Olivia Plath on Christian Fundamentalism, Welcome to Plathville, and Deconstructing

Maiwenn Raoult

Believers is a series running throughout April, examining different facets of faith and religion among young people.

From the time she was a child, Olivia Plath’s life seemed prewritten. She was, she says, to court a boy under her parents' supervision, then she was to marry him and have many God-fearing children. She was to look a certain way and act a certain way and teach her kids a certain way.

For a while, the early parts of that tale played out for hundreds of thousands on TLC’s Welcome to Plathville, a show following the Plath family, which the network describes as “a blonde, blue-eyed family of 11 in southeastern Georgia [who] share a passion for music, religion, family life, and traditional roles.” When the public first meets Olivia (née Meggs), she’s in a white wedding dress, delicate train and veil dragging down the dirt road beneath her feet as she approaches her soon-to-be-husband, Ethan Plath. We see vignette footage of the pair’s nuptials, smiles beaming and bright, before cutting to what was then present day: the couple in their new place, adjusting to life together and away (but not too far) from the strict control of Ethan’s Christian conservative religious family.

This is where the story starts to splinter.

The year was 2019 and it was the first season of Plathville. The Plath family is the focus of the show, but Olivia and Ethan drive the plot of the first season, and much of the four that have followed. Olivia was almost immediately cast as a foil to the family’s “natural and simple” lifestyle, as described by matriarch Kim Plath — one in which the older children were raised under strict fundamentalist ideals that prohibited sugar, popular music, access to television or pop culture at large, and in which the children were largely only exposed to other fundamentalist families like theirs. Olivia had alcohol in her home. She liked sugary treats. She had some pop culture knowledge. Though she too was raised fundamentalist and had less access to the world than most of us, she was, as she says the Plaths describe her, and as some in the know may understand to be a slight, “worldly.”

“I grew up in the fundamental Christian world, which I would also call a cult."

Over the course of the next four seasons, we watch Olivia try desperately to pull away from the family. We watch her clash with Ethan’s parents, and then with Ethan. She is accused of “brainwashing” her husband, blamed for fissures in the family as it changes radically, as the hyper-conservative values that originally alienated Olivia relaxed, and as her ties to Ethan’s siblings bend and eventually break. We see her questioning everything around her, which strains any remaining relationships even more.

Now, at 25, Olivia has recently filed for divorce and is smiling broadly in the white light of her Los Angeles apartment. She speaks openly and laughs often. That script for her life is in the trash, and she’s realized it’s a story she never particularly liked — one she believes has been written for many women, largely by men using religion as a mechanism of control.

“I grew up in the fundamental Christian world, which I would also call a cult,” she says, the sheer white curtains on the window behind her fluttering in a gentle LA breeze. “I was a pastor’s kid, I grew up on a farm, I was homeschooled, so my life was very isolated. By the time I was 13, I was being given books on how to be the best wife possible, so from a very young age I assumed that what was expected from me in life as a woman, and what I was told what was expected of me as a woman was to get married and to have kids and to be a stay at home mom. I did not want that.”

Until now, the world has only known Olivia in proximity to fundamentalism. But after living across the country from her family and her former in-laws for about a year, Olivia is figuring out the world for herself, questioning the stories she’s been fed. She’s looking directly at the dark side of fundamentalism and how she fits into that, and slowly deconstructing — the process of unlearning the religious dogma that previously shaped her worldview. That, she says, has made the earth beneath her crumble.

“That’s the hardest part about deconstruction: when you start to question a few things, then you start to question a few more,” she says. “You start to realize the entire foundation on how you’re living your life is kind of a sham.”

Olivia Plath wears SER.O.YA denim and blazer, a Retrofete tanktop, and H&M earrings.
Olivia Plath wears SER.O.YA denim and blazer, a Retrofete tanktop, and H&M earrings.

“I let my parents supervise my courtship, got married super young to another kid from a fundamental world. It did not really work out for me.”

Olivia grew up on a farm in the lush Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia as the fourth born of 10 children in the Meggs family. Up until she was around 5 years old, Olivia enjoyed a pretty typical childhood, running around her neighborhood, reading books, watching movies — doing things “normal” kids would. She was what her parents called “spirited,” she says, a self-described stubborn child with an adventurous spirit.

But when her parents joined a new church, “overnight, everything changed,” she says.

“I remember waking up one day and was like, ‘wait, I can’t wear my favorite tank top with daisies on it anymore? No, you’re going to wear a dress that comes below your knees toward the floor.’ My dad sold our house and bought land from the pastor from this church and built a new house, started a farm,” she says. “My life changed very drastically.”

Olivia’s family didn’t subscribe to a specific sect of Christianity, she says, but instead went to a non-denominational church that took on a fundamentalist view of religion and the Bible, where her father eventually became the pastor. While the church and Olivia’s family didn’t affiliate themselves with any particular label, she says the beliefs she was raised with — particularly the gendered expectations and fundamental faith ideas — were similar to those espoused via the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) — a fundamentalist Christian organization that promotes patriarchal gender norms and other strict values. The IBLP is perhaps best known for its affiliation with the Duggars, another family made famous through a TLC show called 19 Kids and Counting, and was recently the topic of an HBO Max documentary, Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets.

“All of these people in fundamental Christian worlds have pretty much the same beliefs, give or take a thing or two. But they don’t want to use the same label or title because those one or two things that they disagree on are huge things,” she says, citing things like disagreements about whether it’s ok to drink alcohol or dance. “Those little, tiny things end up being very divisive because everyone is convinced they know the perfect way to live.”

In a message to Teen Vogue, Olivia's mother, Karen Meggs, said her family believes “in the fundamentals of our Christian faith and we are more conservative than some and more liberal than others,” adding that they “do not fit into a box or belong [or] adhere to a group.” Meggs said that if not wearing tank tops was a “rule” in her household, she was not aware, but said pressure from the church community may have contributed to styles of dress. “My husband and I both failed to understand just how much peer pressure our children were under from these opinionated people and we deeply regret that,” Meggs said. She added that “fundamentalism” is often used disparagingly, warranting a larger conversation around what the word means for her family.

In general, fundamentalism at large is the “strict and literal” adherence to a set of principles, so Christian fundamentalism is defined as the strict and literal adherence to principles as set forth in the Bible. But what those principles are, as Olivia points out, can differ.

“There are so many groups in that world,” she says, “but they all criss-cross and intersect at some point.”

The pastor’s daughter, Olivia attended church and sang in her family band throughout her adolescence, but that curious spirit of hers never left. When Olivia was 16, she says she started questioning fundamentalism, which manifested in tiny rebellions — cutting her hair short, wearing different clothes, putting on black eyeliner — that felt earth-shifting to her. It was also around this time that Olivia says she met her future husband Ethan at a conference held by Michael and Debi Pearl, controversial fundamentalist figures whose child-rearing manual promotes physical abuse.

In her book “The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church,” journalist Sarah McCammon defines deconstruction as “the often painful process of rethinking an entire worldview and identity that was carefully constructed for [you].” It’s commonly used to describe people leaving a religious worldview, which is something McCammon writes that young people are increasingly doing, Olivia one of them. That’s what those outward changes were: a pushing of the boundaries, and just the start of a very slow process, one she’s still continuing today.

Even a few years after she started questioning fundamentalism, Olivia was still in its hold. In a 2018 film called “American Family Revival,” a small production about Christian “Quiverfull” families — a religious movement that preaches having a lot of children to spread the word of God — Olivia appears at 19-years-old with her family as they talk about their lifestyle. In the clip, Olivia talks about the lessons she learned as one of 10 children.

“One of the biggest benefits that I can think of in being part of a large family is that there’s always someone who’s doing things right, even if you’re doing it wrong, that can show you the right way to do it,” she says in the clip. “I can think of many times where I wasn’t being obedient and one of my siblings was. I could always look at them and be reminded that what I was doing was wrong.” We see Olivia in church watching her dad preach in the clip. She plays the piano and sings worship songs.

"I felt like I was living in fight or flight all the time.”

Olivia continued to follow that script. She entered a long distance courtship with Ethan, exchanging letters and talking on the phone for one hour every three months — all that she says was allowed. (Olivia's mother said infrequent calls were to allow the pair to get to know one another slowly since they were young. “We wanted [Olivia] to … experience more of life and get to know herself better before getting into a serious relationship,” Meggs said.) She started her own photography business when she was 18, which allowed her to travel, see the world, and see lifestyles different from hers. She married Ethan in 2018, when she was 20 years old, entering into another large fundamentalist family, one that was, she says, even more strict than her own.

Those seemingly small differences in fundamental beliefs played a big role here. Olivia says she began clashing with the Plath family — even before the rifts we see on the show — because she didn’t fit their expectations. In the safety of marriage, Olivia thought she and her husband could start to explore a world that wasn’t so narrow as the one their parents provided, but she found just another version of the same small box she was raised in. (The Plaths were not available to comment for this article, according to a representative from Warner Bros. Discovery, TLC's parent company.)

“Deconstruction is such a gradual process. Slowly over time, I started realizing that I did everything right, according to the way my parents wanted. I let my parents supervise my courtship, got married super young to another kid from a fundamental world,” she says. “It did not really work out for me. I felt like I was living in fight or flight all the time.”

Meanwhile, her travel as a photographer had afforded her some outside experience, like becoming friends with someone who had a live-in boyfriend, which she says she was raised to believe was a sin that would send you to hell. “How can something so bad work so well for them?” she wondered, especially when she did things “right” and felt miserable. The cracks in her faith continued to widen.

Then came 2020, and that’s when Olivia’s footing really began to fall away.

Olivia Plath in a Falguni Shane Peacock set, Retrofete tank, Voyetté shoes, and H&M earrings.
Olivia Plath in a Falguni Shane Peacock set, Retrofete tank, Voyetté shoes, and H&M earrings.

“Can my intuition be trusted? Am I capable of being a strong, powerful force without a man leading me? The answer to those questions is yes."

In the earth-shattering days of 2020, when COVID revealed structural inequities, when George Floyd’s murder made systemic racism that much more clear to the masses, Olivia, like many others, couldn’t comply any longer.

“At that time, I was still attending a church in Georgia and watching how things were handled with COVID and racism — all of these things that were popping up in 2020. Not that these things did not exist before but, politics were heightened in 2020, societal issues were heightened in 2020,” she says. “I was sitting there, right in the right spot of asking questions, going ‘wait a minute, this contradicts everything I’ve ever been told.'”

Here, Olivia pauses. “I want to be careful about what I say,” she says, because she doesn’t want to paint all Christians with a broad brush. But it was her community’s reaction to the tumultuous year that she says sped up her deconstruction.

“I remember…watching how Christianity handled societal issues and feeling like a lot of people were not seen or taken care of, or were judged. I was living in a very small, politically conservative town, where wearing a mask out in public you got funny looks. Voting differently than the people around you became the talk of the town,” she says.

On the show, this manifests in smaller ways. COVID is largely glossed over, and the social upsets are avoided. But, we see Olivia face judgment when she wants a belly button piercing, and clash with Ethan over plans for a tattoo.

She says she started to feel that “this is not a loving, inclusive, non-judgemental group,” she says. “That jaded my view on Christianity a bit, which I think was helpful in deconstruction because it sped up the process of asking questions and digging deeper.”

And, Olivia was also questioning her marriage. She says she felt her religious background had told her that her “duty or worth in life was first to God, then to a husband. What about just me? Am I worth something outside of both of those? Do I have worth if I don't believe in God in the same way? Do I have worth if I don’t have a husband? Can my intuition be trusted? Am I capable of being a strong, powerful force without a man leading me?” she says. “The answer to those questions is yes, but the religion I grew up in told me I didn’t.”

Olivia says realizing her power as a woman, and the role these patriarchal values play in oppression, are what led to her divorce.

“When you start to see how deep patriarchy runs, you start to see so many other issues,” she says, noting how patriarchy contributes to racism, homophobia, and other societal issues. She started questioning that power structure, and it bolstered her progressive views on things like LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights. On the show, we watch Olivia and Ethan fight over her values and how that might impact their future children. “There's just things I'm not OK with the children that I raise growing up to think and believe. It's a matter of principle to me," Ethan says in the show.

So, if deconstruction is, as McCammon wrote, the “painful process of rethinking an entire worldview,” Olivia not only embarked on picking apart everything she’d ever known, but she did it on national television.

“I look back on the last four or five seasons of the show, which is four or five years of my life, and I’m like, ‘oh my God, who is that kid who cries in every single interview and is so emotional? What is her problem?’” she says with a chuckle. “I was 20 and newly married to someone who wasn’t ready to leave fundamentalism behind at the same time as I was questioning fundamentalism. I had my whole life open for the public to criticize and critique, and I was a kid who grew up so sheltered from the world. To be thrown out in it and have everyone watch me as I’m deconstructing and trying to figure out what being married is all about and dealing with in-law conflict. I look back and I’m like, sheesh. It felt very overwhelming.”

Often, it was clear that Olivia was overwhelmed. Viewers of the show see Olivia and Ethan split completely with Ethan’s parents, which also separates them from many of Ethan’s siblings. In the second season of the show, Ethan says he and Olivia have no contact with his family, though many of them live on a farm right down the road from their home. We watch Ethan transform from a naive and smiley boy to a wary and hardened man, navigating his problems with his upbringing and a rocky relationship with his wife. While Olivia keeps rigid boundaries with the Plath family, Ethan’s relationship with his parents and siblings eventually comes back — he slowly retreats back under the Plath family wing, which causes a rift with Olivia.

“I was 20 and newly married to someone who wasn’t ready to leave fundamentalism behind at the same time as I was questioning fundamentalism."

At times, Olivia’s reasoning for her boundaries seems convoluted, and sometimes the boundaries themselves seem too much — a standoff at the gravesite of Ethan’s younger brother comes to mind. And, her actions to enforce them can seem like bids for control in an ever-growing power struggle between her marriage and her husband’s family. Specifically, many viewers thought, she was engaged in a power struggle with Ethan’s mother, Kim Plath.

“It felt like a power struggle,” Olivia admits. “I would read critical comments [about me on the show] and I would immediately respond to that, like ‘no, I’m not the same [as Kim], you don’t understand.’ Looking back on it now, all I wanted was to choose my own life. All I wanted was to be myself and live authentically as who I am.”

Sometimes, figuring all that out manifested in ways she now wishes she could change.

“I’m trying to sit in this place now, realizing that I should’ve behaved better, and also knowing that I did not have the tools at the time to behave better. It’s the juxtaposition of, that was a bad choice; I didn’t know how at the time, but now I do,” she says. “I look back to season one and see a scared kid who felt like she was backed into a corner. I saw things as black and white and drew very harsh boundaries. I think that I needed that at the time. It harmed other people and … I wish that wasn’t the case, but I don’t get a do-over. I want to consistently make better choices.”

“The fundamental Christian world is very performance driven. They want to have the perfect family with the perfect kids, it’s all very idealized.”

While perhaps not on purpose, portraying her process of deconstruction — however messy — cracks open the gleaming veneer that often coats portrayals of fundamentalism on television.

Shiny Happy People, the documentary on the IBLP and the Duggar family, stresses the importance of image in certain fundamentalist communities. The public sees outward projections of traditional perfection — a strong father, a doting mother, and a litter of well-groomed and smiling children — to make the fundamentalist lifestyle more attractive, according to the documentary.

“The fundamental Christian world is very performance driven,” Olivia says. “They want to have the perfect family with the perfect kids, it’s all very idealized.”

That, she says, is particularly true when some fundamentalist families get television shows.

“For many years, fundamentalist Christian families have been given a platform and been idolized on TV without people actually understanding what’s going on behind the scenes,” she says. “Everyone looks at it like, these are large families with siblings who love each other and everybody’s close, and that’s something that’s missing in families today. These are families that are living off the land or being out in nature, there are so many good things here that we’re not seeing in today’s kids.”

Tia Levings, a writer, ex-fundamentalist, and author of “A Well-Trained Wife: My Escape from Christian Patriarchy,” calls it lifestyle evangelism, an effort to convert people to Christianity without making it so overt, by just presenting it as a desirable lifestyle, and often one that’s a wholesome alternative to the chaos of the current world.

“You’re going to demonstrate a beautiful aesthetic, the things everyone wants for themselves — happy relationships, a sense of safety, structure, order, clarity. We all crave the same things,” Levings says. “It comes with all the aspects of high control religion…all the darker themes we know are true when we start looking at those groups, but they don’t lead with that. They lead with, here’s a happy family, a pretty baby, a loving marriage, a good courtship, really clear gender roles. It’s a comfort to a chaotic environment to see people who [say they] have it already figured out, who seem to be thriving.”

But, both Levings and Olivia say that isn’t the full story.

“People aren’t talking about what actually happens behind the scenes, but if you look at the fundamental world, if you look at these fundamental families that are put on pedestals,” Olivia says there are often “skeletons in the closet.”

Olivia names the Duggar family as an example: The family starred in the show 19 Kids and Counting, which ran on TLC (the same network Plathville is on) for nine seasons, until it was canceled after news broke that Josh Duggar, the family’s oldest son, had allegedly molested five underage girls, some of whom, it was later revealed, were his sisters. While Duggar was never tried for those allegations, he told People at the time that he had “acted inexcusably” and “hurt others, including my family and close friends.” He said he “confessed [his] wrongdoing” to his parents when it happened. When that show was canceled in 2015, the family got a spin off called Counting On, which ended the same year that Josh Duggar was arrested for possessing and receiving child pornography. (Josh Duggar never appeared on Counting On; he was later convicted for his offense. Duggar appealed his conviction, but his appeal was denied.) There's no suggestion that Welcome to Plathville has any of the same kind of skeletons like the abuse that shadowed the Duggar family, but speaking about fundamentalism at large, Olivia says, “There are a lot of really ugly things that hide behind [it].”

Multiple fundamentalist leaders or groups have, in fact, been accused of wrongdoing. More than 30 women accused IBLP founder Bill Gothard of sexual harassment or misconduct, 10 of whom filed a lawsuit against him. The lawsuit was later voluntarily dismissed. Gothard has denied any wrongdoing. A 2021 Vice investigation looked into an alleged “culture of abuse and social control” in an Idaho church (the leader didn’t reply to their request for comment, but linked to his response to a list of controversies he’s involved in); Toby Willis, whose family was the subject of another TLC show, is now in prison for child rape.

So, when fundamentalist families are on television, Olivia says there’s a responsibility to acknowledge what can be a dark side of fundamentalism.

“If you are going to idolize a fundamental lifestyle for the seemingly good, wholesome things, you also have to talk about the other side of it where people are being harmed and not believed when they talk about it,” she says.

Plathville does show family disagreements and other things that some shows about fundamentalist families might not, which is seemingly a break from the trend Olivia and Levings point out. Still, Levings says it's part of an overall landscape of shows that — overtly or tacitly — promote fundamentalism.

“One of the things fundamentalists do when they get involved in entertainment, is they like to show us different flavors that you can trace back to the same root,” Levings says. “It’s good that we’re not seeing this perfect veneer and being able to get a more real picture of what it’s really like in that environment…. I appreciate that Plathville showed the cracks, but I do still think it’s part of a greater whole.”

In the spirit of portraying a different part of fundamentalism (and in the spirit of being a “petty bitch” to spite her in-laws), Olivia has said that if there is a season six of the show, she will be on it. (A Warner Bros. Discovery representative declined to comment on whether there will be a season six of Welcome to Plathville.) On the podcast “So Bad It's Good with Ryan Bailey," Olivia said about appearing in a new season, “You have to show what happens when someone walks away from it. You have to show what happens when someone questions it. Otherwise it's just, it's not the full story."

Olivia Plath in a Tanya Taylor dress and Flor De Maria boots.
Olivia Plath in a Tanya Taylor dress and Flor De Maria boots.

“I feel very at home with myself.”

For the first time in her life, Olivia isn’t beholden to anyone else, and she’s taking advantage of that freedom. She’s living in LA for now, which was always meant to be temporary so she’s looking for a place to put down some roots. She’s dating, trying to figure out how to shed the shame that growing up in purity culture left with her (on March 25, Olivia posted a photo series to Instagram featuring a man, which many in the comments suspect to be a relationship “hard launch,” though she would not confirm or deny the speculations). And, she’s thinking about how to use her platform to speak to other “ex-fundie kids.”

She’s still very much figuring out her life and forging a path away from fundamentalism, but she’s excited by a world filled with nuance, where there is no pre-destined story. Fundamentalism told Olivia that there was one right way to live, but that way never felt right for her. In moving away from that narrow view, she’s reminded of a story she read when she was 5 or 6 years old, right when her life drastically changed.

“It’s this book about how all of these blind men were touching an elephant, they were each touching a different part of the elephant and trying to describe what it was like, and they were all so convinced they were right,” she says, explaining that each man in the story described the elephant in a different way. “They get into this big squabble in the town square and they’re brought before the emperor who says, ‘you’re all right, you’re touching a different part of the elephant.’ That book has stuck out to me so much in the last few years while deconstructing and realizing that there’s not one way to live. Faith doesn’t look one way, spirituality doesn’t looks one way.”

Looking at the world that way, where many things can be true and many ways of living can be the right one, Olivia feels more at peace than ever knowing there’s so much more to the story.

“I feel very at home with myself,” she says, smiling. “I think curiosity is the theme of my life.”

Photo Credits:

Photographer: Maiwenn Raoult

Photo Assistant: Brandon Christopher

Sr. Fashion Editor & Stylist: Tchesmeni Leonard

Stylist Assistant: Larry Simmons

Hair Stylist: Will Carrillo at The Rex Agency

Makeup Artist: Amy Galibut

Manicurist: Rachel Messick

Production: Hyperion LA

Design Director: Emily Zirimis

Designer: Liz Coulbourn

Visual Editor: Bea Oyster

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue