true story

Jill Duggar Tells Her Side of the Story

The former star of two reality shows about her massive family has a new memoir, Counting the Cost, and a new outlook on the childhood that brought her fame, sorrow, and eventually the chance to help.
Jill Duggar Tells Her Side of the Story
Courtesy of Monique Serra Photography/Simon and Schuster.

Growing up as a Duggar daughter, Jill Duggar Dillard knew one thing for certain: She never wanted to disobey her parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. Going against her father meant exposing herself to the evils of the world, and as a young girl—one who admits she was eager to please—Jill wanted to keep the peace.

It took the 32-year-old longer to realize that evil was already breeding inside her family’s Tontitown, Arkansas home. And it looked a lot like her brother Josh Duggar.

“Home was small, but it was a place of safety,” Jill writes in her memoir, Counting the Cost, out September 12. “The lands beyond it were vast and unknowable, beset with hidden dangers that lurked like quicksand.”

In the book, cowritten with her husband Derick Dillard, the former star of two TLC reality shows about her large family candidly explains what it was really like to grow up in the spotlight—and under her parents’ interpretation of the fundamentalist Christian movement called Institute in Basic Life Principles or IBLP. Though they know speaking their truth could come at the cost of family relationships, earlier this year, Jill also appeared in Prime Video’s explosive IBLP-focused docuseries Shiny Happy People, alongside her cousin Amy Duggar King.

“People always have opinions about my life, and their own version of the story from what they believe my reality was growing up on reality TV,” Jill tells Vanity Fair. “I really felt like I wanted to do this to help other people for the long haul… to hopefully (help them) find their voice and know that they are not alone, that they don’t have to live in isolation and fear and control.”

Jill, the fourth born of 19 children, reveals in her memoir that she learned to be an “approval hunter” from a young age. She says her parents capitalized on her agreeable demeanor, affectionately calling her “Sweet Jilly Muffin.” “I wanted to be the good girl. I tried to be the perfect daughter,” Jill writes. Her efforts earned her top praise from her dad, whom she calls Pops throughout the book. She recalls Jim Bob saying that of all his children, Jill was the most like his wife, Michelle. “Being compared to my mom like that was the greatest prize I could ever wish for,” Jill writes.

The 266-page memoir details a seemingly idyllic childhood that began to fracture as her parents' roots within the IBLP community grew deeper, and family rules (which Jim Bob and Michelle called standards, convictions, or guidelines) grew tighter.

Jill recalls the family taking road trips to attend IBLP conventions, where leader Bill Gothard—who resigned from the organization in 2014 after multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment—would preach about the evil nature of music, the importance of modesty, and the vital role of reproduction for familial happiness. (Gothard has denied all the allegations, despite more than 30 women coming forward. An additional 10 women brought a lawsuit against him in 2016 for sexual harassment and abuse and accused IBLP church leaders of intentionally covering up his behavior. The case was dismissed due to the statute of limitations.) Yet as Jill noticed at a young age, Gothard himself was single and childless. “The usual rules didn’t seem to apply to him,” she writes of Gothard.

With each convention they attended, her parents’ grip on their children tightened, Jill writes. They began giving their children stricter dress code parameters and introducing obedience habits, forcing the kids to reply “Yes ma’am/sir, I’d be happy to!” when asked to do something.

When reality television came knocking, Jill says her dad, ever the salesman, pitched the show to the family as a way to disseminate the IBLP gospel to the masses. A single Discovery special in 2004—14 Children and Pregnant Again—begat TLC’s infamous reality series 19 Kids and Counting, which aired for 15 seasons. It was followed by Counting On, which ran from 2015 until 2021.

Filming came with perks: While the shows were in production, the Duggars could shop at the grocery store without a budget. Jill could also use a family debit card to stop for meals after driving her siblings to appointments or music lessons. (The family employed a “buddy system,” which effectively required older children to care for the younger children.) “It was a whole lot better than how it used to be, with us driving around with a Crock-Pot full of chili, feeding the little ones on the run,” she writes.

It was also during filming that Jim Bob introduced Jill to Derick, through a not-so-subtle setup. After their courtship was filmed—though Jill was not fully comfortable with the arrangement—the couple got engaged in 2014. At the time, Jill was 22 and Derick was 25.

“He seemed like a very nice guy,” Derick tells Vanity Fair of his father-in-law. “He seemed like he had a heart for missions and a genuine interest in my work, and I was grateful for that. He didn’t really raise any red flags at the time.”

Now, though, Derick reads Jim Bob’s initial behavior differently. He wonders if the patriarch’s personable nature was a method for detecting how easily Derick could be manipulated and fit into the family’s reality TV empire. “In hindsight, it seems like he’s always scheming,” Derick now says of Jim Bob. (Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar did not return Vanity Fair’s request for comment.)

Despite the couple’s growing discomfort with public life, Jill’s role as a Duggar daughter meant that her wedding would be a two-part television special. During the chaos of wedding preparations, Jill says that Jim Bob presented her with a contract, without providing the context that it would rope her new family into filming for five more years, and told her to sign it.

The couple says they would not understand the ramifications of that deal—presented to a frazzled bride as a single document to sign without the full details of the contract—until months later, while they were living and working in El Salvador. Suddenly, the pair was being summoned to return to the US for a promotional photoshoot.

The enigmatic contract, that Jill says obligated her and Derick to countless hours of filming without their knowledge, would instigate a years-long battle of wills between an increasingly independence-hungry couple and a father apparently dazzled by the allure of fame and steady paychecks.

As years passed, Jill and Derick began to demand back pay for filming material including their courtship and wedding special. The couple’s demands were met with multiple terse responses. Once, Jill says Jim Bob replied with a letter that detailed the alleged cost of raising her—including a rate of $3 per day to feed her—coming to the conclusion that he’d spent around $130,000, not so coincidentally the same amount Jill and Derick were seeking. She says he concluded the letter by offering to give her just $20,000—and signed it “Daddy Duggar.”

The dispute would eventually lead to the couple hiring a mediator and an attorney to help them reach a settlement. (People reported that according to Derick, the settlement “probably ended up being a little more than minimum wage.”) But that wasn’t the only battle they were undergoing.

In 2015, the public learned that the eldest Duggar son Josh had allegedly molested four of his sisters, including Jill in 2002 and 2003. Josh was never criminally charged for the alleged abuse. Instead, he was sent to a faith-based counseling camp by Jim Bob and Michelle. By the time the police report was made public in 2015, the statute of limitations had passed, preventing any further legal action.

In the early days after Josh’s police report was released, the author says, she wished she were dead. In Counting the Cost, she describes a confrontation in which she accused Jim Bob of protecting her “pedophile brother” instead of his daughters for the sake of 19 Kids and Counting, which was canceled by TLC in the wake of Josh’s sexual abuse scandal. (Counting On, which focused on Jill and her sisters Jinger Vuolo and Jessa Seewald, premiered in December 2015.)

“It was definitely pent-up frustration and me being like, ‘Why is my brother being protected and I’m being slaughtered here?’” Jill tells VF. “And of course, they didn’t agree with my brother’s decisions either, but they were going out of their way to facilitate and work things out (for him). So it wasn’t just that I was seeing all of this and (was) jealous. It was just like, ‘You don’t get it. You can’t see it for what it is.’”

Remembering that period of her life still brings her to tears. “It was a very, very traumatic process that I had no control over. And on top of that, being in the spotlight? I would never want my kids to go through that,” says Jill, a mother of three.

Initially, Jill says, she was reluctant to address Josh, the molestation allegations, and her parents’ response—they encouraged Jill and her sister Jessa Duggar to defend the family in a televised sit-down interview with Megyn Kelly, a move Derick would later liken to “being called on to carry out a suicide mission”—in the book.

“I didn’t want to delve into it, so it was hard. But I knew that people would want me to,” Jill says. She can understand Jim Bob and Michelle’s reasoning, sort of: “As a parent, I can imagine that they would want to protect everyone involved. But at the same time, I don’t know why they would choose to do things a certain way with one child and not with another. I think it just comes down to . . . an inability to recognize there is a problem with how they handled the situation.”

Adds Derick, “I think they were personally worried about their own image and about how it reflected on their parenting. And (they were) trying to get the show back.”

But Jim Bob and Michelle could not keep pace with their firstborn’s behavior. In April 2021, Josh, a father of seven, was arrested for downloading files depicting the sexual abuse of children. The spin-off Counting was permanently canceled. Later that year, a federal jury convicted Josh of “receiving and possessing material depicting minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.” Josh is currently serving a 12-and-three-quarter-year sentence in federal prison (his original sentence was extended by two months after he was caught with a contraband cellphone.) After his sentencing, Jill and Derick were among the first family members to issue a statement condemning his behavior.

At this point, says Jill, she and Derick “have tried to have a relationship” with Josh’s wife, Anna, and their children. “I love all of my family. But I also recognize, having gone through my own trauma… obviously, everybody’s are completely different. But sometimes you just need space.” Their efforts at outreach have been rebuffed, she says: “They’ve been very clear that now is not the time to try and have a relationship, and that's fine. I respect that. I want to give them space.”

Through therapy (they’re both big fans), Jill and Derick have begun to heal and form healthy boundaries with her family. It hasn’t come easily.

“There’s limited contact with my dad. We’ve had to draw some pretty strict boundaries just for our own health and well-being,” Jill says. “With my mom, [it’s] difficult at times, but I think she’s kind of caught in the middle of everything.”

Jill is less willing to talk about her relationships with her siblings.

“I think for the long haul, that’s better for our relationships,” Jill says. “We have some who are very supportive. Jinger and Jeremy [Vuolo] have been very supportive during Derick and I’s journey. Other siblings have been privately supportive, and then some have not been quite as supportive—and that’s okay. I also see where they are at and I’m like, ‘I was there not very long ago.’ So I can extend grace.”

Jill has only recently begun to realize how her family’s isolation gave her parents the upper hand. But her journey of self-discovery has also been filled with exciting firsts, like wearing pants, tasting alcohol, sending her children to public school, and getting her nose pierced.

“I hope people will find courage in my story,” Jill says, adding she feels called to speak for those who can’t, including family members whom she says are still bound by nondisclosure agreements. “If you can isolate somebody, you can control them.”

Jill doesn’t know whether her parents will read her book. Maybe the answer doesn’t matter—because for once, it isn’t about them.

It’s true, she acknowledges, that she wouldn’t have the platform she does if not for 19 Kids and Counting. “But at the same time, I also had some negative experiences that people are only now becoming aware of,” Jill says. “You can have happy memories, [and] you can have very difficult, painful ones. You shouldn’t be comparing victims’ stories to each other and saying, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be allowed to tell yours because yours isn’t as painful as those.’ I think you have to recognize other people’s pain, as well as their highs, and realize that they can coexist . . . that it really is like roses and thorns, justice and mercy. That you can have both, and they’re both very real experiences.”