Lauren Hough struggled to adapt after escaping a doomsday cult. “There is one aspect of trauma that is difficult to explain,” she says. “It is exhausting to be afraid all the time. That fear is just beginning to burden you.” Karl Poss IV / Knopf Doubleday hide caption
Karl Poss IV / Knopf Doubleday
Karl Poss IV / Knopf Doubleday
Writer Lauren Hough grew up in a nomadic Christian doomsday cult called Children of God. She recalls being taught that animals could talk to Noah – this was how he could bring them to the ark – and that the sky was in a pyramid in the moon.
“I had problems with [the teachings] pretty early on, but I couldn’t express this, “she says.” Probably the earliest thing I learned is just to shut up – and I couldn’t, which was a problem. “
Hough recounts how she was put in solitary confinement as a child and rampantly sexually abused by adults in the “family,” as the cult was called (it has gone through several iterations and is now called The Family International). When Hough was 15, her family left the cult for good – but she made an effort to connect with other children. She joined the military but didn’t fit in either: Hough is gay – and it was the 1990s in the era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell. “
Hough requested and received an Air Force discharge, but it didn’t get any easier. She became homeless and lived in her car. Eventually she took a number of jobs, including working as a bouncer in a gay club and as a “cable guy” – and she began to write or dispel her feelings about the past.
“I lied to myself for a long time, more than anyone. I told myself my childhood didn’t affect me and I told myself the military didn’t affect me,” she says. “I think writing got that out more than anything … you have to kind of tell the truth or it’s crap and you know it.”
An essay on work as a cable type quickly became known. This essay is featured in Hough’s new “Leaving Is Not the Hardest” collection.
When she grew up in the cult and was punished for not being “good”
Leaving isn’t the hardest part: Essays, hiding Lauren Hough’s vintage caption
I was mostly punished if I was too loud or not loud enough or too stupid or not smiling enough. … The balance was just impossible to work out. So you learn to walk around with that calm little smile on your face, but unfortunately I don’t have very much control over my face. It didn’t work out so well for me. …
You’d never really find out. You would be pulled aside and it would start with, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” And your stomach would just fall. And it could be that easy [as]: Can you help with the kids tonight? Or you have been guided in … [a] Zimmer and a few hours later they are still trying to get you to confess things, but you didn’t know what they wanted you to confess. Often times I would just make up something, “I took an extra portion of peanut butter” or “I grabbed a glass of milk before bed last night.” Most of the time I got into trouble, I don’t know what it was specifically for. If you had been down a lot lately, you would clearly have had a demon so you could possibly get into trouble for having a demon and the proof was that you were sad.
About children who are sexually abused in the cult
It really depended on where you were and how old you were. There are girls who are older than me and who have had many different stories than me. They banned sex between children and adults in 1986 and that’s the thing [the cult] will always educate. And I always have two questions about this: Why should you suddenly have to ban it? And why didn’t you tell us? Because they didn’t tell the kids. If the adult supervising you wasn’t very interested in the new rule, I didn’t know there was someone to tell, and I’ve still never told my parents [about the abuse] when i was in [the cult]because I assumed they were okay with everything. … I think it wasn’t until much later that I realized how much it traumatized me.
When she left the cult when she was 15
A friend of my mother’s, another woman in a house, saw me being pushed against the wall by an uncle and he was trying to make out with me. And she told my mom and my mom called me and I told her what happened and my mom was out of her goddamn mind. The home management swore they would get rid of him and excommunicate him, and when we got to the next house he was still there, so my mother was finished. She was really worried that we wouldn’t get an education. She was angry. So she started planning well before we left and called my grandmother to raise the money for plane tickets. She made sure she had her passports and all of that and she had been working 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 went out one night. The real act of leaving – no one followed 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 just very lonely. I didn’t really know how to talk to other children and kept making mistakes that I didn’t quite understand. And it’s like being in a foreign country and sometimes people yell at you When you get on the bus or buy groceries and you are never entirely sure what you did wrong, all you know is that you completely messed up that interaction. And so was Amarillo. Some [the missteps] I can easily identify myself: I’ve hugged people over and over again when I met them, and that’s not how you greet complete strangers. After one sentence I would say, “God bless you” or “I love you” and not realize that it came out of my mouth. It was a bit nervous, like apologizing too much. And then I just didn’t understand pop culture.
Upon joining the Air Force at the age of 18
Compared to a cult, the military was easy. The rules are really defined and don’t deviate from them very often. You don’t really have to make many decisions for yourself if you decide to join. My biggest decision each morning is whether or not to roll up my sleeves or not, and for the most part you can just go along and get it all right. It was comforting. There’s this instant camaraderie that happens with the people around you. And for a while it felt pretty safe – until I had to lie again about the other secret I was hiding from: I was gay. …
The thing about the military is, you’re generally around people your age, and for the most part, people my age didn’t care. You were raised on MTV. We thought it was mostly okay to be gay. The problem with the military is, and the problem with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, is that it only took one person to not even have a problem with gay people, however [to] Be mad enough at yourself to want to hurt yourself. And it was just an easy way to hurt someone. Many people who were kicked out of the military were turned in by exes trying to hurt them.
I have a long history of telling my secrets to a piece of paper.
Learn openly to speak openly in writing
I think writing feels a bit mysterious of course. You start writing in notebooks under your covers with a flashlight. So it feels like that mysterious thing that is 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 post any of this until there was a reason for it, because who knows what the difference between trauma porn and writing is, but I didn’t want to traumatize anyone with my story. … if I wanted to tell something about it, I wanted to have a point and a raise and something to say.
Therese Madden and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.