Hough rocketed to acclaim in 2018 with “I Was a Cable Guy. I Saw the Worst of America,” an essay about working as a D.C.-area cable installation tech, published by HuffPost and included in this collection, “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing.” Both comedic and disturbing, it chronicles the dangers and degradations waiting behind the placid exteriors of even the most respectable suburban locale. Dangerous to women, the preeminent prey animal of free enterprise. And dangerous to the psyche forced onto the hamster wheel of service to companies that all “bought the same self-help book on how to save money by skipping raises and get the same loyalty by turning your company into a cult.”
Cults are something Hough is eminently qualified to pronounce upon. She was raised in one. The Children of God (first organized as Teens for Christ, later the Family of Love, now the Family International) was begun in California in 1968. It sucked in Hough’s parents as it did many counterculture youths of the ’60s, attracted with blandishments of spiritual “revolution” and suspicion of the status quo; “Systemite” was a member’s most feared accusation. The cult promised eternal salvation but mainly delivered money and power to its leader, David Berg, a “failed Pentecostal preacher and wildly successful alcoholic,” as well as emotional, physical and sexual abuse to its children. Hough’s early years were spent being carted around to various outposts in Germany, Japan, Switzerland. Her family’s return to the outside world and Texas was clouded by unvoiced shame and confusion.
She didn’t realize it at the time, but she traded one cult for another when she joined the Air Force. As Hough describes it, the military’s inculcation process relies on the same cartoonish reduction of the world to nonexistent binaries — only black and white, good vs. evil — as every other doomsday cult’s. In basic training recruits had to watch a morality play in which the “bad guy” was immediately recognizable “because he was wearing a towel on his head.” After justice prevailed onstage and a song of patriotic bathos filled the air, “everyone was weeping,” she reports. “I knew I was supposed to feel something. I did. I felt revulsion.” She already knew this drill. It was the Family all over again.
Only after enduring new trials, living in her car after moving to D.C., landing in a rooming house and a job as bouncer at a gay bar, did she find anyplace that felt like home should: safe and welcoming. In the gay clubs of the capital, at last, she entered the Holy Land, “this space wherein a man could hug me and take nothing away.” (Ecstasy helped.) On the dance floor she finally got “what people join cults to feel” — calm, joy and an aura of timeless rapture in which “we felt everything and everything felt like love.” But there remained plenty of dark struggle before and after this euphoric arrival. Depression, post-traumatic stress resulting from abuse sustained in childhood and sexual assault while in the service, poverty and occasional hunger, romantic relationships that frequently went south, one so far she ended in solitary confinement.
These sometimes shocking circumstances are related using a potent literary style that combines mordant humor and helpless indignation with ferocious intellect. Society is messed up, but for anyone other than an employed cisgender heterosexual White male, Hough’s experiences show, it’s a mess on top of a shambles. Her declarations on the state of everything from lesbian bad behavior to what she learns is “the slide,” the easily missed point of no return for the newly homeless — a quick fall over the edge from relatively presentable to permanent outcast — are compressed into aphorisms so numerous on the page they’re as hard to count as individual sparks in a fireworks display.
“There’s safety in the closet. It’s why people stay.”
Speaking in tongues sounds “like gibberish because it’s gibberish.”
“I’d scraped and saved and used my veteran’s loan to buy a fixer-upper in one of the suburbs of D.C. that Realtors refer to as ‘up-and-coming,’ and my neighbors described as ‘might want to stay away from windows on New Year’s Eve.’ ”
As Hough might point out, redemption isn’t given, it’s earned through hard emotional labor — and it’s inside you all along. Hers becomes the reader’s: writing, and reading, the truth can set you free. But first you bleed.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is a critic and the author of “The Place You Love Is Gone,” among other books.
Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing
By Lauren Hough
Vintage. 320 pp. $16.95