Book review: ‘Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays’ By Lauren Hough
Lauren Hough’s “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing” is a personal odyssey, more about leaving home than returning to it — even though she nonetheless returns in complicated ways throughout these 11 searingly honest essays to a past she has tried persistently to leave behind.
Hough has quite the resumé: she’s worked as an Air Force airman, a bouncer in DC’s Badlands gay club (now used as an office) and briefly the “cable guy” for the Cheney family. She was also raised in the Children of God cult, known as “the Family” (other alumni include River and Joaquin Phoenix). Children of God members believed that the Antichrist were coming, memorized the Bible (alongside other cult literature) and were brainwashed into following what was essentially a sex cult. The Family, says Hough, was “your textbook abusive relationship — love-bomb, isolate, create dependence, and your victim won’t have the power to leave.”
It wouldn’t be until she turned 15 that Hough finally left the Family for good, though her problems didn’t end there. Hough was also in the closet at a time and place where being openly queer was a non-option: “backwoods South Carolina, in 1999, where the Rebel flags outnumbered American flags.” Danger followed Hough throughout her life and is how the first story in the collection opens; in ‘Solitaire,’ Hough writes about her car being blown up at Shaw Air Force Base by someone who wrote “Die Dike” into the dust on her dash. “It’s safer when people don’t think you’re different,” Hough noted.
In this way, there are two “coming out” stories at the heart of Hough’s memoir: the story of coming out as a queer, and of coming out as a “cult baby” (a term Hough warns to not throw around lightly). Both stories are interlinked throughout the essays, which track Hough’s journey from hiding her past to now openly sharing it in a New York Times–bestselling book.
There’s a lot of anger in Hough’s book, directed at the circumstances of her childhood, homophobic officials and daily micro- and macroaggressions. “I liked my anger,” wrote Hough, “I thought it kept me safe.” This anger is a constant, plodding pulse throughout the essays. And yet, “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing” also carries surprising touches of levity and gentleness. Though the essays are peppered with more f-bombs than one can count, another word that comes up time and again is “honey” — a term of endearment, most memorably used by Hough’s friend Jay to address her. “Honey” sweetens the essays, seemingly urging readers to keep an eye out for hope even when circumstances are dire.
Indeed, some of the best moments arrive when Hough finds pleasure in the unlikeliest places. “A busy nightclub is an odd place to feel safe,” reads the essay ‘Badlands.’ “But my boss gave me permission. That I could be an asshole was a revelation.” It is at the club where Hough experiences ecstasy for the first time and connects with what the Family might have called “the Holy Spirit” (side note: Hough’s essay ‘Speaking in Tongues’ finds a partner alongside Jia Tolentino’s ‘Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston,’ which draws a connection between ecstasy and religion).
We also witness the sheer joy of seeing Hough embracing her queerness, best captured by a simile at the end of ‘Boys on the Side.’ Hough describes the first time she experiences the true bliss of sleeping with a woman as “suddenly getting to play in the World Cup when all you’ve done is play pickup soccer with the local divorced dads.”
Though Hough’s unconventional origin story is at the forefront of the book, one can also read “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing” as the portrait of an artist. “It’s entirely possible the way I speak and, by extension, the way I write, developed in rebellion to Family speak,” considered Hough. “Being able to sound like me, truly like me, without worrying about losing my job or even getting in trouble for what I said, or didn’t say, is how I found my own voice.”
Indeed, books and writing are important subjects in Hough’s memoir. In ‘Cell Block,’ Hough explores a brief time she spent in prison after getting into a fight with an ex-girlfriend’s girlfriend named “Karen” (who also fits the stereotypes of the name). When the prison book cart appears by her cell, Hough experiences a turning point; though she only gains access to typical mass-market paperbacks (such as Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper” and David Baldacci’s “The Winner”), she still finds crucial reprieve during her time in prison.
In a later essay, ‘Everything That’s Beautiful Breaks My Heart,’ Hough talks about why former cult members preserve Family literature even though most have been burned. “Strange as it may seem, these books are our history,” she explained. “It’s proof of the stories we tell and the stories we can’t explain to our therapists.” In this way, writing is Hough’s therapy, her means of “taking a nightmare, studying it in the daylight, and realizing the monsters were just shadows.”
There’s a scene in the titular essay where Hough describes buying a fellow former cult member’s novel in a Barnes & Noble. Though the book has nothing to do with the cult (on a surface level, anyway), it’s evidence that someone else from the Family made it out and became something different. I can’t help but think that Hough’s book may be that essential Barnes & Noble purchase for many others today — people who have survived abusive relationships (cult or otherwise) and have their own coming out story.
If Hough’s book doesn’t do that for you — if you don’t see your own experiences mirrored in the text — that’s a marker of your privilege, something Hough recognizes in herself as well when she leaves prison and realizes that “white people with even a little agency” still get second chances after falling through the cracks. As much as these essays were written for a certain audience, they’re also a wake-up call to those who experience safety, home ownership or financial stability as a default, never imagining that their everyday needs may one day disappear.
“If you don’t leave a cult, you’ll never know you’re in one,” said Hough in the final essay of the book, followed by a line laced with irony: “America is the greatest country on earth.”
If leaving isn’t the hardest thing, what is? Perhaps it’s staying, be it in an abusive cult or toxic job. Perhaps it’s trying to be normal — though by the end Hough realizes that she doesn’t “know what normal is” and “no longer wants any part of it.” Maybe it’s simply living, despite the at-times soul-crushing, dejected chore of surviving. “I’d been pitying myself for a past I couldn’t change, and I’d refused to consider that I still had a future,” writes Hough. In other words, she seems to tell us, don’t be afraid to say “Fuck it.” Even if you must leave everything behind — a partner, a home or a job — chances are, that won’t be the hardest thing you do.
May Huang is a writer and translator. Her work has been published in Electric Literature, Popdust, Words Without Borders, Circumference and more. Find her on Twitter @mayhuangwrites.
Read more of the June 30 - July 6, 2021 issue.