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After Growing Up In A Cult, Lauren Hough Freed Herself By Writing The Truth

Writer Lauren Hough grew up in a nomadic doomsday Christian cult called the Children of God. She says she remembers being taught animals could talk to Noah — that's how he was able to get them on to the ark — and that heaven was located in a pyramid in the moon. Her new collection is 'Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing.'

35:28

Other segments from the episode on April 20, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 20, 2021: Interview with Lauren Hough; Review of 'Renegades'; Review of 'Law Years.'

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For years, my guest Lauren Hough found it easier and more believable to lie than to tell the truth, because the truth was she grew up in a doomsday Christian cult, the Children of God, which for several years was also a sex cult. The cult was also known as the Family of Love and then just the Family. The founder, David Berg, initially preached to hippies in Southern California. Lauren Hough's parents joined the cult when they were 19. The cult went international. And she and her family lived in several countries, including the U.S., Chile, Argentina, Japan and Germany, where she was born. She was a teenager by the time she was out of the cult for good. By then, it was too late to be able to fit in with other kids or in high school. She joined the military. But she didn't fit there either. It was the '90s, the don't ask, don't tell era. And she's a lesbian. So that was another part of her identity she couldn't reveal.

After the military, things didn't get easier. She was homeless and lived in a car, then had a number of jobs. The ones she held the longest were working as a bouncer in a gay club and working as a cable guy. She started writing. And her essay about working as a cable guy went viral. That led her to keep writing personal essays. And now she has a new book of personal essays called "Leaving Isn't The Hardest Thing." Lauren Hough, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like your writing. And I want you to read the first paragraph of your new collection. This is the first paragraph from the first essay called "Solitaire."

LAUREN HOUGH: Thank you so much for having me. All right. (Reading) If you ask me where I'm from, I'll lie to you. I'll tell you my parents were missionaries. I'll tell you I'm from Boston. I'll tell you I'm from Texas. Those lies people believe. I'm better at lying than I am at telling the truth because the lies don't make me nervous. It's the truth, the thought of telling it that triggers my awkward laugh and my sweaty palms, makes me not want to look you in the eye. I know I won't like what I'll see.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. You know, I should tell you, the first paragraph really scared me when I read it. I thought, I don't want to interview somebody who's been lying all their life.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, like, why would I think they're going to tell me the truth? Then I realized, actually, the things that you said there, they're not exactly lies, you know? You lived in the places you say you lived. And your parents kind of were missionaries. They were missionaries for this cult. They proselytized. So, I mean, am I right in saying that, that they weren't exactly lies?

HOUGH: Yeah, they weren't. I told - I mean, I stuck with a lot of half-truths. I spent a long time lying to myself more than, I think, anyone else, telling myself that, you know, my childhood didn't affect me, telling myself that, you know, the military didn't affect me. And, yeah, at a certain point, I think writing it, more than anything, brought that out is the problem with writing is you kind of have to tell the truth or it's crap and you know it. And you can see all the times you're lying to yourself while you're writing it.

GROSS: So when you were in this cult and you were a child, I mean, you were born into it. What are some of the first things you remember learning, that you were exposed to that inculcated, like, the cult's world view? Because the things you grow up with, you don't challenge. I mean, you just accept, like, that's what the world is. This is what the world around me is. That's what the world is. So what were those, like, foundational things that you learned about the leader of the cult, the beliefs, the beliefs you were supposed to have?

HOUGH: I don't think I recognized it at all until I went back in. My parents left for a little while and went to school in Amarillo and Oklahoma. And I learned about dinosaurs. My grandmother was really - was taking - she was really into archaeology. And she was taking a class at the time and took us out on a dig. And we were digging for - she was digging for pots. But just to distract us so we'd leave her alone, she showed us how to find the fossils in the sidewall of this mesa. And - but then you go into a cult. And they were telling us - it just takes a fourth-grade knowledge of dinosaurs, really, to counteract a lot of what the cult was teaching us, because, no, animals can't talk. And they couldn't talk before the flood. Their mouths didn't change. And, you know, you didn't get a T-Rex on the ark. I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Is that what you were taught...

HOUGH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And that animals could talk? You were told, like, they could talk?

HOUGH: Yeah, animals could talk to Noah. And that's how he was able to get them onto the ark. He just talked them on there (laughter).

GROSS: That did not come from the Bible, right? I mean - (laughter).

HOUGH: No. It doesn't come from the Bible. Yeah. It was - a lot of it didn't come from the Bible. Dragons were real because - I don't know. There's an argument about whether or not those are mentioned in the Bible. But some of it was just too ridiculous. Heaven was supposed to be in the moon. But if heaven is a pyramid, a physical pyramid inside the moon, and everybody who dies goes - and they believe in Jesus, they go to heaven - it was going to fill up. And I'm not really good at math, but that's a finite space. So, yeah, I had problems with it pretty early on. But I couldn't express those. And I probably - the earliest thing I learned is just keep your mouth shut. And I couldn't (laughter), which was a problem.

GROSS: David Berg, who founded Children of God - aka the Family of Love, aka the Family - he billed himself as a prophet of God. Did you ever meet him? And did you ever think that, like, hey, you are really close to God's prophet?

HOUGH: No. He kept himself completely hidden from us. I didn't see his face until he died.

GROSS: What, in the photograph in the obituary?

HOUGH: Yeah. I had never - didn't know what he looked like. They used to - all of our comic books - well, our comic books were cartoons. But any time you saw a picture of him in our literature, it was - his face was covered with either this little cartoon drawing of a lion or a Santa Claus-looking dude. I had no idea what he looked like. I - they were very distant, him and his inner circle. We never even knew where they were. It was this huge secret. Occasionally you'd meet someone who had met him. And that was really cool because they had been close to him.

GROSS: So you had to be good or else you would be punished. But what was defined as good behavior for a child? And what would you be punished for? And you might as well tell us what the punishment was.

HOUGH: (Laughter) Well, I mean, that's the problem is you never knew. I mean, I really can only speak to myself. I was mostly punished any time I was too loud or not loud enough, or too foolish or not smiling enough.

GROSS: Wow, being punished for not smiling enough.

HOUGH: Yeah. The balance was just impossible to figure out. So yeah, you learn to walk around with this placid little half-smile on your face. But I'm, unfortunately, not very in control of my face. It didn't work out all that well for me.

GROSS: You were locked in a room once. You basically were put in solitary. What were you being punished for? And what was the experience like for you of being locked up like that?

HOUGH: You know, I don't - you could never really figure it out. They would - you'd get pulled aside. And it would start with, can I talk to you for a minute? And your stomach would just drop. And that could be, you know, something simple of, can you help with the kids tonight? Or you were led into the Shepherd's room and, you know, a few hours later, they're still trying to get you to confess to things, but you didn't know what they wanted you to confess to. A lot of times, I just made things up. You know, I took an extra serving of peanut butter or, you know, I snuck a glass of milk before bed last night. Most of the time that I got in trouble, I don't know what it was for specifically. If you'd been down a lot lately, then you clearly had had a demon, so you could be in trouble for having a demon, and the evidence of that was that you were sad.

GROSS: You know, this cult became a sex cult in addition to a Jesus cult. What were you exposed to as a child? I mean, was there pedophilia? Were children expected to participate in any way?

HOUGH: It really depended on where you were, and how old you were mattered a lot. There are girls who are older than me that had a lot of different stories than I did. They banned sex between kids and adults in '86. And this is the thing that they'll always bring up. And I always have two questions about that of why would you need to suddenly ban it, and why didn't you tell us? Because they didn't tell the kids.

GROSS: Wow.

HOUGH: So if the adult supervising you didn't much care for the new rule, I wasn't aware there was anyone to tell. And I still - I never told my parents when I was in because I'd assumed they were fine with everything.

GROSS: This all sounds very traumatizing.

HOUGH: Yeah. I don't think I realized until a lot later on how much it had traumatized me.

GROSS: Among the many things that are - is hard to comprehend about this, and there are so many things, this Jesus cult becomes a sex cult. But homosexuality was a sin. Abortion was outlawed for cult members. And what about birth control?

HOUGH: Yeah, birth control was definitely outlawed. The - if you're having sex with an outsider, you could wear a condom. But between members, yeah, birth control was completely against the rules. You had - I know a lot of my friends - I got out a little bit early, and we used to - I used to compare notes on, you know, what we'd - whenever we were out selling posters, we used to steal a few coins - or not all of us, but I did. Let's not incriminate anyone else. But, yeah, I always pocketed a few coins, and you'd use it to buy candy or whatever you could get away with. And when I went back to that, a lot of my friends who had stayed in longer and couldn't get out were using that to buy birth control so they wouldn't get pregnant and get trapped in it.

GROSS: There must've been a lot of women who were pregnant a lot of the time. There must've been a whole lot of children.

HOUGH: God, constantly. There are so many children. And they didn't - I think that may have been - the more lasting thing for me is that at a very young age, I was taking care of babies who were clearly traumatized by the absence of their mothers 'cause they'd just put them all in a room and, you know, leave one adult and a couple kids in charge and - of, you know, 10 babies from 0 to 2 years old. And I don't think a 12-year-old is equipped to deal with a child that's crying for its mother, and there's nothing you can do to comfort that. You can hold it. That's it.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lauren Hough. Her new collection of personal essays is called "Leaving Isn't The Hardest Thing." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Lauren Hough, author of the new collection of personal essays called "Leaving Isn't The Hardest Thing." She writes about growing up in the cult group the Children of God, being a lesbian in the military during the don't ask, don't tell era, being homeless after that, working as a bouncer in a gay bar and, for about 10 years, working as a cable guy.

I want to ask a kind of obvious question. Why did your parents put up with this? And why did they put up with allowing you to be raised this way?

HOUGH: Yeah, I don't know. I used to demand that answer from them a lot when I was younger, and I know now that they don't know either. It's - they joined in their teens, and things just escalated. By the time they realized what was going on, you know, 20 years had gone by. They were busy. The home keeps you really busy, and it separates you. And I didn't know that I could go, you know, and tell them any of it was happening. I didn't know that because it was in the cult literature and no one told us. They thought they were doing the best they could. They truly believed that this was the way to serve Jesus and this was the way to help people. And sacrificing their family was a small price to pay for serving God.

GROSS: When your family finally left the group for good, you were around 15.

HOUGH: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So did you have to, like, escape or could you just say, yeah, we're done; we're leaving?

HOUGH: Yeah, we just left. It took a little bit of prep work, and my mom had been working on it for a while. One of my mom's friends, another woman in the home, saw a - me being pressed into the wall by an uncle, and he was trying to make out with me. And she told my mom, and I - my mom called me in, and I told her what had been happening. And the home leadership - my mom lost her goddamn mind. The home leadership swore they were going to get rid of him and excommunicate him. And when we got to the next home, he was still there, so my mom was done. She was really worried we weren't getting any sort of education. She was - yeah, she was livid.

So she started planning it long before we left and, you know, called my grandmother to gather up the money for plane tickets and, you know, made sure she had our passports and all of that. And she'd been working on trying 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 just walked out one night. The actual act of leaving is - nobody chased us down. We didn't have to sneak out. We just left.

GROSS: What country were you in when you left?

HOUGH: We were in Munich in Germany.

GROSS: Once you got out of the cult and you moved back to Texas, how did you try to establish yourself there, like - to, like, make friends or go to school? I know initially you were home-schooled, and you enrolled in high school when you were a senior. But I don't know. It must have all seemed so strange to you, so different - better, I hope.

HOUGH: (Laughter) Yeah, it was better. It was just very lonely. I didn't really know how to talk to other kids and kept making missteps that I didn't entirely understand. And it's like being in a foreign country. And sometimes you get yelled at getting on the bus or getting groceries, and you're never quite sure what you did wrong. You just know that you messed up that interaction entirely. And that's what Amarillo was like.

I - you know, some of them I can easily identify. I kept hugging people when I met them, which is not the way you greet perfect strangers. I would say God bless you or I love you after a sentence and not realize that it had come out of my mouth. It was like a nervous tic, like, apologizing too much. And then I just didn't understand pop culture.

GROSS: So you join the military. How old were you when you joined?

HOUGH: I was 19. Well, I was 18 when I joined, yeah.

GROSS: You know, I'm wondering if, although you hated the rules of the cult, if you felt you needed to be part of a group because you were used to being part of a group, and to be part of a group that had rules, even though you hated the rules of The Family. You had - you were used to having to work within a world that had very defined boundaries.

HOUGH: Yeah, it's something I think that's very easy to fall into. And compared to a cult, the military was easy. The rules are really defined, and they don't veer from them very often. You don't have to really make a whole lot of decisions for yourself once you decide to join. You - my biggest decision every morning was whether or not I would roll my sleeves up or down. And you can just follow along for the most part and do all right. Yeah, it was comforting. There's that, you know, instant camaraderie that happens with the people around you. And for a while, that felt pretty safe until I was having to lie again because, you know, I had that other secret I was hiding about - I was gay.

GROSS: Yeah. And, you know, you write that you kind of knew you were gay, but you needed time to think about it. And you thought, you know, the military might be a good place to take some time to just think about it. Did it turn out to be a good place...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...To think about being gay?

HOUGH: There's a process of coming out. I just need to think about it some more. Yes and no. The thing about the military is you are generally around people your age. And for the most part, people my age didn't care. They were raised on MTV. We thought being gay was all right for the most part. The problem with the military is, and the problem with don't ask, don't tell is it just took one person, you know, to not even have a problem with gay people but be mad at you enough to want to hurt you. And it was just an easy way to hurt someone. A lot of people who got kicked out of the military were turned in by exes who wanted to hurt them.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll pick up where we left off. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lauren Hough, and her new collection of personal essays is called "Leaving Isn't The Hardest Thing." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER TRIO'S "LET THE BELLS RING ON")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Lauren Hough. Her new collection of personal essays is called "Leaving Isn't The Hardest Thing." She writes about growing up in the Jesus cult group the Children of God and being a lesbian Air Force airman during the "don't ask, don't tell" era. Jobs she later held include bouncer at a gay club and cable guy, where she worked in the homes of a wide range of people, from a cat hoarder to Dick Cheney. When we left off, we were talking about her time in the military.

During "don't ask, don't tell," if somebody told the truth about you, that would be the end of your ability to stay in the military, right?

HOUGH: Yeah, that was the trick of "don't ask, don't tell." A lot of people think - and I think I thought when I joined, if I thought about it at all, that you had to go to a commander and announce that you were gay to get kicked out of the Air Force. The fact of it is, if they found out you were gay, then you must have told, was the way that rule actually worked. And yeah, I started getting threats. And I didn't tell anyone 'cause I wanted to stay in the military.

GROSS: Well, the threats included somebody writing in the dust on your car, die, dyke, die. So, like, you can't repeat that threat without being questioned about, well, are you really a lesbian or are they just making that up?

HOUGH: Yeah, I felt pretty lucky that no one had noticed yet, no one in command, that I hadn't brought too much attention to myself. I'd just gone to work and done my job and gone home. And I was doing all right as an airman in the Air Force. And, I mean, nobody - I didn't want to get stationed in South Carolina. Why would I want to get stationed in South Carolina? You join the military 'cause you want to see the world. And I was going to get to. I had orders to Greece. And the threats were clearly very specific about me being gay. So there was no one to tell.

GROSS: Do you have any idea who was threatening you? Did you know who they were?

HOUGH: (Laughter) I still don't. It would have been really nice if they investigated that instead of investigating me.

GROSS: This is a long story, so I'm not going to get too deep into it, but you were court martialed after getting a lot of threats. Somebody set your car on fire with gasoline, and you were accused of doing it to your own car. You were court martialed. Finally, you were found not guilty. But that was a - sounds like a really terrifying experience. I mean, you could have spent time in prison.

HOUGH: I don't want to downplay it, but I think the best way I can describe it was, it was very disappointing. I had hoped and I'd thought and I'd started to believe that the world out here would be a little bit different than the world out there. So all of it - having to hide, getting court martialed, being accused of things that I could not possibly have done if you guys would just - are you serious? Yeah, it was disappointing.

GROSS: Yeah, I mean, it sounds like it was more than disappointing. You write in the book that you were prepared to take your own life if you were sentenced to prison because you knew from being, basically, in solitary confinement during some of your childhood in the cult that you felt like you just couldn't handle it. And you weren't going to do it. You weren't going to go.

HOUGH: There's an aspect of trauma that's hard to explain in that it's just exhausting. It's exhausting to be watchful all the time. It's exhausting to be scared all of the time. That anxiety just starts to weigh on you for - after a while. And looking at - of what seems, I don't know, 23 years old - you know, 10 years seems like forever. And it seemed like an eternity of more terror. So, yeah, I just - I was tired of it.

GROSS: So eventually - this was, like, after the court martial - you handed a note to, I guess, your supervising officer. And tell us what the note said.

HOUGH: I don't have a copy of it, but I kept it very simple. SLDN, which is the Service Members Legal Defense Network that used to handle cases, their - a group of lawyers started by Dixon Osburn - and they used to handle cases for gays in the military and advise us. And I called them, and they talked me through it. But it was just, keep the note very simple. You couldn't confess to acts. They might try to get you to confess to acts of - because acts of homosexuality were punishable by prison. But just being gay would get you an honorable discharge. So it really, basically, said, I am gay; please discharge me - or I am violating "don't ask, don't tell" - please discharge me, something to that effect.

GROSS: And you were given an honorable discharge.

HOUGH: Yeah, I did get an honorable discharge.

GROSS: So who else did this out you to? I mean, you were going to need to apply for jobs, rent a home. Did that out you to anybody who you would be - who would be looking into your past history and references?

HOUGH: Yeah, it's - any job that required references was out of the question. I had my discharge papers from the military, the DD 214, that people ask to see. It says homosexual admission on it as my reason for discharge. So, yeah, I wasn't going to get a job with that, not in South Carolina. Or I didn't see how.

GROSS: So when you were a bouncer - how long were you a bouncer in a gay bar?

HOUGH: Probably two years, three years - something like that.

GROSS: Well, you're 6 feet tall. You had military training. You served in the military. Did you use your height and your military background? Were those helpful in the job?

HOUGH: A military background, probably not at all. Keeping a straight face - maybe. But I don't think I realized before I had that job how helpful my height could be. I think people maybe think twice before taking a swing because they - I look like I've been in the military, and they don't know that we don't learn how to fight in the Air Force; we just learned how to iron. But they hear military and think, you know, I've got some combat training...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOUGH: ...Which I do not. I can put it - I can make your T-shirt into a 6-inch wafer, but I cannot fight you. But also...

(LAUGHTER)

HOUGH: ...Being a girl in the military, there's always a bored Marine around somewhere who's going to start teaching you dumb tricks on the beach, and it was just dumb tricks on the beach. And turns out some of those work really well in bars.

GROSS: Like what?

HOUGH: How to, basically, put someone on the ground who's bigger than you. And it's - they still work. So restraining someone works really well if they're taking a swing at someone in a club. But yeah, the military didn't help me at all. I learned nothing about that in the Air Force.

GROSS: Was the club for men and women?

HOUGH: Yeah. It was mixed most nights. It was mostly men. And then Saturday nights, we were pretty dead, so they opened a lesbian party on Saturday nights, and then it was mostly women, and the balance shifted. I don't know that you should be serving $3 Long Island iced teas to a crowd full of lesbians. There were a few more fights on lesbian nights.

GROSS: More than on men's nights?

HOUGH: Oh, God, yeah (laughter). I don't know. I blame the $3 Long Island iced teas. I really do. I don't know why we did that, but they - that was the decision for the drink special.

GROSS: I want to get back to your new book. It's dedicated to your grandmothers. What did your grandmothers do to help you or to protect you when you were young?

HOUGH: They sent me books.

GROSS: Oh.

HOUGH: All the time, they sent me books. And my mom would let us keep them in her room because they weren't family books. But yeah, we always...

GROSS: By family, you mean the cult group, the family, that you...

HOUGH: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

HOUGH: You weren't allowed to read outside literature. But yeah, my grandmothers always sent us books.

GROSS: Oh, that's so interesting because I was wondering, like, how - usually if you become a writer, you've been a reader. So I was wondering, like, what you read and how you got to read it.

HOUGH: That was all my grandmothers. And they were, you know - they'd send me Agatha Christie novels. And one of my other grandmothers sent me a lot of Louis L'Amour.

GROSS: Oh, he wrote a lot of, like, Western fiction.

HOUGH: Yeah, well, you know, we're Texans, I guess (laughter).

GROSS: Right, right.

HOUGH: So, yeah, I consumed anything they would send. The first thing my grandmother did when we got back to Amarillo was getting us library cards and would take us there or drop us off and leave us there for six hours. But, you know, that was babysitting in the '80s. But they basically taught me to be a reader, really encouraged it. I could - if either grandma was watching me, we could always stay up later if we were reading a book.

GROSS: You know, we talked earlier about how everything - all the things you had to keep secret. In the outside world, you had to keep secret that you were in a cult because nobody would really understand, and it was too complicated. In the military, you had to keep secret that you were a lesbian. You - there's just, like, so many secrets you've had to keep, and you tell a good deal of them in your new collection of personal essays. But you had to keep secret that you were reading books that weren't officially sanctioned books by and about the cult group you were in.

HOUGH: Yeah, it's this - I mean, I'm not going to recommend it as a way to make a kid a reader. But if you tell someone they can't, they're going to do it.

(LAUGHTER)

HOUGH: It might backfire on you. But there's nothing I loved more than reading. It's - I mean, it started, I think, with the way it started for a lot of girls, with the Ramona Quimby books.

GROSS: Those are Beverly Cleary books.

HOUGH: Yeah. There was a character that I saw myself in. You know, just this - you know, she was always trying to do well, and it came down on her. But yeah, that was the - you know, the scabs-on-the-knees girl running around. I think you're - I'm still probably trying to recreate that feeling of just burying my head in a book and, you know, the world disappears, you know, just lost in a story, and nothing that's going on matters because you don't feel it for a minute.

GROSS: Lauren Hough, thank you so much for talking with us.

HOUGH: Thank you so much for having me. Really, thank you.

GROSS: Lauren Hough is the author of the new collection of personal essays called "Leaving Isn't The Hardest Thing." After we take a short break, podcast critic Nick Quah will review "Renegades," the series featuring Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen in conversations with each other. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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