© 2021 KALW
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

After Growing Up In A Cult, Lauren Hough Freed Herself By Writing The Truth

Lauren Hough struggled to adjust after escaping a doomsday cult. "There's an aspect of trauma that's hard to explain," she says. "It's exhausting to be scared all of the time. That anxiety just starts to weigh on you."
Lauren Hough struggled to adjust after escaping a doomsday cult. "There's an aspect of trauma that's hard to explain," she says. "It's exhausting to be scared all of the time. That anxiety just starts to weigh on you."

Writer Lauren Hough grew up in a nomadic doomsday Christian cult called the Children of God. She says she remembers being taught animals could talk to Noah — that's how he was able to get them on to the ark — and that heaven was located in a pyramid in the moon.

"I had problems with [the teachings] pretty early on, but I couldn't express those," she says. "Probably the earliest thing I learned is just keep your mouth shut — and I couldn't, which was a problem."

Hough tells of how she was put in solitary confinement as a kid and suffered rampant sexual abuse from adults in the "Family," as the cult was known (it's gone through several iterations and is now called the Family International). When Hough was 15, her family left the cult for good — but she struggled to connect with other children. She joined the military, but she didn't fit there either: Hough is gay — and it was the 1990s, during the era of "don't ask, don't tell."

Hough asked for, and received, a discharge from the Air Force, but things didn't get any easier. She became homeless and lived in her car. Eventually she took on a number of jobs, including as a bouncer in a gay club and as a "cable guy" — and she began writing as a way of sorting out her feelings about the past.

"I spent a long time lying to myself more than, I think, anyone else. Telling myself that my childhood didn't affect me, telling myself that the military didn't affect me," she says. "I think writing, more than anything, brought that out. ... You kind of have to tell the truth, or it's crap and you know it."

One essay about working as a cable guy went viral. That essay is included in Hough's new collection, Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing.


Interview Highlights

On growing up in the cult and being punished if she wasn't "good"

<em>Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing: Essays,</em> Lauren Hough
/ Vintage
<em>Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing: Essays </em>by Lauren Hough

I was mostly punished any time I was too loud or not loud enough or too foolish or not smiling enough. ... The balance was just impossible to figure out. So you learn to walk around with this placid little half smile on your face, but I'm unfortunately not very in control of my face. It didn't work out all that well for me. ...

You'd never really figure it out. You'd get pulled aside and it would start with, "Can I talk to you for a minute?" And your stomach would just drop. And that could be something as simple [as]: Can you help with the kids tonight? Or you were led into ... [a] room and a few hours later, they're still trying to get you to confess to things, but you didn't know what they wanted you to confess to. A lot of times I just made things up: "I took an extra serving of peanut butter," or "I snuck a glass of milk before bed last night." Most of the time that I got in trouble, I don't know what it was for specifically. If you'd been down a lot lately, then you clearly had had a demon, so you could be in trouble for having a demon and the evidence of that was that you were sad.

On children being sexually abused in the cult

It really depended on where you were, and how old you were mattered a lot. There are girls who are older than me that had a lot of different stories than I did. They banned sex between kids and adults in '86, and this is the thing that [the cult] will always bring up. And I always have two questions about that: Why would you need to suddenly ban it? And why didn't you tell us? Because they didn't tell the kids. So if the adult supervising you didn't much care for the new rule, I wasn't aware there was anyone to tell, and I still I never told my parents [about the abuse] when I was in [the cult], because I assumed they were fine with everything. ... I don't think I realized until a lot later on how much it had traumatized me.

On leaving the cult when she was 15

One of my mom's friends, another woman in a home, saw me being pressed into the wall by an uncle and he was trying to make out with me. And she told my mom, and my mom called me in, and I told her what had been happening and my mom lost her goddamn mind. The home leadership swore they were going to get rid of him and excommunicate him, and when we got to the next home, he was still there, so my mom was done. She was really worried we weren't getting any sort of education. She was livid. So she started planning it long before we left and called my grandmother to gather up the money for plane tickets and made sure she had her passports and all of that and she'd been working on trying to get our sisters out, too, but when she realized that wasn't possible, it was just an emergency to get me and my little brother out. So we just walked out one night. The actual act of leaving — nobody chased us down. We didn't have to sneak out. We just left.

On starting a new life in Texas

It was better; it was just very lonely. I didn't really know how to talk to other kids and kept making missteps that I didn't entirely understand. And it's like being in a foreign country and sometimes you get yelled at getting on the bus or getting groceries and you're never quite sure what you did wrong; you just know that you messed up that interaction entirely. And that's what Amarillo was like. Some of [the missteps] I can easily identify: I kept hugging people when I met them, which is not the way you greet perfect strangers. I would say, "God bless you," or "I love you," after a sentence and not realize that it had come out of my mouth. It was a nervous tic, like apologizing too much. And then I just didn't understand pop culture.

On joining the Air Force at age 18

Compared to a cult, the military was easy. The rules are really defined, and they don't veer from them very often. You don't have to really make a lot of decisions for yourself once you decide to join. My biggest decision every morning is whether or not I would roll my sleeves up or down, and you can just follow along for the most part and do all right. It was comforting. There's that instant camaraderie that happens with the people around you. And for a while, that felt pretty safe — until I was having to lie again because I had the other secret I was hiding about: I was gay. ...

The thing about the military is you are generally around people your age, and for the most part, people my age didn't care. They were raised on MTV. We thought being gay was all right, for the most part. The problem with the military is, and the problem with "don't ask, don't tell," is it just took one person to not even have a problem with gay people, but [to] be mad at you enough to want to hurt you. And it was just an easy way to hurt someone. A lot of people who got kicked out of the military were turned in by exes who wanted to hurt them.

I have a long history of telling my secrets to a piece of paper.

On learning to speak openly in writing

I think writing, naturally, feels a little bit secretive. You start writing in notebooks under your blanket with a flashlight. So it feels like this secretive thing that's just between you and the page. I have a long history of telling my secrets to a piece of paper. I didn't want to publish any of it until there was a reason to, because who knows what the difference is between trauma porn and writing, but I didn't want to traumatize anybody with my story. ... If I was going to tell any of it, I wanted to have a point and a reason and something I was trying to say.

Therese Madden and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.