A couple months after Lauren Hough's essay "I Was a Cable Guy. I Saw the Worst of America" went viral at the tail-end of 2018, I assigned it to my creative writing students in a unit on "character."
Hough's essay had a distinct narrative voice — and she was capable of giving so much information about the people she encountered through a few quick details, like one of those cartoonists who can sketch out four lines and suddenly you see your face in them.
Hough's first book, “Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing,” includes "Cable Guy" and 10 more essays, each of them more revealing and honest than the next.
Hough was raised in a cult known alternately as the Family, the Family of Love, the Children of God, or, if you go back far enough, Teens for Christ. I was startled to learn that the whole "Jesus was a socialist hippie" line is not necessarily the progressive talking point I'd believed it was (look, I'm Jewish, I first learned about this kind of Jesus from the Buddy Christ in Dogma). Instead, this version of Jesus (along with the term Jesus Freaks) seems to have originated around the same time as David Berg "tested his new brand of Gospel" on disenchanted youth in Huntington Beach in the late 1960s: "Jesus was a long-haired hippie like them. Jesus was a socialist. Jesus was the biggest radical ever." People wanted to find something to believe in — this was mid-Vietnam War — and they followed him, and his cult grew and changed. Hough's parents joined up separately, met each other, married on a whim, and had Hough and her three siblings.
"A cult," writes Hough, "is your textbook abusive relationship — love-bomb, isolate, create dependence, and your victim won't have the power to leave, even if staying in the relationship means buying into the new Gospel of David Berg." This theme comes up over and over again throughout the essays, and how could it not? We all want to believe that growing up in a cult must be a particular kind of awful, nearly unfathomable, affecting a person's whole life — and in many ways it was like that for Hough. In "Badlands," she writes about the constant vigilance she had as a child, how she knew to expect violence, and how she learned to enact it on those smaller than her — in particular her little brother — because what other models did she have for how to deal with her anger and hurt and upset at the time? In "Speaking in Tongues," she lists some of the cult's rituals, the fasting and sleep deprivation used in the name of practicing its spirituality according to their leader, but which really served to make everyone too tired and hungry to see clearly what they were doing. The Family was also a sex cult, and in "Boys on the Side," Hough details the encouragement children got to "express themselves sexually," how when "an adult groped a preteen girl, she might freeze; she might be called unloving and told to be more receptive. She'd learn, eventually, to only freeze on the outside."
But Hough's book isn't really a cult memoir — it's about so much more than that (and it's also quite funny, although you'll have to take my word on that because most of the funny bits include expletives I can't quote here). Slowly, essay after essay, it becomes clear that she's drawing parallels between the Family and good ol' fashioned American Exceptionalism in all its various facets, from rah-rah-'Merica attitudes surrounding freedom to the worship of individualism to the demands of capitalism.
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In "Solitaire," the first essay, she's gaslighted by her superiors in the Air Force after her car is torched in what is clearly a hate crime — Hough is gay, and she'd been getting death threats for some time — and instead of trying to find out who did it, they try to pin it on her. "I knew I wasn't guilty," she writes. "But guilt or innocence had never mattered all that much in my experience." In the Family, after all, she was punished simply for being tired or not being upbeat enough.
In "The Slide," Hough describes her days living out of her car in Washington, D.C., trying to find work and a room to rent. It was her first time encountering a gayborhood, in the form of Dupont Circle of the early aughts, but that didn't make it home, because "both cultures — the religious cult and the white-teeth gays — share a rule about smiling. Both believe in the power of positive thinking to keep things like homelessness at bay. This way, when you fall, you have only yourself to blame. There has to be a reason because no one wants to think it could happen to them."
The United States is a nation full of people to whom it has already happened; people who are one paycheck, accident, or unexpected bill away from it happening; and people who are so astronomically far away from it happening to them that they can only imagine that those of us closer to the bottom of the financial safety rungs must be morally bankrupt, stupid, lazy, or all the above. There's less space in between these tiers than we think. At her cable guy job, Hough watched a man get an award for never taking a day off in ten years — not a sick day, a snow day, or even a vacation. He had a wife and kids. "In a sane society, he would be a cautionary tale. In our society, he got a plaque and a fifty-dollar gift card to Best Buy." You can't make this kind of thing up — it's all too common, the praise Americans get for working hard, the way we're obsessed with "efficiency" and "productivity hacking" and even "self-care," that term that originated in Black activist circles and that has become another marketing tactic to sell us things.
Which is not to say that Hough believes we're all doomed, exactly. In "Everything That's Beautiful Breaks My Heart," she makes the ties between her own upbringing and the cultishness of American ideology explicit, but also opens up room for hope via small acts of resistance. One time she and a bunch of her fellow JETTS (Junior End Time Teens) went out to play in the snow after arriving at a new house in Switzerland after fleeing their last home because it was about to be raided. When a grownup came out to get them, he was ignored — a rarity. "We realized, if only for that one morning, they had no power. The same holds true now," she adds, referring to the systems that surround us, that promise protection and care via personal responsibility and hard work but that fail more of us than not. "They only have power because we believe, because they've taught us to need them."
Do we believe? There are many reasons we do: The lies are comforting; they give structure to our lives, something to strive for, goals to achieve; they make us feel safer, because they make us feel certain that we can see what's going to happen next. Not knowing is far scarier. Thank goodness that Hough doesn't claim to know either, that she isn't trying to sell us a solution or asking us to join anything. She tells it like it is, and it's heartbreaking — but to find our way out, we have to see things clearly first. Any survivor of a cult or an abusive relationship will tell you that.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is All My Mother's Lovers.
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