Memoirs are a tricky form of writing. Remember James Frey and A Million Little Pieces? Nevertheless, memoirs are also an endless source of fascination for readers, and Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing (Vintage, 2021) by Texas writer Lauren Hough is definitely fascinating.
Raised in the notorious Children of God cult, Hough’s rough-and-tumble 1970s childhood, as well as the years of turmoil that followed, is nothing less than astonishing. From her time in the armed forces to her stints as a bouncer at the beloved DC gay disco Badlands, as well as working as a cable installer and serving time in jail, readers will marvel at her ability to write about her experiences in such a clear and inviting manner.
Hough was kind enough to answer a few questions for OutSmart in advance of the book’s publication on April 13.
Gregg Shapiro: Were the essays in Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing written in the order in which they appear in the book?
Lauren Hough: No. But I couldn’t tell you the order. Some of the essays began as a digression in a separate essay, or the digression [became the entire] essay and I had to go back and delete 90 percent of the first draft. It’s as fun as it sounds. [Laughs] The Badlands essay about working at a club was my white whale for several months. I just couldn’t find a way in. The great thing about Twitter is that I’ve made friends with writers who are incredibly generous. I could send an essay that might as well have been a few Post-it notes to people like Sandra Newman and Heather Havrilesky, who could tell me I’d made it too complicated—again. And I simply didn’t want to write the jail essay. I didn’t want to have to think on it long enough to write it. As it was, I kept having to get up and stand outside, just to remind myself I could.
When did you realize you had a book?
I think I always knew I had a book. I spent a long time not writing it, and writing anything else [instead]. I tried songwriting. I thought maybe instead of writing a book, I’d be the lesbian Townes Van Zandt. But I’m lousy at guitar, and Mary Gauthier already has that covered. I wrote half of a few novels that sound exactly like someone else. It wasn’t until I started writing about my life that I started sounding like me.
The “leaving” theme (where you describe leaving the Children of God cult, the military, and your girlfriends Rhonda and Autumn) is one of the threads that stitches the essays together. Do you think this personal history would have been different if you hadn’t spent your formative years in the cult?
They do call them “formative” years. [Laughs] But it’s impossible to say who or what or where I’d be, who I’d be w fith, or what my life would look like if I’d grown up any different. It’s one of those thoughts that’ll keep you up at night, make you reach for your drug of choice, or write a book trying to unravel and understand it all. I think it’s safe to say I might have had healthier relationships earlier had I not been raised in a cult.
You mention murdered gay soldier Barry Winchell a couple of times, and refer to other victims of homophobic violence, including Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, and Arthur Warren. Would it be fair to say that your experiences in both Children of God and the military also made you hyper-aware of the potential for harm to LGBTQ people?
I think most queer people are hyper-aware of the threats out there. Some are definitely more sheltered. That used to anger me. It’s one of the less attractive human traits—the need to be pissed at those who have it better. Runs right alongside being pissed at those who have it worse, who might be allowed a little sympathy. But it’s beautiful that we live in a world where not every queer kid is raised to be ashamed. Unfortunately, it’s still a world where we do have to be aware of the threats. I think it’s important to remember the price that some have paid, and recognize how easily the freedoms we do enjoy can be taken. [People] who do have a voice need to use it to fight for and protect those who don’t.
You write a lot about the music you were listening to, including Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, and Ani DiFranco, among others. Does Sarah McLachlan know how much you wrote about her?
God, let’s hope she’s too busy being Sarah McLachlan to read my book. [Laughs]
You currently live in Austin, home to SXSW and ACL. I was wondering if you’ve been able to take advantage of the amazing music scene that Austin has to offer?
You know, the shame of it is that when I first moved to Austin, I was working five nights a week at a bar. So the only acts I saw were those that played our bar during SXSW. Then I was supposed to be writing a book, so I only saw a few shows. The last show I saw before COVID was Carolyn Wonderland at the Continental Club. I ended up doing coke in the alley with a six-foot-eight Icelandic dude named Thor. One of those decisions you know you’ll regret, but how often does an honest-to-God Viking named Thor offer you coke? About as often as a pandemic keeps you in your house for the next year.
Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing is coming out at a time when the country is still reeling from having a president who was the closest thing to a cult leader we’ve ever experienced. Do you see parallels between your experience in a cult and the experiences of Trump’s followers? That’s something you touched on in your final essay, “Everything That’s Beautiful Breaks My Heart.”
I’ve probably given five different answers on this. The similarities are there, especially when we’re talking about why so many people became enamored with him (or, for that matter, Bernie or anyone who inspires that level of zealotry). Americans really love a cult. We love conspiracy theories. We like easy answers, like “They’re all stupid, they’re poor, they’re racist.” I don’t think it’s that simple. These movements offer all the benefits of a cult—the community, the secret map to happiness and success, someone to blame for their problems. But I don’t know that we have the vocabulary for what this is, and that’s a problem.
On a recent episode of Finding Your Roots, Glenn Close talked about her family’s involvement in the Moral Re-Armament religious cult. Have you ever encountered Close—or Rose McGowan or Joaquin Phoenix (who were also raised in Children of God)—and shared stories of your experiences?
No, but if you run into Glenn Close, can you give her my number? [Laughs] I’d love to talk about anything else with her.
If there was a movie version of Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, who would you want to play you?
I don’t know. I’ve had some shockingly bad hair phases. I’d hate for anyone to have to spend a year growing out a yellow mohawk.
Have you started writing or thinking about your next book?
I have an idea for it. I’ve started writing sentences. I’ve even written a paragraph or two. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that what I think will be the next book will in no way resemble the book I write.
For more information about Lauren Hough, visit laurenhoughauthor.com.