“Take out the profit, take out the communal living, and you’re just describing society.”
In many ways, the cult that Lauren Hough grew up in was not all that different to the outside world. “Take out the profit, take out the communal living, and you’re just describing society,” she says. “I got out of it thinking it was this horrific thing that I could never tell anyone about, but it’s not really all that different. They just did all the quiet parts out loud.”
In The Children of God — which by the time Hough’s family joined was renamed The Family of Love, then The Family — narrowly defined gender roles prevailed, abuse was common, and homosexuality was a sin akin to murder.
Hough details the many ways her upbringing continues to impact her life in the new essay collection, Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing (out now). She moves through the many different phases of her life, which include being a bouncer at a gay bar, working as a cable installer, and a rather tortuous stint in the Air Force during “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with some of the most compelling storytelling I’ve read in years. Yes, she’s got a great story to tell, but more importantly, she’s got a clarity and force to her voice that makes each essay sing (or scream, when necessary).
Lauren Hough joins the LGBTQ&A podcast this week to talk about how growing up in a cult continues to shape her life, why she’s been relegated to working “shitty jobs.” and her new essay collection, Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing.
Jeffrey Masters: I think it’s easy to associate a sex cult with being sex positive; a good thing. You write it was actually quite a bit darker.
Lauren Hough: I think anytime you start to write rules about sex, it’s going to get a little dark, especially if the guy writing the rules is a 67-year-old alcoholic. What his fantasies are, are not what you want yours to be. There’s a schedule on the wall. It’s not fun or pretty.
JM: A schedule for sex?
LH: Yeah. And you don’t get to decide who you’re fucking that night. There’s a designated night. Sometimes there’s a designated room, The Sharing Room.
JM: Sex with minors, nonconsensual sex was not uncommon. Did that color your relationship with your parents since they were the ones that chose to be there and brought you to the cult?
LH: Not really, strangely and maybe it’s my own version of cognitive dissonance. But nobody joins a cult because they want their children to be abused. They joined because they were trying to make the world a better place, and they wanted to do good in the world. I don’t hold it against them.
JM: How did they treat same-sex relationships?
LH: It’s old men are writing the rules, so those are the rules you’re going to go by. Homosexuality was a sin akin to murder. You were excommunicated for it if they couldn’t pray it out of you. And it’s the same thing with fucking teenage girls. What straight older guy isn’t defending whichever last politician got caught with a teenage girl? “Oh, well, I mean, sometimes you can’t tell.” Fuck you, you can. If you’re 40 years old, every 17-year-old looks like a child to you.
I got out of it thinking it was this horrific thing that I could never tell anyone about, but it’s not really all that different. They just did all the quiet parts out loud.
JM: When did you make that connection?
LH: It took a while. I’d spend most of my time just not even thinking about where I’d come from, or trying to not think about it as hard as possible. Those are the thoughts you drove out so you could go to sleep at night. I didn’t relate any of it until I started writing about it and describing the cult. Take out the profit, take out the communal living, and you’re just describing society.
The only difference was, it was sanctioned where I grew up.
JM: For years, you wouldn’t talk about any of this. What made you decide to start?
LH: I thought it would go away. Like you do with any sort of trauma, you push it down as far as you can and just hope that it goes away. And it doesn’t work that way. It festers and starts affecting your relationships and how you function in daily life.
My main thing is I started writing and I sounded like everyone else. I sounded like the last person I’d read. And then, I started writing about me and my life, and I finally found out what I sounded like. It became really hard to lie after that.
JM: You write about sharing a bedroom with 15 other kids, asking for money on the street. Did you have any conception of how poor you were?
LH: No, I really didn’t. I mean, I was always jealous of kids and their family out at the zoo who got a snack and a treat and an ice-cream. You would see that and then you would try to sell them a poster for some change.
There was a little bit of envy for other kids, and I thought they had these great, perfect lives, but I didn’t really understand that we were poor. I didn’t really have a concept of it. It’s hard to even describe that now. I just didn’t understand the concept of poor.
JM: How does that still show up in your life today?
LH: There’s definitely an imprint. You’re never really comfortable about food. The pandemic started and I already had two weeks of food stocked up. I don’t feel safe if I don’t have a bunch of cans of tuna and some rice and some beans. I’m terrified of that. I think it imprints on you.
I am terrible with money. I have no idea what to do with it. I don’t know that I’ll ever learn. I don’t really understand money or the concept of it. It just pisses me off anytime I have to deal with it.
I was a bouncer when I was writing this book. The cable guy essay, I wrote sitting outside of a bar checking IDs randomly. When the essay blew up, I was sitting outside a bar talking to producers and like, “Hey, dude, I need to see your ID.” The whole thing has been a bizarre experience. I just do shitty jobs. And that’s what you’re assigned to in this country if you don’t have an education. I was going to community college at the time to try to not have to do shitty jobs for the rest of my life, but I didn’t really know how to do that, even.
JM: You take these “shitty jobs” because there are limited options?
LH: Yeah. It’s survival. If you don’t have a degree in this country and you don’t have work experience at certain jobs, or you don’t have the connections, those are the jobs that you’re going to be able to get.
The only reason I’m able to do this and the only reason I could quit my cable job and go to school and work as a bouncer again, is I got VA disability because they finally recognized that anti-gay harassment or sexual assault might cause PTSD. So, I get VA disability monthly. It was basically a writing grant. I quit my job, and I figured if I lived very frugally, then I could write.
JM: These different jobs don’t leave much time to write.
LH: I didn’t have much time to spend thinking. I mean, that’s kind of the problem in this country, if you don’t start with a certain amount of money to begin with, you don’t get to be who you are until you have enough money to be who you are. And time comes with that. If you’re working to survive, you’re not going to have a whole lot of time to think and write and read.
If you’re working in any sort of menial job…I’d get home at 7:00, 8:00, 9:00 at night and then, I had to go to bed because I had to go to work again. I think a lot of writers should maybe be a little more honest about where the money comes from and that would help, but it keeps a lot of marginalized writers out of the writing world. We are going to be the ones doing those jobs and not having the connections or the money.
JM: Will you return to working at a bar after this?
LH: God, I hope I don’t have to go to a bar. Please buy my book so I don’t have to work at a bar. No, I was down as dad in Austin recently and my bar manager asked me if I wanted my job back and I told him, “Maybe.”
Writing’s like a gambling addiction. You sit there and you’re pulling the fucking handle and pushing the button, hoping for that feeling that you had that one time when you wrote something good. So you keep doing it, but it’s not necessarily healthy. And you might cash in once or twice, but you probably won’t.
Parts of it are really fucking cool. I don’t want to sell this as something that’s horrible. It’s not all bad. It’s just, you’re probably still going to be broke and you might have to get that bar job again.
Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough is available now, with an audiobook read by Cate Blanchett.
LGBTQ&A is a weekly LGBTQ+ interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Roxane Gay, Brandi Carlile, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and Trixie Mattel.