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Lauren Hough On Growing Up In A Cult, New Memoir

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Lauren Hough grew up in a cult, and not just any cult. It was called the Children of God.

LAUREN HOUGH: It seems shocking from the outside. And I understand how it seems shocking, and that's part of why I wanted to write the book.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The book is her new memoir, "Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing." And a warning here - our conversation deals with some of the assault and abuse she writes about.

HOUGH: To explain that if you're in it, that's just your daily life. And for the most part, it's not really as interesting as you'd want it to be. There's a schedule on the wall. Everything's very regimented. There's a schedule for, you know, who's on kitchen duty and then who's sharing God's love with whom on Friday night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sharing God's love is sex, and she describes The Children Of God as a sex cult between and among adults and children. It was also nomadic, which meant that Hough lived in Japan, Switzerland, Germany, around the U.S. - always on to the next place, begging to survive, sexualized at home and regularly beaten for not conforming - nothing stable or reliable.

HOUGH: If you want to drive a dog crazy, you change the rules all the time. And it works with children, too. You never feel completely safe. You never feel completely secure. A lot of that just has to do with the poverty aspect of it, that we never really knew where our next meal was going to come from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which is why Lauren Hough says leaving isn't the hardest thing. Her memoir is a series of searing essays in which she talks about the cult and its influence on her later life.

You write that there's a time period during which children learn to make friends and learn to have a conversation, sort of get an understanding of the social orders and where they fit in in the world. You didn't have that. And so I want to ask you, how did being in Children of God scramble your social senses?

HOUGH: In a word, completely. And it's very small. It's very insulated. So when you come out of that into larger society, you're not supposed to hug strangers. You don't end every conversation with I love you or praise the Lord. So, yeah, it was difficult.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about coming out, at least to yourself, in this environment like the Children Of God because obviously, your sexual identity was not something that was welcome or celebrated in this environment.

HOUGH: No, it wasn't. And in some ways, maybe that made it easier to accept it because I was rejecting all of the family's teachings along with it, along with the teachings that I was wrong. It stuck. It takes a long time to get that out of your head that - when you've been raised your entire life to believe that that is wrong and that makes you evil and bad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hough grappled with being gay in a cult that saw her very identity as demonic. But she craved order, and so she ended up in the Air Force. It was, though, under the Clinton-era policy of "don't ask, don't tell," where you could still be discharged for being gay, but only if you came out of the closet.

HOUGH: Yeah. It was not a great time to be gay in the military. I joined a lot of - mostly to get out of Amarillo and to find a way to go to college. But you want that brotherhood. You want that family, that - the camaraderie. You don't get that if you're gay because you can't be really open with your friends. Every conversation from, hey, what'd you do last weekend? is going to be a lie because you have to protect yourself.

The problem with don't ask, don't tell isn't that most people in the military had a problem with being gay. Most of the people my age could not have cared less. But all it took was one person, and one person going to your commander, going to the OSI could ruin a career and did ruin a lot of them. So it was just a constant fear of, you know, if I make this person mad, how are they going to react to it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hough was harassed for being gay, and she was raped by a fellow airman.

HOUGH: I didn't really know what to do with it. I did what I think anyone does with that sort of trauma and just tries to shove it down. And it's manifesting itself in, like, every interaction. I was failing out of school. Air Force had sent me to DLI to learn Vietnamese, and I couldn't remember words. I became profoundly depressed. I didn't know what depression was. The way we depict it, I think, in popular culture, books and movies didn't look like what I felt. I just felt numb. So I didn't know that that was depressed. I just shut off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hough's memoir is about trauma, but not only. It's a sharp and funny take on life on the margins. After being forced out of the Air Force, she experiences homelessness, works in a gay bar.

HOUGH: There's a very us-against-them mentality that happens whenever you're working kitchen jobs, restaurant jobs, bar jobs. And it's a gay bar, so there are all these queer kids whose - I mean, I thought my story was traumatic. Yeah, if you think you have a bad, talk to a few bouncers late at night after they've had a few drinks, and let them tell you how they ended up being bouncers. You see all that laid very bare because we're all too tired to hide it. We'd all experienced poverty. A lot of us were experiencing poverty. You see the breakups and the crying and the hurt and the pain and the I can't pay my rent, and I don't know what I'm going to do next.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write, and I'm going to quote here, "we fetishize poverty as though it makes you a better person. The truth is, all it does is make you mean - the constant stress of it, the never-ending shame of it." I'm removing some expletives there.

HOUGH: (Laughter) We are really in love with this bootstraps mentality in America. But how do you go to college when you can't pay rent? Never mind paying for it; it's hard to get home from your second job and study. I admire the hell out of people who do because I couldn't. I was trying to write for 20 years, and it wasn't until I got VA disability that I was able to take enough of a break to have time to write and to have time to think. There's a whole lot of writing that's just staring at the wall. And you need that time to just shut off after work and let things brew. You don't have that time if you're working to survive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, because more things are emergencies, right? It's like, bills, flat tires.

HOUGH: Yeah. I mean, that's how most of us live. We're one, maybe two paychecks away from disaster. What do you do? GoFundMe, I guess. And, I mean, it's kind of sad that we've turned survival into a popularity contest.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lauren Hough may be best known for her viral 2018 essay, "I Was A Cable Guy. I Saw The Worst Of America." She wrote in the Huffington Post about all the people she met and the things she saw working installing cable in people's homes while they didn't seem to see her at all.

HOUGH: I think part of it's that you don't read a lot of stories by working-class writers. I mean, every time there's an election, we go into diners to talk to the working class, but nobody ever talks to the waitresses. Nobody ever talks to the cooks. Those are the working poor that we need to be hearing from. People like to tell us what we think a whole lot. And I don't know that most of them have ever talked to us because we're invisible in your house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, you're a published author. I'm wondering how that sits with you, considering everything you've been through. How does that feel?

HOUGH: The week after publication, I think I had every possible emotion. I did it. I had a moment with my brother on Sunday. I went over to his house. We were sitting out on his back porch, and he looked at me and was like, you're a writer. Yeah. I don't have words for that. It's - I don't know how many people get to live their absolute dream.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And yet on Twitter, she wrote furiously about a reviewer on Goodreads giving her book only a four-star review out of a possible five. The backlash has been swift, and Goodreads reviewers are calling for her book to be boycotted.

HOUGH: The problem is, I just wrote an entire book about why I talk the way I do and always being told to be more grateful and nicer and they won't hurt you. Speak more softly. Don't say what you actually mean or think. And be very, very careful that it's not misconstrued, or the consequences are pretty dire when you're a kid. So, yeah, maybe I'm more prepared to deal with the consequences now. I just - like I said, I - a lot of adulthood is pretty disappointing when it turns out it's just like your childhood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's the thing. Lauren Hough is still trying somehow to leave.

HOUGH: (Crying) Why'd you make me cry? It's all right - long day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her book, "Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing" is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCK JOHNSON'S "CALAMUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.