The Mary Sue Interview: Jennifer Mathieu’s New Book Devoted Tackles the Consequences of Growing up as a Lady in a Duggar-Esque Family
Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth About Alice stuck with readers because of its frank examination of bullying and slut-shaming – and with her new novel, Devoted, fans will be equally as impressed with her investigation into what life is like for one of the many daughters born into a hyper-religious Duggar-like family in the American south.
Rachel grows up in a family that is part of the “Quiverfull/patriarchy” religious movement, and trust me when I tell you that Googling that can send you down a rabbit hole of survivor blogs that can keep you up all night. Basically, the ultra-conservative religious offshoot doesn’t believe in birth control, and families try to have as many children as possible so that their righteousness can one day be the majority in the United States. They homeschool, dress modestly, and women are trained from a young age to be “helpmeets” for the men in their family, subservient first to their fathers, and eventually to their husbands, without the option of an education or employment.
I spoke with Mathieu about her inspiration for the book, and what Rachel’s story means to readers.
Sam Maggs (TMS): Obviously I’d heard of the Duggars, but Devoted was my first real introduction to the beliefs and practices of the Quiverfull/patriarchy movement. How did you discover it, and what made you so passionate about writing about it?
Jennifer Mathieu: Well, the reality show that followed the Duggars was my introduction to the movement, and I started to read more about them online and on various sites that cover religion and the Quiverfull movement, sometimes referred to as the Christian Patriarchy movement. That research took me to a terrific nonfiction book by a writer named Kathryn Joyce called Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. It’s an exhaustive, academic look at this group and its belief system, and as a feminist, wife, mother and writer, I was fascinated by a world that was so different from my own. I wanted to know what would make someone want to be part of such a world, and I really wanted to know what happens when you decide this world no longer works for you.
I think I’m fascinated by extremes, to be honest, but especially extremes in religion. I remember watching a documentary about the Jonestown cult mass suicide back in the ’70s, and they interviewed one survivor who said, “No one wakes up one morning and decides to join a cult.” That really stuck with me, and I wanted to understand what drives people to become part of such extreme groups and why they stay. Whether or not the Quiverfull movement qualifies as a cult is up for debate, but the world of the Duggars and families like them was just something I found so compelling.
TMS: Did you speak with any survivors of Quiverfull homes when writing the book? How did their accounts affect Rachel’s storyline?
Mathieu: Yes, I did. First of all, I read numerous blogs by young women and older women who had left the movement. A few young men’s voices made their way onto these blogs, but the majority of the work I read was written by women. Vyckie Garrison’s No Longer Quivering blog is a great place to start if you are interested in reading more, and so is Libby Anne’s Love, Joy, Feminism blog. A group called Homeschoolers Anonymous also provided me with great information. Cynthia Jeub has a fascinating story and has blogged extensively on this issue.
I met two young women in person and interviewed them at length. One of those women, Hännah Ettinger, became such a good friend over the course of my working on the novel that I dedicated the book to her. I wouldn’t say that any of the characters in the novel are based on these women, but I did have some small moments in the book that came directly from my interviews, such as the scene where Rachel is criticized for wearing a shirt that reveals the outline of her bra. That really did happen to one woman I spoke with.
TMS: Rachel lives with another survivor whose experience and recovery greatly differs from her own. Tell us about the difference between the girls and why you wanted to show their different approaches to relationships and religion.
Mathieu: I loved writing Lauren who is a much more intense character in terms of her hatred of the movement in which she grew up. Of course she’s been gone longer than Rachel, but she has experimented much more with “worldly” culture and is much more didactic in her approach at times. Through my research, I saw a variety of responses to growing up Quiverfull. There are some who have left the movement are actively atheist, securely positioned against any religion whatsoever. Others are still religious, still Christian, but they’ve embraced a less legalistic approach. I can understand both reactions and all those in between.
Human beings are different, and even experiences within the movement can be different. Lauren’s childhood was much more abusive than Rachel’s, so it makes sense to me that her anger and rejection of all religion might be more intense. Rachel’s parents act in infuriating ways and are, in my opinion, misguided about a lot of things. But they really do love Rachel and they do think they know what’s best for her. Rachel loves many of her family members with real intensity, such as her little sister Ruth. There is so much complexity in leaving a movement with such rigid rules that I wanted to show the different possible reactions.
Also, by having Lauren and Rachel react in different ways, it set up some interesting tension between the two of them during the latter half of the novel that they must deal with if they want their friendship to thrive.
TMS: A huge theme in Rachel’s storyline is the idea of choice; that a woman should be able to choose what kind of life she leads, and that the spiritual abuse in the Quiverfull movement deprives women of that choice. Can you talk a little about the importance of choice to Rachel’s journey, and to feminism?
Mathieu: That’s a great question. As a feminist who would also consider herself religious – I attend a progressive Christian church from time to time – it feels very natural for me to have a relationship with God and still align myself with feminist ideals. It comes from a place of religious freedom and choice. I choose what to believe, and I choose what matters to me.
I find faith to be quite personal, and, in a way, I find how we define ourselves as feminists to be personal, too. Certainly there are certain major principles of both Christianity and feminism that most would argue are fundamental to both movements, but ultimately, it seems natural and best for all of us to decide what makes sense to each one of us on a personal level.
What I found so compelling about my research into the Quiverfull movement was how little choice there is for any members, women and men. The rules are so rigid, so specific, and, in my opinion, so suffocating. There’s a lot of self-loathing and self-blame if you feel you are not living up to some perfect ideal. I suppose for some people there is relief in having everything laid out for you – at least initially. If you do X, Y, Z, all will be well. But as real life problems come into play, one hard and fast set of rules rarely works.
For me, having Rachel realize she can have choices of her own was one of the most powerful parts of the novel. There’s one little moment in the book where she is alone in Lauren’s apartment and thinks about how nice it is just to have the freedom to read for as long as she wants. I loved giving her the opportunity to choose in the second half of the novel, and I loved watching her make those choices, especially after such a restrictive beginning to her story.
TMS: What message do you hope readers ultimately take from Devoted?
Mathieu: Ultimately, I hope it helps readers build empathy for those who are raised in extreme situations. It’s very easy to make fun of people or joke about people who are different from us, but I think you can have compassion for people even when you deeply disagree with their beliefs.
I also would like people, especially teen readers, to understand that it’s an important part of your life journey to ask those big questions. That wondering what you believe in and whether or not your own personal beliefs align with those of your parents or family or community is a natural part of growing up. Living an authentic life with purpose is something we can all strive to do, whether or not we believe in a higher power. I hope Rachel will inspire readers to take on those big questions unafraid, because I think we are all better off when we do so.
Devoted is out today from Macmillan’s Roaring Book Press.
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