Shiny Happy People is a great reminder of why cult documentaries should exist

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I grew up adjacent to the fundamentalist Christian cult that Shiny Happy People, the four-part docuseries ostensibly about the reality TV-famous Duggar family, was really about. The Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), founded and led by a man named Bill Gothard, had many arms: a series of seminars and workshops, copious curricula on “successful living,” and a large homeschool organization.

It didn’t present as a cult; it looked like an ordinary Christian ministry, but with several possible levels of involvement, all of which strongly advocated radical patriarchy and a series of stringent fundamentalist views. Though I was homeschooled, my family never joined the homeschool organization that catered to the most hard-core members (in part because they required men to be clean-shaven, and my bearded father refused), but the rest of the leader’s teachings pervaded my life through most of my teens.

That’s probably why, when Shiny Happy People dropped on June 2, I couldn’t tell if the show was immensely popular, or if the many tweets about IBLP, Gothard, and the emotional and sexual abuse stories in the docuseries I saw were just Twitter’s algorithm knowing what to put in front of me. I’d felt connections to many of the dozens of recently released religious abuse docuseries — everything from God Forbid (about Jerry Falwell Jr.) to Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey (about Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) to both seasons of The Vow (about upstate “sex cult” NXIVM) to two recent series about Hillsong and its disgraced former pastor, Carl Lentz. But this was the one I’d been waiting for, the one I felt was narrating my life. Judging from what I saw online, I wasn’t the only one.

I follow a lot of people, many around 40 like myself, who grew up with serious exposure to IBLP, the related homeschool organizations called the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), and the man behind them all, Gothard, a soft-spoken fundamentalist minister with a predilection for giving “chalk talks.” (He’d explain some principle of living a “successful” life drawn from some textual snippet of the Bible and, simultaneously, draw a landscape or something on a chalkboard. Gothard is honestly a pretty talented artist; the big reveal — when you finally saw what he’d been drawing all along — was a real wow moment.)

Those of us who grew up in or around Gothard’s world can feel estranged from contemporary discussions of American evangelical culture because we frequently felt locked outside of it, noses pressed to the glass. There’s an often-blurry boundary between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, opaque to most people; to generalize, evangelicals like Billy Graham are more engaged with mainstream culture, whether through copying it, criticizing it, or trying to influence it. Fundamentalists tend to cut “the world” a wider berth and create elaborate lifestyle rules to keep themselves separate, which is part of what made the Duggars’ appearance on a TLC reality show so unusual. To us, though, this boundary was vibrantly alive. Not only was most secular culture off-limits, but most Christian culture was, too.

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