AN ultra-conservative Christian sect made famous by the Duggar family banned children from watching TV, playing with Barbies, or even reading books like Harry Potter, one escapee told The US Sun.
Elizabeth Hunter, 28, was raised by her adoptive parents in an organization known as the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and its home-schooling off-shoot, the Advanced Training Institute (ATI).
The IBLP was founded by evangelical minister Bill Gothard in the 1960s but the alleged "cult" was thrust into mainstream focus in 2004, following the release of the Duggar family's first reality TV series, “14 Children and Pregnant Again".
Through his "Basic Seminar" principles, Gothard preached a strict hierarchy of authority, beginning with Jesus at the top, followed by church elders, and then husbands, who are tasked with protecting their wives and children.
According to Gothard, who never married, a man's role in life is to provide "servant leadership" while women must respond with "reverent submission and assistance."
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, and their ever-growing family, have attended and promoted numerous IBLP events in the past and were regular speakers at its Family Conferences in Big Sandy, Texas.
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The couple has even previously said that Gothard's teachings "changed our lives" in a post that remains on their website.
The Duggars did not believe in birth control, they home-schooled their children using Gothard's ATI program, required them to wear "modest" clothing, and limited influences from the outside world.
Within the sect, Elizabeth told The US Sun the Duggar family was "revered" and "super respected."
"Everybody thought their word was like the gospel," she said.
"We were told they were what we should all aspire to be like."
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Like the Duggars, Elizabeth said her family also limited influences from the outside world: they had no television inside their home, she and her younger sisters weren't allowed to read any books that hadn't been read by her parents first, and under no circumstances were they allowed to listen to pop music.
"Most of our books were about Christianity or were educational," Elizabeth said.
"There was nothing that had like magic or fantasy in it, so things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings weren't allowed, any 'once upon a time…' kind of stories were also forbidden."
Playtime was also very limited, Elizabeth says. In fact, her mom apparently had a rule that she and her sisters could only play pretend 10 percent of the time.
"After that, everything else had to be based in reality," Elizabeth explained.
"So you could ride your bike but you couldn't play with dolls for more than 10 percent of your time."
Things like rock, pop, and even jazz music were simply out of the question with Elizabeth's father, following Gothard's teachings, believing such sounds were "demonic."
So Elizabeth was only allowed to listen to either classical music or Christian hymns because syncopated music was believed to be the "antithesis of what God desires in the life of a Christian," according to Gothard.
"Other things that were popular that like weren't allowed to like, Pokemon, the Bratz dolls or even Barbie," Elizabeth said, with IBLP designating such figures of pop culture idolatrous – meaning something being worshipped other than God, which was forbidden.
"Most modern fun things just weren't allowed," she added.
"Even Monster Energy Drinks were forbidden because they looked Satanic to my parents."
THE 'BUDDY RULE'
Another IBLP teaching used by the Duggars that was also in place in Elizabeth's household was something known as the "buddy rule", whereby older children would be tasked with looking after and caring for their younger siblings.
For Elizabeth, that meant not only dressing, bathing, and feeding her younger sisters but also ensuring they did all her chores as requested by her parents.
If her younger sisters failed to fulfill her parent's wishes, Elizabeth would also be punished along with them.
Those punishments, Elizabeth claims, could vary from having certain privileges revoked to the extreme, such as allegedly being tied to one of her siblings with a rope for several days on end.
"Looking back on it now it was absolutely ridiculous," Elizabeth said of the alleged punishments.
"I don't have children, but my sister does, and she said once she had them she felt just so angry and frustrated about how we were treated.
"Because once you have children you realized that you would never do this to them."
Elizabeth says her parents have since apologized for some of the punishments they allegedly subject her and her siblings to but apparently claim to not remember some of her accusations.
"I know that like I would never do this to someone I loved so it really hurts to know that they would do that to us," Elizabeth said.
"And a lot of the things that my parents did, they don't remember or they just say they don’t.
"They say, 'We were frustrated. We didn't know what we were doing and we didn't mean to hurt you at all.'
"So it's hard for me to imagine doing something so traumatic and then be like, 'Well, I don't even remember.'"
While one of her younger sisters – who Elizabeth described as "rebellious" – constantly questioned and pushed back against her parents' extreme rules, Elizabeth often played peacekeeper inside her home, fearful of defying her father.
That's because of the IBLP's teachings, through which she was instructed that breaking any of his or the IBLP's rules, or straying from their beliefs, would lead to her being "punished by God."
In accordance with IBLP ideology, Elizabeth's father had almost total control over her life, dictating what she could wear, eat, and even held the power to select who she was going to marry and when.
The family would regularly attend IBLP and ATI summits and other events to be refreshed on the teachings of Gothard, where Elizabeth said he was treated as if a God himself.
"My own mother said that she never wanted to have a conversation with Gothard because God had given him a spirit of discernment where he could tell all of your sins at once and call you out on them.
"People would be struggling with day-to-day problems and they would go to him, and within minutes he would have the answer.
"People believed God had given him such wisdom that he could immediately tell you what you were doing wrong and how to fix your life."
Other figures of much fawning and fascination were the Duggar family, according to Elizabeth, who said she became well acquainted with some of Jim Bob and Michelle's daughters.
"I did interact with them because some of the different girls are my age, so at ATI yearly events we were in the same groups together," she said.
"I would go back the following year and they would recognize me and speak to me, but I could never tell their girls apart because they all looked the same."
'YOU'RE IN A CULT'
As she grew older, Elizabeth said she grew increasingly disillusioned with the IBLP's teachings and Gothard himself, believing the way in which people were instructed to treat their wives and children was "so disrespectful and dehumanizing."
Determined to become more than just someone's wife, Elizabeth pushed and pushed her parents to allow her to go to college and study education.
College wasn't something typically afforded to female members of the IBLP but after a number of years of begging she was finally allowed to go to college – one of the most conservative in the country – where by she was soon informed by a counselor that she was "in a cult," she said.
"I did not know I was in a cult until I was a sophomore in college, and I was talking to my therapist," Elizabeth said.
"I was explaining that my parents used the Duggar ‘buddy system’ to discipline me and my sister and other types of punishment … and she looked at me and she said, 'Elizabeth, your parents are a part of a cult.'
"And it just all hit me at once, and I was like, 'yeah, you're right.'"
A year after making the realization, Elizabeth also came to terms with her sexuality and realized she was gay.
She has since broken away from the church and now works in TV news as a writer and digital creator, maintaining a relationship with her parents but keeping them at a distance.
Towards the end of her time within the sect and after her escape, the IBLP, Gothard, and even the Duggar family have been hit by a succession of scandals.
Gothard was forced to step down from the church in March 2014 amid allegations he had sexually harassed and molested multiple women who worked for the organization.
The pastor denied any criminal wrongdoing but said in a since-deleted statement that his "actions of holding of hands, hugs, and touching of feet or hair with young ladies crossed the boundaries of discretion and were wrong."
An internal IBLP investigation found no criminal activity but affirmed that Gothard had acted in an "inappropriate" way.
Twelve women later alleged in a civil suit that they had been sexually, physically, or psychologically abused by Gothard as minors and that the IBLP had worked to cover it up.
The case was dropped in 2018, but the women's attorney declined to disclose why at the time, citing attorney-client privilege.
The Duggars also released a statement to NBC News, in which they said: "The public accusations against Dr. Gothard in recent years are troubling and grievous.
"However, our faith in God is not based on following a fallible human man. … Truth is truth, even if the messenger fails.”
The family also claimed they were never paid for their involvement with the IBLP, according to NBC.
But a year after Gothard resigned the Duggar family was rocked by their own scandal.
In May 2015, a leaked police report from 2006 showed that Josh Duggar, the couple's eldest son, had been accused of molesting five girls when he was a teenager.
Jim Bob and Michelle later told Fox News that Josh had first confessed to molesting children to them in 2002 when he was 14.
Some of the victims were his sisters, who have since said they have forgiven him.
Josh was never arrested or charged in relation to those allegations, instead, he sought “faith-based healing” at IBLP’s training center in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Duggar family's show continued, rebranding itself as "Counting On" and focused on the older Duggar girls as they appeared to move away from their parent's conservative values.
However, Josh, 34, found himself back in the headlines again in December of 2021 when he was convicted of downloading and possessing images of child porn.
He was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in federal prison on May 25, and 20 years of supervised release at the end of his term.
Elizabeth said she was unsurprised to learn of Josh Duggar's fall from grace, accusing the IBLP's teachings of supporting an environment where abuse can go unchecked.
During her time inside the IBLP, Elizabeth said she heard numerous instances of sexual abuse, including girls who had been abused by their fathers, siblings, or other family members.
"It wasn't just the kind of thing that was limited to one family, it's the kind of story I kept hearing again and again.
"There were families around us who covered up sexual abuse inside their own homes, or who threw their own children under the bus to protect their men in their lives.
"I feel the way they taught about women's roles and the way men are revered above women … puts a protective layer over the men and places blame on the victim.
"Often if someone did report being sexually assaulted, the questions would be like, 'what were you wearing? What did you do to like encourage sexual assault?' – all of those kinds of questions.
"On top of those victim-blaming attitudes, there was also this layer that like God allowed it to happen, but it didn't harm your soul or spirit, it only harms your physical body and therefore, it was a temporary, physical thing that you can move past."
Before being adopted by her parents, Elizabeth claims she was sexually abused by one of her biological family members.
The alleged abuse saw her taken into the custody of Child Protective Services before being placed into foster care, and then adopted by her current parents when she was five years old.
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When she was 14 or 15, she finally confessed to her adoptive parents about the abuse she suffered as a child.
"We were told to forgive our abuser because God forgives all sexual sin," Elizabeth said.
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