Where faith and ce­leb­rity meet, what does real free­dom look like?

Book Reviews

This review first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette March 26, 2023.


When Jinger Duggar Vuolo was 14, her private diary was listed on eBay for $100,000 by someone who stole it. Someone coveted money for irretrievable words that were only in her head.

The girl who took it during a visit to Ms. Vuolo’s home returned it a few weeks later.

“When I read it today, I’m struck by what is missing,” she writes in “Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentangling Faith from Fear,” her new memoir.

“I was afraid to say the wrong thing, to confess my inner desires, even in a diary. I didn’t express any of the feelings and fears that were a constant part of my childhood.”

At 10, she experienced her TV debut as the daughter of Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar on the wildly popular TLC show “19 Kids and Counting,” and later “Counting On.” She remained on television until she was 27, after a combined 21 seasons of reality television. She grew up in the little black box that is TV.

Her book reflects another box she grew up in: The restrictive and perverse interpretation of the Bible from her youth, based on the teachings of Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, which enforced meticulous, strict and often misogynistic rules.

How a reader receives this book will depend on if they have ever seen Ms. Vuolo on TV, as well as their experience with, or without, religion.

Unlike the recent memoir “Spare,” Prince Harry’s middle-finger memoir to the monarchy, or the actress Jenette McCurdy’s brutally transparent “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” this book is a reexamination of Ms. Vuolo’s life, not a renouncement of it or her family. While she has rejected the teachings of Mr. Gothard, her parents and some siblings have not.

The reader witnesses Ms. Vuolo walk the tightrope of her own feelings and emotions, teetering between her close family and her own beliefs. At times her froideur toward her family is on blast, and other times that coolness hums in the background like the murmur of a congregation reciting Bible verses.

Ms. Vuolo finds herself disentangling that very word, “disentanglement,” which she prefers to use instead of “deconstruction” — a loaded term in some Christian communities that can mean various things depending on which church and individual defines it. The book takes the reader on her journey as she distinguishes the faith she was taught from her present-day interpretation of the Bible.

“My faith has changed dramatically,” she writes early in the book. “And that should be enough.”

Ms. Vuolo, 29, the sixth child in her family, has two daughters. She writes that she is determined to raise them out of the spotlight — but doesn’t hesitate to name them. When her own TV show came to an end, Ms. Vuolo had to adjust. She’s still adjusting.

“I could hardly remember what it was like to not be on television,” she wrote.

She tackles what she thinks of as freedom during the course of the book with childlike honesty.

“But along my journey of disentanglement, I’ve come to see that unfettered freedom does not produce the good life,” she wrote. “In the end it often leads to more bondage. Why? Because it puts me in charge of my life, and I am not the best judge of what is best for me. If given limitless options and the responsibility of figuring out what is going to make me truly happy, I struggle to commit to anything.”

Unfortunately, this book reads like a term paper or English essay called “Why I Deserve to be Happy,” complete with a laundry list of facts rather than the more complicated portrait it could have painted.

The writing is stilted and unconsuming. Ms. Vuolo, author of two previous books, including the New York Times best-selling “Growing Up Duggar,” which she wrote with her three sisters, enlisted Corey Williams as a ghostwriter for this book.

Yet, overall she gets her point across as she struggles with what it means to be a former child reality TV star, a wife, a Christian, a mother and a woman in the world. This book — for better or worse — feels like a long public justification for its author to live the happy, free life she has built for herself.

She, like all of us, should be happy and free — indeed.

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