Comedian and Writer Brooke Arnold Talks about Her Experience Being Raised in the Same “Exploitative and Abusive” Fundamentalist Christian Organization That the Duggars Are Affiliated With

ATILogoBy Elaine Magliaro

There’s an interesting article by Brooke Arnold titled I could’ve been a Duggar wife: I grew up in the same church, and the abuse scandal doesn’t shock me, which was posted over at Salon today. Arnold noted that unlike many of her colleagues who have been covering the Josh Duggar molestation scandal, she was raised in a “home school cult” known as Advanced Training Institute (ATI), the fundamentalist Christian organization that the Duggar family is affiliated with.

FYI: Arnold is an author and a stand-up comic who is currently writing a memoir called “Growing Up Fundie.” The memoir tells about her experience being raised in the “exploitative and abusive” Christian sect–which she left.

About ATI from Gawker:

ATI is a “Biblically based” homeschooling program that lets Christian families integrate their kids’ daily, hours-long moral learnings with just a dash of secularism. Its various pillars include doing exactly what’s expected “instantly and cheerfully,” not asking questions, strict adherence to patriarchal standards, and, of course, shielding yourselves from any influence or human that might lead you off the beaten (sometimes literally!) path.

The home-education program is just one of many bizarre offshoots of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a group “dedicated to giving clear instruction and training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture.” Or rather, they’re dedicated assuming you buy its expansive back-catalogue or pay to attend one of its seminars, education programs, camps, youth academies, training sessions, what have you.

Arnold said that Josh Duggar’s confession that he had molested young girls in his family’s home when he was a teenager didn’t surprise her. She added that it should not “surprise anyone with any intimate knowledge about this organization, because ATI’s theological beliefs and practices cultivate an environment where women and children are more vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse.” Brooke continued, “Ironically, the same theological beliefs and practices at the heart of this scandal are the same beliefs that created the Duggars as a media phenomenon, and drew viewers and fans to their TLC show ‘19 Kids and Counting.’”


Non-mainstream religious sects have certainly been enjoying a cultural moment on television: “The Following,” “Sister Wives,” “Breaking Amish. Netflix’s dark comedy “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” explores the media hype around religious cult survivors in satirical detail. For me, though, that show should have come with a trigger warning, because in many ways, I am a real Kimmy Schmidt — a woman who spent her adolescence trapped inside a metaphorical bunker, and then was thrust into a world that she had never been prepared to be a part of.

Brooke pointed out that the Duggars “didn’t emerge from a subterranean bunker…” She said that they have been “on TV promoting the fundamentalist Christian theology of ATI since their first special in 2004 (“14 Children and Pregnant Again!”).”


ATI is a Christian homeschool organization that hosts seminars worldwide, provides homeschooling curriculum, and even runs its own paramilitary training center. At one point, it was strongly affiliated with a Christian correspondence course law school. Its members are not concentrated in one area, and yet they maintain insular groups and often form churches in which all members are affiliated with ATI and/or follow its basic principles. Referred to as “Gothardism” within fundamentalist Christian circles, the teachings of ATI form an ideological system of practices based on the extremely strict, fundamentalist, and idiosyncratic Biblical interpretations of the organization’s founder, Bill Gothard – a man who, in 2014, stepped down as head of ATI following allegations of sexual misconduct with young girls.

The allegations against “Mr. Gothard” (as he is respectfully and worshipfully referred to by his acolytes) were an open secret among group members for many years. As a friend who worked at ATI headquarters once said to me with a wink: “The prettiest girls are always chosen to work the closest with Mr Gothard.”

Arnold said that the teaching of ATI “trickle down into every single part of its members’ lives.” She claims that it isn’t only a homeschool curriculum—but “a fully institutionalized religious sect with incredibly strict demands to conformity — rules that, in my experience, more often reflect Gothard’s personal preferences than actual Biblical teachings.”


Have you ever wondered why every Duggar woman perms her hair? It’s because Gothard taught us that curly hair brings out a woman’s natural beauty. Other ATI beliefs that I learned range from utterly bizarre to downright barbaric, like the creator of Cabbage Patch Kid dolls is actually a Satanic wizard who implants demons into the dolls that then sneak into children’s bodies while they are sleeping — along with the old standard that rock music is inherently sinful. One boy from our church would walk around supermarkets with his fingers plugged into his ears to prevent himself from hearing it.

Arnold talked about certain beliefs/practices that are central to ATI: “the antiquated dress codes (especially for girls and women), the required homeschooling, the prohibition on birth control, the strictly gendered division of labor and the absolute and unquestioned authority of the father within the home.”

Arnold noted one major difference between the “19 Kids and Counting” Duggars and most ATI families—affluence. While the Duggar family lives “in a spacious Discovery Networks-funded home,” Arnold said that it wasn’t unusual in the church “for two parents and ten children to live packed into a singlewide trailer.” She said the children of poor ATI families “usually wear threadbare hand-me-downs already passed through several rounds of siblings.” Arnold added, “Many of them look malnourished due to the abundance of starchy meals necessary on a lean one-parent income.” Arnold continued by saying that women and mothers “working outside of the home is absolutely forbidden in ATI no matter what the financial situation of the family.” She said that some women “are even required to get permission from their husbands if they want to obtain a driver’s license.”

Something else that Arnold pointed out in her article is that the isolation of homeschooling makes children more vulnerable to abuse. Arnold wrote: “There are no teachers or school counselors for abused children to confide in, so for most of them, the abuse would continue for their entire adolescence.” She said that the only escape for a young woman in this Christian organization is “through courtship and marriage to a man, who would attempt to immediately impregnate her and to whom she would then relinquish all sexual control.”

This is all very sad and troubling, don’t you think?

Click here to read the full text of Brooke Arnold’s Salon article I could’ve been a Duggar wife: I grew up in the same church, and the abuse scandal doesn’t shock me.



I could’ve been a Duggar wife: I grew up in the same church, and the abuse scandal doesn’t shock me (Salon)

The Creepy Fundamentalist Homeschool Cult That Trained the Duggars (Gawker)


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3 Responses to Comedian and Writer Brooke Arnold Talks about Her Experience Being Raised in the Same “Exploitative and Abusive” Fundamentalist Christian Organization That the Duggars Are Affiliated With

  1. Mike Spindell says:

    Simply disgusting. ATI and its followers are horrible human beings and should have nothing to do with raising children. If there is a God they are destined for the Hell that they think they are trying to avoid. This was the most mild way I can state this given the anger in my chest.

  2. bettykath says:

    I know of a family living in a rural area where the children are home schooled and their only outlet is the church which has a pastor who preaches “man (father) dominates all”. The incest of the children came to light when one of the girls became pregnant, it was assumed that their boy was the father. I haven’t kept up with that situation. My source attended the church briefly, until she heard enough from the pastor that she rejected him/it.

  3. Elaine M. says:

    The “Duggar wives” of the world have spoken: “I thought I was the only one”
    When I wrote my essay “I could’ve been a Duggar wife,” I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming response
    By Brooke Arnold

    I think if I had known the amount of attention and the intensity of response that my last article for Salon, “I could’ve been a Duggar wife: I grew up in the same church, and the abuse scandal doesn’t shock me,” was going to receive, I would not have had the courage to press “send” on the pitch. I assumed that it would be just one more article; one more pebble thrown into the giant ocean of online media. I didn’t imagine that it would cause anything more than a very short-lived ripple. I was very wrong.

    Since the article was published, I have received thousands of messages from people who have said: “I thought I was the only one.”

    Many of those messages came from people like me who grew up in and around ATI, a fundamentalist Christian organization— some even from people that I had grown up with and not spoken to in a very long time. Sadly, many of those messages also included stories of horrors that far exceeded anything that I experienced.

    But what surprised me the most about these messages was how many different religious backgrounds the people who identified so strongly with my story come from. They were raised as Mormons, Mennonites, conservative Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics and many others. It seems clear to me that abuse affects all religious communities.

    Perhaps that is because religions are inherently institutions of control. They control what we believe, the ways we behave, and, ultimately, who is valued. This structure of control then extends beyond the larger religious community and into the home where, tragically, women and children are placed at the bottom of those value systems, making them especially vulnerable to abuse.

    An irony here is that the family at the center of the sex scandal, the Duggars, has been lauded throughout their tenure in the public eye as champions of so-called family values. But what all of these stories reveal is that “family values” have less to do with the well-being of a family and more to do with politics. “Family values” should not be a signal for which political party one votes for or is photographed with. “Family values” should not be based on how strictly one can adhere to religious teachings or practices. “Family values” should not elevate certain members of the family above one another.

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