. "I am scared that people are going to find out that I am talking about what happened and come and get me."
Her advice to the Duggar women is to stop making yourself "small."
"When you actually start to read the Bible for yourself and not just someone else’s perspective, you will find that Christ loves women and men equally," she said. "The life that comes after leaving and deciding to truly follow Christ is phenomenal. It means freedom in a way that you never thought was possible." Despite everything she's gone through, Emily hopes her story not only inspires the Duggars but other followers who are trapped, too. "I am standing for truth," she said. "I will continue to speak it to all who will listen if it means protecting another innocent girl, like the girl I once was."
If you asked Elisabeth Feehan to describe her upbringing, she'd say to "imagine growing up in Baptist North Korea." Her family, who joined ATI in 1993, five years before her birth, was a typical ATI family that lived on a big farm and had two family businesses. Although they were the picture of Christian perfection, it was anything but. "Behind the facade was an extremely strict, controlling, messy situation," Elisabeth told us in an email. "Behind closed doors there was a raging father who beat his children, a controlling woman, sexual deviance, and multiple suicide attempts from multiple children including myself. Between the Korean need for perfection and ATI’s twisted views on appearing perfect, it weighed heavily on my siblings and I."
Elisabeth as a child.
Her parents enforced an insane amount of rules on her.
Although all former followers have admitted to having strict rules enforced on them, for Elisabeth, she described her family's rules as a "1,000-page book of 'thou shalt not's." The rules included no rock music or music with a beat, no dating, no sleepovers, no movies that hadn't been approved by her parents, no social media, no Internet, no television, no radio, no looking at magazines at the checkout counter at grocery stores, no closed bedroom doors, no makeup, no pants, no shirts without sleeves, no formfitting clothes, no low necklines, no "acting masculine" as a woman, no bathroom breaks during church, no touching anyone of the opposite sex, no electronics in the bedroom, no actual swimsuits, no haircuts above the collarbone, no speaking when her father was talking, no shirts with writing on them, no chewing gum, no heels, no big jewelry — and that wasn't even the whole list. "The funny thing is this was my parents giving me slack," she said. "My three older siblings had it much, much worse."
Unsurprisingly, being a woman in ATI made her feel oppressed and insecure.
"I was victim-shamed before I was even a victim," she said. "I lived in constant fear of rape. I feared when my sleeves were too short or if I accidentally showed skin between my skirt and my shirt when I lifted my [arms]." She also said, despite ATI's need to dictate how women should dress, it also promoted unhealthy body ideas. "There was also that lovely fact that Bill Gothard basically advertised that the perfect woman was a size 0," she said. "Usually tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and with an over-groomed but 'natural look.' I was a short little biracial girl, who grew up to be a curvy goddess, and although I was beautiful growing up, I never saw it because [I was taught that] telling myself I was beautiful was vain."
In the picture on the right, she's wearing her "Pre-Excel" uniform, a class for girls age eight to 11 that takes place at yearly conferences.
Her parents used ATI as an excuse for punishment and abuse.
Elisabeth claimed she was punished almost daily for minor slights against her parents, from having an Encyclopedia thrown at her head to getting her sternum so bruised she "couldn't breathe at all." But the biggest punishment was when she was grounded for a year for downloading a Taylor Swift album and writing an angsty diary entry about her mother. She wasn't allowed to socialize with anyone outside of church and was only allowed to go to Bible studies and memorize scripture. "I spent a year isolated and in utter boredom because I just wanted to hear some music and vent on paper about the pain of living with mean people," she said. "What’s funny is this isn’t the biggest, the worst, or longest punishment. My life until after my father died was basically walking on eggshells while carrying the weight of the last seven punishments, whether they be rod or word."
She decided she no longer wanted to be involved with ATI when she was 15.
"I had just started to come into my own in my faith and I realized my God wasn’t my parents' God," she said. "Their God was angry and constantly used as an excuse for abuse i.e. 'God told me you need seven spankings,' 'God told me to take away computer privileges.' My God loved me and provided grace for my sins." However, she didn't officially get "out" until 2016. She had just started her first real relationship and realized she didn't want her brother or mother picking out or deciding who she should marry. After her mother asked her to start chipping in rent money, she was done. "That was it, I was gone," she said. "My sister now lived two hours away. I had a home and I’d figure out the rest from there."
After leaving, she was diagnosed with PTSD.
Although she had left ATI and had her freedom, the hardest thing for Elisabeth was her mental health. She started seeing a therapist who diagnosed her with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. "I went to college, I got a job, and I drove a car, but my mental health wrecked all of that for me," she said. "I can’t work more than four hours before I lose functionality. I cry for no reason; I have nightmares about the abuse and wake up screaming; I get stuck in flashbacks and see the people around me as the abusers I grew up with… I cower in fear when people are angry around me. Sometimes I burst into tears because of a trigger I didn’t even know was a trigger."
Although she's still grappling with her experience growing up in ATI, Elisabeth says today she's the happiest she's ever been. "I’m free, I’m experiencing love from everyone in my life, and I’ll never go back."
Her advice to the Duggar women is to "get out."
"Just go — find someone you trust and ask them to help you get on your feet," she said. "Because, speaking from personal experience, where you will be is so much better and safer than where you [are] at. And if like me you have a fear of leaving your parents 'authority and protection' for fear of rape, don’t be… Honestly, and speaking from personal experience, you are more likely to get raped where you are in the ATI culture than outside of it."
For Jennifer, who didn't want her last name disclosed, her experience with ATI was one full of guilt and control that she didn't fully understand until she was an adult. "At the time, [being a part of ATI] felt like this really cool thing that you got to do and you felt really holy and godly, like you’re special, like you’re in a different level of Christianity," she said. "But looking back, a lot of the teachings were just straight-up strange." After her parents started introducing ATI lessons into her homeschooling curriculum, she started dressing the "stereotypical ATI way" with long dresses and long hair. But probably the biggest challenge for her was when her family was suddenly kicked out of ATI when she was 18 and had to begin the long process of unlearning the things she was taught. "It’s been a really hard process for me to try to figure out what of the basic things should I believe and what should I get rid of," she said. "Trying to untangle that complicated web has been hard."
Below is Jennifer's story, which we condensed into the major points below:
It's normal in ATI for older daughters to be treated like "second mothers."
Jennifer, the oldest of several kids, never got to have a normal adolescence like her peers. Instead, she was busy being a mom to her younger siblings which, according to her, is very common in ATI circles. "I did things like carrying babies and taking diapers and caring for children, teaching children," she said. "I was responsible for my parents’ kids in a way that was not typical for an older sibling." However, she didn't blame her mother for putting so much responsibility on her as a teen and said her mother was also a victim of ATI's teachings. "She was taught you have to raise your kids this very strict way, so I think mentally and emotionally it was a lot for her," she said. "I think she was just surviving the best she knew how, but it made it very difficult for me to extract myself from the family as an adult."
At conferences, ATI would teach a more "extreme" version of their curriculum to children than to adults.
In addition to its homeschooling curriculum, ATI also hosts yearly conferences every year. At these events, which were often full of guest speakers and lessons centered around a central theme, the adults were separated from the kids and teens, which Jennifer said was a "deceptive" trick to fool families. "I think some of the concepts that were taught, my parents would have never gone for," she said, "but just because of the way they did the language, they never realized, 'Oh, we’re reinforcing something that we actually would not believe in if it were taught in this way.' […] Had they heard some of that content verbatim, they would’ve been like, 'This is ridiculous.'"
Unsurprisingly, but ATI teaches some startling things about women and the idea of "curses."
In Gothard's teachings, he leaves very little room for "grey areas" and puts a great deal of guilt on the shoulders of young people. "They would teach things like everything in your life is either a blessing or a curse, there’s no in-between, there’s no neutral ground," she said, "and it’s a direct result of your heart before God. So if there’s anything bad in your life, you have to fix it… Like if your parents were poor or stressed or whatever, then that was your fault because you were not living in such a way as to make God bless you."
ATI also taught that women should not only obey their husbands but also be "punished" if they disobeyed, from physically spanking to hitting to verbal abuse. "We were truly conditioned to think that if that happened, we deserved it and we were just lucky it wasn’t worse," she said. "I think most of the teenage teachings were teaching boys and men to be predators and teaching girls and women to be victims."
Bill surrounded himself with young groupies that members referred to as "Gothard's girls."
Billl, who was unmarried, would often keep young women around him by either inviting them to work or volunteer for him. They all had a particular "look," and were usually young, attractive women who were slender and had long blonde hair. Jennifer said she never got to meet Bill personally because she didn't have his "preferred body type or face"
“Everybody knew… 'Oh, this girl looks like a Gothard girl!' Which is really sick to think about now, but at the time everyone was like, ‘Oh, that’s so special,'" she revealed. "At the time I was very, very sad and disappointed that I was never invited to headquarters, and now I realize that was a wonderful thing and actually a good protection from what other people endured."
Her family eventually got kicked out of ATI when her father allowed her to go to college.
Jennifer's father was a physician and her mother was a teacher, and for her entire life her parents had always valued education. But that all changed when her parents went to an ATI conference. "They came back from that week and one of the first things my dad said to us was, ‘None of you kids are going to college. Too many godly kids fall away from the faith in college; you’re just not going.’ And at the time I just blindly accepted it. But now I’m like, Oh my god, what did they say or what did they do to make him change his mind and do a 180 on something he was so passionate about?"
However, over time her father started to revert back to his old opinions and finally decided that he wanted Jennifer to go. "It was a real conflict for me because my authority figure was telling me to do something I was taught not to do," she said. In the end, her father's passion for educating his children got the family kicked out of ATI when Jennifer was 18 years old. "[My parents] were essentially told, 'Either your kid doesn’t go to college or you get out cause this is not something that is in agreement with our teachings.'"
Jennifer went off to college where she eventually met her husband. Although she was no longer affiliated with ATI, her father still forced her soon-to-be husband to compete a list of "rules" before marrying her, similar to the strict courtship rules the Duggars practice. Jennifer also dealt with other hardships post-ATI, like learning to have opinions and learning to "look men in the eye." She said gradually, through the years and through counseling, she was able to unlearn many of things she was taught. Today, she's now a supervisor for a physical therapy clinic.
Her advice to the Duggars is to possibly seek professional counseling.
"A big thing about Gothard is that he took a lot of things out of context," she said. "Regardless of where an individual person might stand on the Bible, at least go and look and see if that passage actually means what he said it means, and 95 percent of the time it doesn't." She continued, "Seek out people who've been there, seek out professional counseling and just look at the source material and see what it actually says because you might be surprised."
Joy Tremont, a small business owner who grew up within IBLP, said growing up like the Duggars made her feel like she had no control over her own life. "I couldn’t do what I wanted to do unless I had parental permission," she said. "I remember being petrified of who my father would choose to be my husband. I remember one guy coming over frequently and thinking, ‘Oh my god, do I have to marry him? Oh, the horror.’ Or being frightened that whoever I married would make me wear skirts the rest of my life. It was like being boxed in." Although Joy was allowed to go to a fundamentalist college, when she returned home, her parents wouldn't allow her to move out or get a job. Growing up under such strict rules made her, at age 29, finally reach a breaking point. "I was in such a heavy heavy depression it was either kill myself or get out," she said. "I figured it was better to get out than kill myself."
Below is Joy's story, which we condensed into the major points below:
IBLP's focus on following authority was used to scare and control her.
In IBLP's teachings, the "umbrella of authority" or "umbrella of protection" states that if you obey an authority figure, you'll be blessed and protected from danger. The hierarchy usually starts with the father being on top, the mother below him, and the children beneath her. If one was to step out away from an authority figure's presence (their "umbrella"), one would lose that protection and have potentially catastrophic things happen to them, at least according to IBLP's teachings. "That was the whole reason I stayed in that house until I was 29," she said. "I was so ingrained with that doctrine, I just knew I was going to be murdered like Chandra Levy if I stepped out on my own."
When Joy attended her first ATI seminar at 15, this principle was drilled into her head by several "horrifying" cautionary stories of teens who had terrible things happen to them for not obeying their parents, from rape to even murder. "For those parents who want to be control freaks, [IBLP/ATI] plays right into their hands," she said, "because they want absolute control over who their child marries [and] if they’ll even kiss before marriage."
Her parents enforced strict rules in the home.
Although Joy described herself as a "good girl" who always followed the rules, her parents, her mother in particular, continued to control every aspect of her life into adulthood. She had to go to bed at 10 p.m., had her phone calls monitored, wasn't allowed to drive until she was 25, and even wasn't allowed to wear red fingernail polish. "Obviously [my mother] didn’t hold me down and [make me take it off,] but the control had been there since birth and it was part of who I was," she said. "To actually push back and say, 'No, I’m going to keep wearing my red fingernail polish,' didn’t occur to me."
Looking back, Joy said the strictness of IBLP attracted controlling personalities who used the teachings to exploit their loved ones. "It attracts a lot of borderline personalities, attracts a lot of narcissists, a lot of control freaks," she said. "Generally speaking if the parents are completely healthy and balance, they will go to Gothard’s seminars and go, 'What on earth?' and then they'll leave. If they don't do that immediately, then it might take a year or two or something… But the ones that stayed, generally speaking, a lot of them have had some psychological issue."
At 28, she realized it was time to break away.
After living at home under her mother's strict rules for years, Joy reached her breaking point when she realized she was never going to escape her parents. "I suddenly realized when I was 28 that my parents were never going to approve of anyone for me to marry," she said. "I was never going to get away from them until they died, and that was a little disheartening to think of." After feeling so depressed she was considering suicide, she decided to revisit a Bible verse that had been hammered into her head since she was a child, "Children, obey your parents."
However, after further research, she realized the verse had been taken out of context and was only meant to apply to small children. Joy, who was almost 30 at the time, finally realized she didn't have to listen to her parents anymore. "Everything that has been taught to me about authority, everything that had kept me in bondage in my 20s did not apply. So I immediately started making my plans to leave," she said. "I could feel the bondage lifting. The oppression… I was not doomed to stay in this prison the rest of my life." With only $600 in her bank account, she found a job out of state, booked an airplane ticket, and left for good.
It took her a while to adjust to "normal" society.
After spending most of her adult life obeying orders, it took her a while to get used to being her own person and making her own decisions. "It’s like deprogramming from a cult," she said. "I had to learn everything from how to do my hair, and how to do makeup, and how to wear something that didn’t make me look like a geek, to how to relate to people on the outside, normal people."
Today, Joy now owns a dog washing business.
Since then, she's started a new life in Maine where she's co-owner of a dog washing business and a part-time piano teacher. "All the horrible things that were supposed to happen have not happened," she said, "and my life is far far far better."
She warns that the Duggars are not a family to idolize.
"The perceived wholesomeness of the family’s lives is merely a veneer. There’s a lot of rottenness under there," she said. "The Dugger girls who were molested by their brother, they’re not allowed to say they feel violated or that they’re angry. You certainly can’t say you’re angry. But there will be a time when that anger comes to the surface, and they won’t know what to do with it."
Rebecca Ishum, a blogger who was affiliated with IBLP as a teenager, says she's still mentally recovering from her brief experience at a training center that left her "brainwashed." Although her upbringing wasn't as strict as the Duggars, and she wasn't forced to wear skirts or grow her hair long, her parents enrolled her in an IBLP-affiliated training center called EXCEL in 2001 after being lured by a brochure. "Our parents were sold this bill of goods where if they did XYZ, then they would successfully raise the perfect Christian family," Rebecca told In Touch Weekly in an email. "I still grieve for all of the kids…mainly the girls….who are trapped or have spent their lives trying to rewire their brains once they make it out. Most of the girls who are still in that cult don't even realize how trapped they are. It's taken years to get so much of that crap out of my head, and I still have to be a guard against it."
Fortunately, Rebecca's parents pulled her out once they realized the organization was teaching things that were questionable. To this day, she doesn't blame her parents for enrolling her in the center and says IBLP intentionally misled them. "Unmarried, childless Bill Gothard had enough charisma that he managed to convince hoards of families that he knew the only right way to raise kids," she said. "Parents were told that if they put their kids in the training, followed the rules, and did all the right things, that they would turn out perfect Christian kids. Friends of mine from back in the day have since told me that I came back from my time in the training center as a totally different person. I imagine my parents saw the shift and decided that it wasn't in our best interest to continue."
Back in 2014, Rebecca shared her story about IBLP on her blog. We reached out to her to elaborate on her experience and condensed her story to the major points below:
IBLP had a long list of rules that it enforced, from skirt-wearing to victim-blaming.
"I was conditioned to believe anything that anyone in authority told me without question," she said. "Because of that, I internalized all of the teachings and brought them back home with me. So for example, there are a lot of physical requirements with IBLP. The physical requirements weren't enforced to that degree at home (I wore shorts as a kid), but by the time I got home from my time in the training center, I was wearing skirts all of the time because I had been told that I was immodest otherwise, and I didn't want to cause myself to be raped. There is a lot of victim and women-blaming in that cult."
The center enforced their rules by controlling outside communication.
"We were allowed two 15 minute phone calls a week home to our parents. The phones were kept out in the hallway so that we couldn't have a private conversation with them. That was how they monitored what was being said. Snail mail and packages were subject to being read. No communication was allowed between us and any men unless it was a brother or father."
The EXCEL training summary. (Enlarged version.)
The teaching sessions were a way to scare and threaten others through scripture.
"I remember learning things like…if I was ever raped, then it would be my fault. If I didn't commit to doing certain things like reading my Bible daily, then I was in sin. But if I committed to it, and then failed, it would be a worse sin. They would tell us to make five to six commitments a day by raising our hands in agreement and then watch to make sure that we were doing that even though 'every eye was closed.' In the mental state they had us in, that was a binding action without recourse. "
"We would also have checklists that we had to fill out daily to record our actions, and reports were sent home to our parents letting them know how we measured up. At one point, I was called to the director's wife's office and was told that I had a 'root of bitterness.' I was made to confess and repent before I could leave. It was my 17th birthday. Other girls who didn't measure up were confined to their rooms. And believe it or not, these stories are mild because I was a VERY good kid and a rule follower all the way."
Unsurprisingly, IBLP teaches women to be "keepers of the home" and nothing else.
"Higher education was frowned on because we were created to raise up a Quiverfull of children to be the salt of the earth. Our main objective was to be the helpmeet (translation: servant) of our husbands and have children. Cooking healthful meals, knowing how to sew, being able to decorate cakes, arrange flowers, and change the car oil…all bonuses. EXCEL was more or less a finishing program for young women who were just becoming eligible for marriage.
"My parents did not agree with all of this stuff. They strongly encouraged me to go on to college and complete as many higher degrees as I wanted to. I'm grateful that they saw the benefit of higher education."
It's important to note that IBLP and Christianity are not the same.
"I cringe when I hear IBLP and Christianity put in the same sentence. I am still a Christian although many IBLP survivors have walked away over the years. IBLP is a man-made, rule-centric, patriarchy-controlled cult that thrives on taking scripture out of context to fit the narrative that Bill Gothard has created… Real Christianity allows people to thrive in a place where they are encouraged to be real and vulnerable instead of being forced to shut down their emotions and act like a robot. People who are still trapped in the IBLP/ATI cult are missing out on a whole lot of freedom and life. That type of thinking is a prison. Sadly, most of them don't know it."
Rebecca advises the Duggar women to "dream bigger than the box they've been given."
"[If I could talk to the Duggars,] I would start by just listening. You can't go into a situation like that and announce that the belief system that has been created for them has actually trapped them in a box. That is a surefire way to get them to completely and totally shut down and stop the flow of communication. So I would start by listening to them. They have goals, desires, passions, interests, and abilities that haven't had a chance to surface underneath all of the rules and regulations that have been heaped on them. I would just sit down and listen to them talk until I could start to get an idea of who they are at their core. And then I would tell them to dream bigger than the box they've been given because they can remain a Jesus-follower, but do so in a way that enables their freedom. These girls need help seeing their worth and value for who they are, not what they do."
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.