Telling the Quiverfull Story – An Interview with Jennifer Mathieu

This is a repost from the archives. My updated thoughts on the subject as of 2018 can be found here

When I was a teenager living in my parents’ house, I held myself to the highest possible standards, and consistently fell short. I didn’t like the music I was supposed to like. I was constantly exhausted from getting up earlier than my mother to take care of the children. Nothing was enough, but I never let myself get inside my own feelings to recognize that maybe I wasn’t the problem. Maybe I was playing an unwinnable game.

I couldn’t feel it then, but that’s what stories are for: resonance, empathy, processing, and escape.

That’s why I’m excited to promote the first teen novel about a teenage girl living in a Quiverfull household. It’s called Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu, and the author recently joined me for an interview. Here’s our conversation.

Q. My first question is about 19 Kids and Counting. You’ve written that you were curious about the Duggars, and that’s part of what sparked your interest in researching Devoted. At what point did you find that 19 Kids and Counting wasn’t entertaining anymore?

There were still some aspects of it that were entertaining until I actually sat down and started writing the novel. Because I was in Rachel’s [the main character’s] head, and I was hearing all these voices of the young women whose blogs I’d read – like you, or Hännah [Ettinger] who I knew in person. As I actually started writing the first draft, I started to feel more of what she was feeling. While I was doing the research I had more of a research mindset, I was more of a reporter, kind of getting the information, and then when I started actually writing the story, I would try to put on the show, and I’d be like, “I can’t find anything entertaining about this anymore.” It just started to feel depressing, actually.

Q. What did you see in the story beforehand in watching the show?

One thing that I found really compelling and heartbreaking also as I was doing the research was – I didn’t really understand initially until I started doing more intense research – that there is a disconnect between the way that the characters, or the people on the television, how they portray themselves, versus how they might actually be feeling on the inside. When I watch it now, they all seem very very happy, and obviously I’m not a mind-reader and I would never go so far as to say that I don’t know for sure that they’re not, but I know based on the women that I interviewed and the blogs that I’ve read, that a lot of you young women in quiverfull families sort of exude happiness, but inside they are really troubled. So when I watch the show now, I think that’s what bothers me about the show now, is that they seem really happy but in my mind I’m wondering “are they really happy?”

Q. For me, the topic of the Quiverfull lifestyle is gigantic. And I was impressed when I read your book, that you managed to keep it both simple enough for a teen novel while maintaining a good deal of the emotional depth and cognitive dissonance it takes to escape. How did you prioritize and condense your information for the story?

Writing this book was very very difficult for me. I have written five drafts of novels, two of which are unpublished, one was my debut – The Truth About Alice – one, Devoted, and one which is coming out in 2016. Devoted is hands-down the hardest book I’ve ever had to write out of those five books. I wrote one draft, and just destroyed it basically and started over from scratch. I have an amazing editor, Kate Jacobs over at Roaring Brook Press. I did a lot of checking in with Hännah, who was my number one source, I did a ton of checking in with her. I’d be like, “What do you think about this? How did you feel about that?” She was my true north as I was writing this book, because she could guide me on top of all the research that I’d done. But I think ultimately what helped guide me is that – at the risk of sounding corny – I wanted a hopeful ending for Rachel, and I knew I had to get her to a place where that would be the case. And I knew that that was gonna be hard. I think because I’m an outsider to the movement, maybe it was “easier,” relatively speaking perhaps, because I was trying to examine it from all angles. But it was just really hard, because I was trying to strike a balance between being sensitive, but not to be critical, while being engaging, I mean this book just took a ton out of me.

Q. Well I appreciate that you stuck with it, because it’s a good book and I’m excited that it’s going to be released soon.

Thank you so much, Cynthia, that means a ton.

Q. That actually brings me to my next question because you said you were an outsider to the movement – what aspect of the Quiverfull lifestyle was the most difficult for you to wrap your head around?

Oh gosh, wow, there were a lot. I would say personally, it was the very prescribed roles for men and women. Because I am married to a man, and we have a very – I mean, I was raised Roman Catholic, I went to Catholic school, so I was raised with religion, and I grew up in a fairly traditional home and my mom stayed at home and my dad worked, but as a child, and now as an adult who’s married, the relationships that were modeled for me growing up were not so prescribed. Like my dad was really active, he would make us lunch, and he would do those things, but my mom is the money manager. In my family, my husband was a stay-at-home dad for the first, like, eighteen months of our son’s life, and I’m the primary breadwinner.

So it was very difficult for me to wrap my head around how people are so focused on “this is what the man does, and this is what the woman does.” I think it makes it really really challenging to have such prescribed roles for men and women. Just for a lot of reasons – I don’t agree with that personally as a feminist, but I just don’t understand it. That was one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around. Of the many, many, many things. I would also follow that up with, although we see this in not just Quiverfull cultures, but the whole modesty element in overdrive was really just – I don’t know if those are the right words, I don’t want to be to demeaning – but we do see in our culture still, even in mainstream culture that it’s the woman’s responsibility to keep the man at bay, you know, slut-shaming and all of that. So we still do that in mainstream culture, but the overdrive of modesty culture was also a very unusual thing.

Q. Dating is a lot different in the Quiverfull world. What was it like to write about those different expectations for teen romance?

My editor really had to push me there because I think initially when she [Rachel] meets the character of Mark, who’s the young boy that she meets outside of her community, I made it a little – she was like, “whoa there, slow down, Jennifer! Rachel would be weirded out right now,” She had to kind of keep me in check because, I’ll be honest, there’s a part of me that wants to write romance, so it’s like, “Oh this is so cute,” and she was like “No, this isn’t cute to Rachel.” You know, my editor was not raised Quiverfull, but she’s a really smart editor. She was like, “You’ve gotta slow this down, she’s not checking herself enough, she’s not unnerved enough.” So I had to go back and sort of slow that romance part of the book down, because I knew for a young woman like Rachel, coming out of that culture, it would be something that would be much more intimidating for her than perhaps I kind of selfishly wanted it to be as the writer of a book that wanted more romance, you know? I remember at one point I said to my editor, because I loved the Little House on the Prairie books when I was a kid, “But even Laura Ingalls and Almanzo kissed before they got married, and they were alone when he would take her in the sled, even they were unchaperoned!” I was so confused by all of it, you know.

Q. But that was okay because he had her father’s permission.

That’s right, exactly. But that was the hardest thing – I wanted to speed up the romance, but I had to remind myself how totally overwhelming it would have been for Rachel to be interacting with a teenage boy alone for literally the first time in her life.

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For me, reading Devoted was emotionally trying, because it brought back so many memories for me. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to be inside the head of a kid being raised in my world. It’s released today, so go order your copy! Jennifer also wrote a great piece on Quiverfull families here. http://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/books/q-and-a/a41047/growing-up-quiverfull-interview/?visibilityoverride