In their exclusive interview with Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly Wednesday night, reality-TV stars Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar found a predictably safe space to portray themselves as gravely concerned parents who did everything right more than a decade ago when their oldest son, Joshua, then a teenager, told them that he had inappropriately touched at least one of his younger sisters. (In all, the interview revealed, four of the Duggar sisters had been inappropriately touched by Josh.)
The parents described the precautions, prayers and disciplinary measures they took with Josh – sending him away at one point so he could reckon with God. The account they gave to Kelly (like so many of the narratives the Duggars have shared on their TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting”) had the whiff of parable about it: The son returned, deeply sorry and forever changed. And so he was forgiven. As far as the Duggars are concerned, that should have been the end of it.
You sometimes have to wonder why people who put so much effort into living what they perceive as biblical principles (the Duggars’s version of Christian living is well right of the norm, with strict rules about dating, marriage, gender roles and the like) manage to miss some of the key verses in the scripture – in this case, Matthew 23:12: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled.” Whether by tabloid journalism or by some other karmic force, the Duggars have joined a very long list of righteous people who have been humbled. “The Kelly File” explored this idea here and there, but the interview was really just a pantomime of a familiar ritual in celebrityville: The agonizing primetime interrogation.
Only without the agony or the interrogation – not really. Kelly asked a few of the more pressing questions people have had for the Duggars since news first broke of now-27-year-old Josh’s actions on May 21. (Such as: Why would you launch a reality show all those years ago, when you knew this could come out someday?) But Kelly let other questions slide and was too sympathetic to the Duggars’s perception of themselves as liberal media martyrs. (“It’s been an unprecedented attack on our family,” Jim Bob said.)
Kelly cross-examined Michelle about her involvement in campaigning against a local anti-discrimination initiative in Fayetteville, Ark., but never probed the extent of the increasingly public stances the Duggars have taken on hot-button social issues, including Josh’s work with the conservative Family Research Council. In any event, the Duggars don’t seem inclined (or equipped, frankly) to have a real talk about the finer points of hypocrisy, although Michelle conceded that she could at least understand where some of the backlash comes from. If you really want to see the Duggars squirm (and that seems to be what people want here), then let Nancy Grace take a crack at ’em. Let Oprah.
“What’s next?” Kelly asked the couple. “What happens to the Duggars from here?” (Will the TLC show be canceled?)
“We are fine whether they film us or not,” Jim Bob said.
“Either way, we are at peace,” Michelle said.
Viewers who watched the interview may have noticed how Jim Bob and Michelle’s account of this saga is primarily about Josh and not about their daughters. The girls, the Duggars assure us, never knew what happened until they were told what happened. “They didn’t know” about what their brother had done to them while they were sleeping or sitting on a sofa, and what they didn’t know had lasted mere “seconds,” and the touching, such that it occurred, had been “over their clothes,” so, really, the Duggars seemed to imply, the harm was minimal. (Near the end of “The Kelly File,” the Fox host promoted a further interview with two of the older Duggar daughters, Jill and Jessa, on Friday night. The preview clip of that interview indicated that this matter will only become more pathetic before America loses interest.)
A more grievous offense, the Duggars told Kelly, is the fact that a sealed juvenile record of the incident (Jim Bob had taken Josh to state police and there was an investigation) made its way to the tabloids. They said they’re even considering suing the official they think may have leaked information to the press. What their critics see as the Duggars’s attempt to sweep their son’s misdeeds under the carpet, the Duggars say was meant to protect all of their children, to deal with the events privately as a God-fearing family. They weren’t keeping secrets so much as keeping everyone safe from an ugly truth.
Wednesday night’s interview wasn’t an entirely convincing performance, but it wasn’t without its merits, either. It seems the Duggars can’t win, in the eyes of both their fans and their most severe critics: Either they’re terrible people who didn’t do enough for their family, or they’re terrible people who did too much to keep a terrible misdeed under wraps. In their interview they identified with Jesus as the metaphorical shepherd, leaving the flock of 99 sheep to go rescue the one who’d gone astray. Surely any parent can identify with that protective impulse?
Identifying, however, has always been the hardest thing to do when it comes to the Duggars. The TLC show kept them at a safe and always pleasant remove from reality TV’s participatory ire and comeuppance, treating them almost like an anthropological curiosity (here we have the happy, radically Christian mega brood living in the faraway sticks) rather than asking them the tough questions all along about their lifestyle and politics and social mores.
In this way, the Duggars have actually never been on reality TV, at least not the genre that prizes conflict, arguments, physical aggression, hair-pulling, wall-punching and rivers of mascara-tinted tears. To this point, the Duggars have been able to have it both ways, enjoying some of the splendors of the secular madhouse while maintaining their principled ways. Their show was successful without being personally ruinous or even remotely humiliating; their children’s engagements and weddings appeared on the covers of gossip magazines that usually traffic in the much more fraught realm of splitsville and other scandalously low places.
The Duggars are now like everyone else on reality TV – fallen, humbled – and you could tell in Wednesday night’s interview that they don’t like it one bit. But you could also tell that their faith is unshaken. Not only their faith in God, but their faith in the power of going on TV.