Lauren Hough made waves with her debut. Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, a collection of autobiographical essays, was met with near universal acclaim. This stunning debut spent two weeks as a New York Times best-seller. And the audiobook is narrated by none other than Cate Blanchett. Hough’s book went from strength to strength. It was even nominated for a Lammy Award – a prestigious LGBTQ literary prize.
But then Lambda Literary cancelled Hough’s nomination. Lambda “grew concerned” about “Twitter disputes.” And this controversy has overshadowed a truly remarkable tale. Hough’s book is well worth reading. Not only in resistance to cancel culture, but because her story is an important one.
This author has lived much of her life on the margins of society. And she has been many different people: a child trapped in a cult where sexual abuse was prevalent; a closeted youth in rural America; a US Airman during the heyday of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; a homeless young woman living out of her car in San Francisco; the bouncer in a gay club; an inmate; a cable woman. A lesbian struggling to find her place in the world.
Some periods in Hough’s life are defined by a chaotic sort of joy, and others a desperate fight for survival. But on every page she is scrappy, fierce, and so very smart. Hough writes introspectively about the need to come out twice: first as a lesbian, and second as a former member of the ‘Family.’ She is used to being an outsider, both to straight people and Systemites – those outside of David Berg’s cult. And this outsider status allows Hough to write with remarkable insight about the divides in modern day American society.
Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing isn’t easy reading. It’s not linear in the traditional style of biography. Like memory it shifts between past and present, every essay revealing another layer to Hough’s story.
Though Hough’s conversational, candid voice makes it impossible to put this book down, she deals with difficult themes and topics. She’s survived homelessness and sexual trauma, navigated desperate poverty without a safety net, and lived to tell the tale. Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing is not a comfortable book, and that is its greatest strength. Through razor-sharp storytelling, Hough guides the reader to sit with their own discomfort, examine their own relationship with power.
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates argues that “art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” And Hough’s writing smashes those goals. From the opening paragraph, this book is magnetic:
“I’m better at lying than I am telling the truth,” writes Hough, “because the lies don’t make me nervous. It’s truth, the thought of telling it, that triggers my awkward laugh and sweaty palms, makes me not want to look you in the eye. I know I won’t like what I see.”
And yet, in spite of this claim, Hough’s book tells a whole host of difficult truths. Truths about the author and the world she lives in, for better or worse. It takes immense courage to write down the worst experiences of your life and offer them up for public scrutiny. Hough’s bravery, her honesty, is what makes this book outstanding.
In highlighting all the abuse and exploitation that built the Children of God cult, Hough exposes the hypocrisy at its heart. The book’s most moving passages are its least sentimental. Hough writes with clinical detachment of her teen self not washing to avoid the sexual attention of grown men; of how girls were “called unloving and told to be more receptive” if they resisted a man’s advances; the ritualized child sexual abuse known as ‘sharing’, included in the ‘Family’ schedule.
For a group claiming to bring about spiritual “revolution and happiness”, the cult has caused widespread misery and trauma. But Hough’s testimony is a powerful act of resistance. Her words discredit cult leader David Berg – who positioned himself as a modern Moses – and his legacy.
Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing is available from all good bookstores.
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