May 22, 2024
The Dangerous “Shiny Happy People”

The Dangerous “Shiny Happy People”


Tammie Willis, M.A., Org. Com. § Survivor of Fundamentalism

Director of Communications, Lalich Center on Cults and Coercion

When I watched Shiny Happy People on Amazon Prime this week, I didn’t anticipate how much it would affect me. I found myself raging against the way I was raised in fundamentalism in a way I haven’t done in a long time. The documentary is a hard look at the Duggar family, whose rise to fame and glorification of “perfect parenting/perfect children” sickened me and made me lose hope that society would ever see the dangers of extreme fundamentalism.

I have been an insomniac as far back as I can remember. At 4 years old, I would lie awake at night in terror that I would die and go to hell or that there were invisible demons all around me. When I did sleep, in my lucid dream world, I could fly. I soared over the city streets, rooftops, and landscapes of cities I created and visited many, many times over the course of my childhood and early adulthood.

Sitting in the hours-long church services and bible classes we attended several times a week as a family and every day at my small fundamentalist school, I would drift off and think about my dream world. I would map the streets and make plans for where I would go on my next visit. I did this as a way to avoid hearing the repeated stories about the end of the world and the horrific things that would happen to unbelievers. I did this so that I wouldn’t have to think about the ritual abuse (a much more severe version of what was creepily depicted in Shiny Happy People) of myself and my classmates that was scheduled for the end of each school day.

Some of my earliest memories are of physical punishment. When I was a toddler, I remember being placed on a floor blanket. An attempt to move off of it resulted in a hard smack on my hand. When I began crying uncontrollably, which was called a “tantrum,” my mother threw a glass of cold water in my face, shocking me into silence and acquiescence. It happened to me many times in childhood. This is called “blanket training” and is a technique used by many extreme fundamentalists, along with other severe physical punishments. These are the teachings of fundamentalist authoritarians like Bill Gothard and James Dobson, to name a few.

Gothard, who never married or had children, also teaches that families should have as many children as possible and that the children should be raised using his “biblical” principles. My mother, in an attempt to comply, had nine miscarriages before having an emergency hysterectomy. She almost died trying to live by these “principles” and the three children she did have were raised just above the poverty line, with no help from the fundamentalist group we belonged to. Families are supposed to trust that god will provide. Having children in this kind of fundamentalism becomes a competition to see who can be the most holy.

Now, in Shiny Happy People, some of the Duggar children are speaking out about the abuses they suffered, the ways they were made to work for free in their homes, raising their younger siblings, and the monstrous teachings of cult leaders like Bill Gothard. The documentary also interviews survivors of the IBLP/homeschooling movements that Gothard’s teachings spawned. Hearing from all of these people who also suffered horrible abuses was both validating and enraging to me.

I am glad that the broader public will now see the dirty secrets behind so much of fundamentalist teachings. But there is a much bigger issue at hand, more serious than the physical abuse and the labor trafficking, the medical and educational neglect, the psychological, spiritual, and emotional trauma.

The Duggars harbored and protected a sexual abuser within their home for more than a decade, enabling further abuse. They, along with every other fundamentalist family and church, have institutionalized sexual purity, victim blaming, and turning a blind eye to sexual abuse and assault. Jim Bob and Michelle knew that their eldest son had molested at least two of their daughters. They convinced their daughters that they “didn’t remember what had happened because they were asleep.” Imagine that for a moment. These parents chose abuse and assault at every turn in their children’s lives and then gaslit them into believing it didn’t happen.

Girls in fundamentalism are not told about their bodies or sexuality. They are told that they need to remain chaste until marriage and that is as far as sex education goes. They are told that they need to be subservient to men and boys. They are educated to be homemakers and mothers and maybe sometimes teachers or nurses.

By creating a culture in which women and very young girls are told that they must cover their bodies and behave in ways that will not tempt men and boys to “sin,” by telling girls that it is THEIR responsibility and THEIR fault if something were to happen, fundamentalist leaders and their male followers not only create victims that hardly ever report, but also they groom abusers in the boys and men who are being absolved from responsibility for their actions.

It took many decades after I left my fundamentalist home for me to understand what had happened to me and to truly begin to heal from the complex trauma caused by those kinds of abuses. I also experienced sexual abuse at the hands of fundamentalist leaders, which was ignored and minimized. It happened so often to me and girls I knew. We never talked about it, but we could see it in each other’s faces and on each other’s bodies. It was an unspoken trauma we shared.

After watching Shiny Happy People herself, Dr. Lalich asked me how I survived it. The first thing that came to my mind was the amount of memory loss I’ve experienced and witnessed in people I grew up with. I survived it by dissociating, by creating my own world that was free of terror and abuse. I survived by becoming hypervigilant and living in a world of magical thinking that I could prevent bad things from happening to me. 

I don’t know the number of children who are growing up in this kind of fundamentalism today; however, I’m sure it’s in the millions. Why? Because people think that calling a harmful belief system “Christianity” makes it mainstream and socially acceptable. There are families like the Duggars hiding in plain sight all over the world. They’ve become emboldened in the last decade, as the work they have been doing behind the scenes begins to come to fruition and their foothold in the lawmaking bodies of the U.S. becomes stronger.

To me, this is the biggest takeaway from Shiny Happy People. Christian fundamentalism is never content to quietly practice its beliefs at home. Their goal is to make America a “Christian” nation and to ensure that everyone is subject to their belief system. They are taking away everyone’s right to make reproductive decisions for themselves. They are attempting to control the education of all children in public schools and universities, even though their own children are “educated” at home using the fundamentalist curriculum. They are raising their children to fight in a war they believe is coming.

Extreme Christian fundamentalism and Christian nationalism is a dangerous cult. Its members disguise themselves as the “shiny happy people” that the Duggars were portrayed to be. It’s time to look beyond that façade and see them for what they really are.


Dr. Janja Lalich

Janja Lalich, Ph.D. is a researcher, author, and educator specializing in cults and extremist groups, with a particular focus on charismatic relationships, political and other social movements, ideology and social control, and issues of gender and sexuality.