Karl Poss IV / Knopf Doubleday
Writer Lauren Hough grew up in a nomadic doomsday Christian cult called Children of God. He says he remembers that the learned animals could talk to Noah – so he managed to get them to the ark – and that the sky was in a pyramid on the moon.
“I had a problem with [the teachings] quite early, but I couldn’t express it, “she says.” Probably the earliest thing I learned was to just keep my mouth shut – and I couldn’t, which was a problem. “
Hough talks about how as a child she was locked up in solitary confinement and suffered severe adult sexual abuse in “The Family,” as the cult was known (it went through several iterations and is now called The International International). When Hough was 15, her family left the cult forever – but she struggled to connect with other children. She joined the military, but she didn’t care there either: Hough is gay – and it was the 1990s, at the time. “Don’t ask, don’t talk. “
Hough requested and received discharge from the Air Force, but things did not get any easier. She was left homeless and living in her car. Eventually, she accepted a number of jobs, including working as a bouncer in a gay club and a “cable guy” – and began writing as a way or sorting out her feelings about the past.
“For a long time, I lied to myself more than, I think, anyone else. Telling myself that my childhood didn’t affect me, telling myself that the military didn’t influence me,” she says. “I think writing, more than anything, brought it about. … You have to somehow tell the truth or it’s bullshit and you know it.”
An essay by Fr. works like a cable guy became viral. That essay has been included in Hough’s new collection, Leaving is not the hardest thing.
We single out from the interview
Growing up in a cult and punishing if she wasn’t “good”
I was mostly punished whenever I was too loud or not loud enough or too stupid or not smiling enough. … The balance was simply impossible to fathom. So learn to walk around with this serene little half-smile on your face, but I unfortunately don’t control my face. I wasn’t doing very well. …
You would never really understand that. You’d step aside and start with “Can I talk for a second?” And your stomach would just fall off. And that could be something so simple [as]: Can you help with the kids tonight? Or you are introduced to … [a] room and a few hours later, they were still trying to get you to admit things, but you didn’t know what they wanted you to admit. Many times I just made up, “I took an extra serving of peanut butter” or “I snuggled up a glass of milk last night before bed.” Most of the time when I had problems, I don’t know what specifically it served. If you’ve been falling a lot lately, then you’ve obviously had a demon, so you could be in trouble because you had a demon, and the proof of that was that you were sad.
About children who have been sexually abused in a cult
It really depended on where you were and how old you were. There are girls older than me who have had a lot of different stories than me. They banned sex between children and adults in ’86, and that’s the thing that [the cult] will always bring. And I always have two questions about it: Why would you have to ban it all of a sudden? And why didn’t you tell us? Because they didn’t tell the kids. So if the adult supervising you didn’t care much for the new rule, I wasn’t aware there was anyone to tell, and I still never told my parents [about the abuse] when I was inside [the cult], because I assumed they were all right. … I don’t think I realized much later how much it traumatized me.
By leaving the cult when she was 15 years old
One of my mother’s friends, another woman in the house, saw my uncle pressing me against the wall and trying to break up with me. And she told my mom and my mom called me, and I told her what was going on and my mom lost her damn mind. The local leadership swore to get rid of him and excommunicate him, and when we got to the house next door, he was still there, so my mom was done. She really worried that we hadn’t gotten any education. She was alive. So she started planning it long before we left and called my grandmother to raise money for plane tickets and made sure she had her passports and all that and was working on trying to get our sisters out too, but when he realized it wasn’t it is possible, it is only urgent to get me and my little brother out. So we only went out one night. The actual act of leaving – no one was chasing us. We didn’t have to sneak out. We just left.
At the beginning of a new life in Texas
It was better, it was very lonely. I didn’t really know how to talk to other kids and I kept making the wrong steps that I didn’t fully understand. And it’s like you’re in a foreign country, and sometimes you’re yelling getting on a bus or taking groceries and you’re never quite sure what you did wrong, you just know you’ve completely messed up that interaction. And such was Amarillo. Some of [the missteps] I can easily recognize: I was constantly 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 the sentence and I wouldn’t realize it came out of my mouth. It was a nervous tic, like too much apology. And then I just didn’t understand pop culture.
Upon arrival in the Air Force at the age of 18
Compared to the cult, the army was easy. The rules are really defined and do not deviate from them often. Once you decide to join you don’t have to make a lot of decisions for yourself. My biggest decision every morning is whether to roll up my sleeves up or down, and you can just follow it for the most part and do well. It was comforting. There is that current camaraderie that happens to the people around you. And for a while it felt pretty safe – until I had to lie again because I had another secret I was hiding about: I was gay. …
The thing about the military is that you’re mostly around people your age, and people my age mostly didn’t care. They were raised on MTV. We thought being gay was mostly. The problem with the military is, and the problem with Don’t ask, Don’t say, was it only one person who should have no problem with homosexuals, but [to] be mad at you enough to want to hurt you. And it was just an easy way to hurt someone. Many people who were expelled from the army were betrayed by exes who wanted to hurt them.
About learning open written speech
I think writing, of course, feels a bit secretive. With a flashlight, you start writing in notebooks under your cover. So that seems to be the secret thing that is between you and the site. I have a long history of putting my secrets on paper. I didn’t want to publish any of it until there was a reason for it, because who knows what the difference is between traumatic porn and writing, but I didn’t want to traumatize anyone with my story. … If I wanted to say any of that, I wanted to have a point and a raise and something I was trying to say.
Therese Madden and Seth Kelley produced and edited the sound of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.