When Jinger Duggar Vuolo was about 14, her family piled into the family bus to drive to Texas from their home in Arkansas. They were headed to a conference for home-schooling parents and their children, an annual event that was one of the highlights of her year — and the rare place where very large families like her own felt normal.
The trip was filmed for an episode of the reality television show that made Mrs. Vuolo, her parents and her many siblings famous: “17 Kids and Counting,” which became 18, then 19. On camera, her father, Jim Bob, extolled the group that put on the conference as character-building and “one of the best things we’ve done for our family.” As the credits rolled, the children performed a song onstage about the saving blood of Jesus, warbling, “Why should I not be put in hell to suffer for all time?”
More than a decade later, almost everything about that episode of television has taken on adarker shade. The conference’s influential founder, Bill Gothard, has been accused of sexual harassment and abuse by dozens of women and ousted from the organizations he led. Mrs. Vuolo’s older brother Josh Duggar is in prison for downloading images and videos of child sexual abuse in a case that made headlines across the country. Jim Bob lost a primary for the Arkansas State Senate in 2021; the Duggars are no longer on television.
Mrs. Vuolo, the sixth-oldest Duggar child, is now a 29-year-old married mother of two living 1,500 miles from her hometown. As a child, she was a symbol of sweetness and obedience to the many conservative Christians who admired her family.
Now, she is using her fame to denounce many aspects of that upbringing, and promote a different vision of Christianity she describes as defined by grace, not rules. In a recent interview and a new memoir, “Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentangling Faith from Fear,” she recounted a childhood defined by cycles of anxiety, exhaustion and guilt.
For all the Duggars’ exposure, Mrs. Vuolo’s account is by far the most intimate, critical look at the inner workings of a family beloved by conservative Christians as a supersize example of wholesome family values.
The family often attended an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, part of an insular patriarchal tradition that espouses strict views of modesty, authority, and what they see as a literal reading of the Bible. The Duggars taught their children that “immodest” clothes were “defrauding,” for example, because they stir up sexual desires that cannot be properly fulfilled.
Even after the image began to crumble, the family has maintained a largely united front. No other siblings have spoken as critically about the family’s theology and values as Mrs. Vuolo. With an online following that includes 1.4 million followers on Instagram, her declaration of independence is being closely watched as a high-profile example of re-examining one’s own religious upbringing.
Mrs. Vuolo and her husband, Jeremy Vuolo, getting their daughter ready for church. Credit…Isadora Kosofsky for The New York Times
In grappling critically with the strict religious teachings of her childhood, Mrs. Vuolo is taking part in a version of “deconstruction,” though she distances herself from the specific term. It’s an exercise that has accelerated in the last five years among young adults raised in conservative Christian homes but remains controversial among many in the faith.
“I was just so crippled with fear, and I didn’t know why,” Mrs. Vuolo recalled in an interview. She described herself as a “serious rule-follower,” who took to heart her family’s admonitions to dress in long skirts, avoid rock music and date only under parental supervision. In Mrs. Vuolo’s world, it was never a question that she would bypass college, marry a man approved by her parents and devote her life to parenting and home-schooling.
With a label borrowed from academic literary theorists, deconstruction has a broad range of definitions and outcomes, from understanding more about a faith once accepted uncritically to full abandonment of religious belief. Today, there are deconstruction coaches, deconstruction seminars, deconstruction podcasts and deconstruction songs. The topic made the cover of Christianity Today magazine last year, with headline “Wait, You’re Not Deconstructing?” In other words, everyone’s doing it.
“For a person to go through deconstruction, it often involves being rejected by your family and losing your entire social network,”said Brian McLaren, a writer and former pastor who helped popularize the term in evangelical circles in the early 2000s. “Deconstruction is not just a theological matter. It ends up being a social matter, and the stress of that social pressure puts incredible psychological pressure on you.”
The exercise of deconstruction, Mr. McLaren said, has taken off in part as wide-ranging discussions about gender, politics, sex and power in evangelical life have prompted many young Christians to ask big questions about the culture in which they were raised. In some cases, people walk away completely from religion; in others, they shift their theology or practice.
Mrs. Vuolo writes in her book that what she is doing is not deconstruction, exactly, but “disentangling,” a process she compares to methodically working a clump of hardened putty out of a healthy head of hair. By “disentangling,” she has separated “the truth of Christianity from the unhealthy version I heard growing up,” she writes.
It’s an important distinction if only because of Mrs. Vuolo’s most important audience: those who are still loyal to beliefs like Mr. Gothard’s, and who might be put off by a more aggressive approach. “I really just wanted them to be free from these teachings,” she said, calling them “harmful.”
Her parents drew much of their philosophy from Mr. Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, which issued detailed formulas for what he viewed as right living. That included everything from marriage (abstain from sex for two weeks each month) to music (avoid anything with a syncopated beat). The rules were so specific and strict that for years, the family attended a “home church” with a few other large families with similar lifestyles, rather than a traditional church where the children might encounter Christians who lived even slightly differently. Mr. Gothard himself never married.
The Duggars used Mr. Gothard’s curricula in home-schooling classes and listened frequently to his messages on tape and on video, including on Sunday mornings.
“That was all I ever knew,” Mrs. Vuolo said in the interview. “His words, in my mind, were almost the words of God.”
Mrs. Vuolo recalled driving to one of Mr. Gothard’s seminars in a van, when someone put on some music that had a noticeable drum beat. In hindsight, she suspects it was Christian music of the kind performed in thousands of churches each week. But at the time, she was paralyzed by fear that the tune would somehow cause a car accident, an idea she had picked up from Mr. Gothard’s teachings.
Mrs. Vuolo did not go to college, and she married a man her parents ultimately approved of. But her husband, Jeremy Vuolo, a former Major League Soccer player, was raised in a more mainstream evangelical home, and their relationship helped introduce her to a less punitive and restrictive form of faith.
In the process of convincing her father he was fit to “court” her with the intention of marrying, Mr. Vuolo watched more than 60 hours of Mr. Gothard’s lectures and other content. Together, the couple began to compare Mr. Gothard’s interpretations with the Bible itself; eventually, Mrs. Vuolo says, she decided, “He’s lying.” She now wears pants and shorts when she pleases, does not condemn alcohol (though she doesn’t drink) and does not plan on home-schooling her two daughters, who are 4 and 2.
The book is notably generous to Mrs. Vuolo’s parents, who brought their family into the Gothard way of life and, she said, still adhere to it, along with many of her siblings. She maintains a relationship with her parents despite their differences, and many members of the family have visited her in California. Most of her family, including her parents, have remained silent about the book even as it has generated headlines. Her parents did not respond to a request for comment.
Mrs. Vuolo also writes in the book about her brother Josh, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison last year. She has not spoken to him in two years, she said, adding that she is grateful “justice is being served.” In the book, she compares her brother’s “hypocrisy” to what she says is Mr. Gothard’s.
Mr. Gothard is a distinctly less influential figure than he was in the 1990s and early 2000s. He resigned from his ministry in 2014 after more than 30 women and teens accused him of sexual harassment and abuse. Ten women filed a civil suit, which included accusations of rape, against him and his ministry in 2016. The plaintiffs later voluntarily withdrew their suit over complications including the statute of limitations, but made clear they stand by their stories. Mr. Gothard, who is now 88, started a new organization and has denied the accusations, saying he “never kissed a girl nor have I touched a girl immorally or with sexual intent.” Mrs. Vuolo writes in the book that the accusations against him are “too consistent to deny.”
Mr. Gothard did not respond to a request for comment. He was not criminally charged.
Mrs. Vuolo characterizes her current church in Southern California as very different than the environment she was raised in. The church, Grace Community Church, is led by John MacArthur, a popular pastor known for his rigorous preaching style, his opposition to “superstitious” charismatic theology and, more recently, his resistance to keeping his church closed in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
The church is conservative on issues like homosexuality, gender, and women in church leadership. Christianity Today reported this week that leaders at the church repeatedly advised women to avoid reporting their abusive husbands and fathers to authorities, and instead to forgive and submit to them.
In a statement posted online, the church said “Myriads of Grace Church members who have sought counsel at our church will testify that the counsel they receive is biblical, charitable, supportive, and liberating.”
The church plays a large role in Mrs. Vuolo’s family’s life. Her husband leads a Bible study group for college students and is employed by a seminary affiliated with the church, the Master’s Seminary, where he is working on a doctorate of ministry. “Becoming Free Indeed” credits a ghostwriter named Corey Williams who is the seminary’s chief communication officer.
“This is what people won’t like about this story,” said Austin Duncan, director of the seminary’s MacArthur Center for Expository Preaching, who knows the Vuolos well. “They still have a standard of authority that’s outside of themselves.”
Coverage of the book in the evangelical press has been largely favorable, with many noting Mrs. Vuolo’s distinction between “disentangling” and deconstruction.
Mr. Duncan and his wife have counseled Mrs. Vuolo as she has settled into a life in California. Mrs. Vuolo stays home with her young girls for now, volunteers with the church and often hosts college students from her husband’s Bible study at their home.
Mrs. Vuolo said she hoped the book, and her ordinary life itself, would show her friends and family who still follow the teachings of her childhood that there’s another way.
“Even though you’re told your life is going to fall apart if you leave, it’s not,” she said. “You don’t have to even lose your faith in God.”