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Shiny Happy People triggers self-protection in some evangelicals. What that means to survivors
I sighed the day I filmed my portion of Shiny Happy People. I was on set in Savannah, in February 2022. My voice shook, a little. Today could be hard.
As the makeup artist arranged my hair, I noticed the camera sliding on the dolly to my left, the large square camera perched in front of me, and the pale walls of the home they used for filming. My awareness widened to producers Olivia and Julia taking their seats in canvas directors’ chairs, and the crew members arranging cables and lights and calling for quiet. I realized my body was braced with tension.
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I crossed my legs at the knee, folded my hands, and released a breath I’d been holding for fifteen years: I was about to share the honest, raw, and bare truth of what happened to me as a Christian Fundamentalist bride.
I felt ready. The evangelical opinion, with its history of denial, dismissal, bypassing, and self-protection no longer held me back. I came here to tell my story with integrity. I came to support my fellow survivors.
Shiny Happy People, the hit docuseries on Amazon about the brand of Christian Fundamentalism that influenced millions of Americans through Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP), breaks down the harsh realities of what it’s really like to live in the lifestyle portrayed on the Duggar family’s 19 Kids and Counting. The documentary centers survivors. Our stories expose the abuses going on in plain sight––abuses endorsed by leadership and sanctioned by our churches.
The cast includes a variety of stories around our experience with Bill Gothard and the IBLP. How we were betrayed by teachers we trusted. Exploited by family members. Robbed of any comfort we might have found in our faith by doctrines that twisted refuge into recoil. Our stories are as individual as islands, as similar as soil from the same continent. We are a cast of many; we are a cast of one.
And the response has been tremendous. Two weeks at number one on Amazon Prime. Inboxes flooded with gratitude and messages of “me too.” Emotional resonance with viewers outside of the IBLP who related to the influence they felt in their bodies but previously could not name. For the most part, I’ve stayed away from any negativity and accepted that die-hard evangelicals will ignore it.
And then World magazine, a publication I once purchased as a gift for my then-husband, shared an opinion piece that made its way to my inbox through a friend. As I read, the words instantly activated my nervous system. Heat flooded through me and my eyes widened: somatic symptoms that signal I’m triggered.
The headline read: Shiny Happy People is both true and false. I knew in an instant this was a “not all Christians” waffle, drizzled in “we believe you” syrup, while copping out of any accountability for complicity in their system. It’s a rebuttal every survivor knows all too well, the one we often still hold within our bodies. Both true and false: that happened to you, but we had nothing to do with it.
And so I had to ask: What is the impact when Christians care more for their own comfort and system reputation than empathy for survivors?
We’re reminded of who you are.
The Gaslighting Begins with DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim with Offender
I took screenshots and shared them on my Instagram Stories, an outlet where I frequently deconstruct hidden fundamentalism. As I typed my examinations and reframes of the text, I felt a familiar awareness flood through me: I’m reminding a younger version of myself that we’re safe now. We see through it now. We’ve lived and learned and we no longer live in environments that dismiss and deny the pain and harm we suffered.
“This review contains some harmful bullshit that’s detrimental to survivors,” I wrote over the screenshot. “So here we go.”
I started with the subheading. “Documentary exposes horrors but suggests they are representative of evangelical Christianity.” I bit back the urge to say, “duh.” On my phone, I wrote a reply in orange: First and foremost––
“If abuse is shared and the reaction is to defend the system, the priorities are fundamentalist. They’re valuing ideas over people.”
— Tia Levings
The survivors didn’t suggest these horrors were representative of evangelical Christianity. We stated as much. This was our lived experience. If a relationship is 90% good but 10% abusive, then it is abusive. Most of us are entirely unfamiliar with any evangelical being willing to set their idealogy aside long enough to hold our humanity. Most of us have no experience with a Christian offering safe protection from harm.
Deconstruction is a Threat to the Evangelical System. And the System Aggressively Works to Shut it Down.
Familiarity with DARVO-style gaslighting wasn’t enough to keep me from gasping when I read this line in the World article.
“Deconstruction often results among Christians not discipled in personal discernment, and who are thus easily manipulated to believe that what they experienced in their understanding of Christianity is the norm. This was certainly the case within the IBLP. When people emerge from the strictures of fundamentalism, they often think everything they knew was a lie. Thus, even the good parts of faith are severed.”
The wells of the waffle sank deep. Attacking survivors by shaming their questions wore clothes I knew from the inside out.
“Not discipled in personal discernment”… when Proverbs 3: 5-6 had been shoved down our throats since birth: Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. When the same article later shames survivors for learning to use their personal discernment (aka trust themselves.) When the deconstruction community is populated with ardent, educated seekers who first exhausted every theological outlet they could find in order to avoid the pain of severance from their families, friends, and traditions.
“Who are easily manipulated to believe that what they experienced in their understanding of Christianity is the norm.” Ooof. (The emphasis on “in their understanding” is mine.) Survivors know this one the way we know our scars in the dark. We just didn’t understand it well enough. It’s our problem because we simply don’t understand Christianity and norms enough. We’re easily manipulated because we lack discernment. It’s our fault.
What’s actually true is that high-control religion disallows personal discernment. High-control groups (and their defenders) gaslight and manipulate survivors into understanding their experiences are exceptions, and not part of a wider norm, and more often, our fault.
Evangelical defenders are scrambling to lock the gates after Shiny Happy People and other exposures. They do it by projecting and accusing, rather than addressing the harm done and expressed in cult documentaries like ours, like Keep Sweet and Obey, Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, and The Family.
But do you know what happens when survivors share our stories? We discover commonalities. Norms emerge. Patterns become visible. That’s the fruit in our hands. Evangelicals can deny it exists all they want––but when they do, they become part of the problem, complicit in a system that would rather hide harm, than heal it.
I inverted Ericka Anderson’s thesis statement to reflect the truth as I (cough, cough) understand and lived it:
“When people emerge from the strictures of fundamentalism, they often wonder if everything they knew was a lie, including the good parts, because they were betrayed by those who should have protected them.”
— Tia Levings
Fear of Being Sucked Back In Triggered a Trauma Response in Survivors
My worry that this piece was detrimental to survivors was quickly confirmed when I issued a question box asking followers what feelings came up for them around this review. We do not feel safe with this kind of Christian. Our bodies recognize the agenda cloaked in concern.
Hundreds of replies poured in.
“I’m afraid of being sucked back in.”
“These are the exact words used on me by my family.”
“This kind of shame is what kept me in abuse for so long.”
“They see what’s wrong with the abuse but won’t change anything to stop it.”
“Teaching we can’t trust ourselves results in hidden abuse.”
“I couldn’t read it all because it makes me sick they defend a system that harbors predators.”
“Making us fear our own judgment makes us easy targets for manipulation.”
“It’s like saying, ‘Let’s hurt people in the name of God and then shame them when they question God’.”
“I still have a lot of fear when they say these things.”
“It’s difficult to trust Christianity without accountability.”
“The lack of empathy is not going to bring people back to the Christian faith.”
“They don’t understand ‘weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn’.”
I reshared the responses with a backdrop of Chagall’s stained glass windows, hoping art, color, light, and life would soften the atmosphere and remind survivors that we’re safe now. That we’re no longer subject to loveless evangelicism. Shame is not useful to us. The pursuit of healing rules the day.
But healing also offers us the courage to challenge reviews like this one. Reviews that center evangelical frailty and deny the fruit we’re offering for inspection. Anderson writes:
In Shiny Happy People, notions of Biblical submission, pro-life advocacy, and Christian homeschooling are portrayed as intrinsically toxic. Viewers could easily walk away believing that a Biblical worldview inherently leads to misogyny, violence, and abuse.
But it was not the worldview or the submission or the homeschooling that was the problem with the IBLP. It was the faulty interpretation of Scripture wedded to a dangerous legalism.
Actually, it was the worldview and the submission that directly led to misogyny, violence, and abuse. It was the neglectful homeschooling and pressure to repopulate in large and reckless numbers that harbored that abuse. And the pursuit to get the scripture right was at the heart of it. Every single IBLP member thought they were aligned with biblical principles. We didn’t know it was faulty any more than evangelical defenders would:
we listened to leadership
we studied God’s word
we trusted the “One, true God” as voiced by Scripture and our leaders
we didn’t lean on our own understanding
we read publications like World
we avoided the “dangerously secular” thinking Anderson warns of
I’m reminded of something Mark Vicente said in The Vow, an expose of the NXIVM cult. “No one joins a cult. They join a good thing and then they realize they’re fucked.”
That Anderson thinks she’s in a better version of Christianity, without a faulty interpretation wedded to dangerous legalism, tastes like sour candy to me today. We all thought that, once.
But she’s right about something: “Christian parents could feel targeted watching the film because it demonizes homeschooling and mocks those who believe in large family life.” “Mocks” is subjective. We did use dark humor, and as survivors, we’ve earned the right to joke that way. But anyone prioritizing their ideals over what’s actually happening to the human beings abused by those ideals could feel targeted––because they are.
We absolutely want Christian parents who homeschool and have large families to pay attention to our stories and make changes that protect their children.
We absolutely want viewers to feel horrified by the horrors we lived through. To feel empathy rise. To see people claiming eternal love protect victims and take them seriously.
You were our target audience, Christians. We’re offering our experiences to you so that fewer people will be harmed.
But, reportedly, in evangelical circles, empathy is not what’s happening. They’re more interested in a “both true and false” waffle defense than in accountability and change, and that’s why we left.
The Universe Catches You
So many responses to my question on Instagram Stories centered on learning to trust ourselves. A good many more contrasted how beautiful life is out here, having left an abusive system and no longer being shamed this way. It’s a point I brought up in my interview too:
“When you leave, and you’re actually out there, flailing like a new little fish, there are people who catch you. The universe catches you.”
–– Tia Levings, Shiny Happy People
Anderson took a jab at that. “Another tells IBLP defectors that “the universe catches you” when you leave. Such phrasing sounds dangerously secular and dependent on flawed human nature. These victims went from trusting a false leader to trusting themselves, without ever stopping to trust the one, true God.”
She’s wrong about “ever stopping to trust.” Every survivor I know gave Christianity a million second chances. A million do-overs. Some of us kept a faith; some of us did not. Deconstruction (or its synonym, detangling) with a pre-determined outcome is not deconstruction at all. It’s staying within the lines, which is the heart of the agenda. Question…but not too much. Wander…but not too far. Listen…but only through our filter. Anyone claiming to have a corner on the truth is flying a red flag of fundamentalism.
How big is your God if he/she/they can’t handle your questions? If you can only question if you land on the agreed-upon answer?
Human nature is flawed––and when we’re honest about that, we create safer places for vulnerable people. We validate one another’s pain, and we become our highest selves. Empathic, compassionate, and kind.
I went from trusting a false leader to trusting myself and it healed my wounds and saved my life. Many people, almost all of them outside of evangelicism, caught, held, and sheltered me along the way, never coercing me toward an agenda.
So, I admit I laughed out loud at the “dangerously secular” part, as did several commenters. When church hurts, go outside. There’s a lot of love out here. And because of that, when I sat down and sighed on set, I had the courage to bravely share my story.
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