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From cult member to cable guy – ‘Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing’

April 20, 2021
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The personal essay boom of the past decade or so certainly makes sense as part of the ongoing explosion of internet content. The current landscape is ideally conducive to, well … talking about yourself, taking the old adage “Write what you know” to its most extreme logical conclusion.

This isn’t always a good thing. Too often, this sort of writing devolves into solipsism, a kind of self-celebratory navel-gazing that winds up reading equal parts indulgent and disingenuous. But on those occasions that it works, it’s as impactful as any formal autobiography, giving readers a glimpse at the kind of unexpected truth that can only come from someone else’s experience.

The essays in Lauren Hough’s new collection “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays” (Vintage, $16.95) work. This selection of 11 stories drawn from Gough’s checkered and fascinating life coalesces in a remarkable way. Through these tales of a unique journey – a childhood spent in a cult leads to a turn in the military followed by a rough-and-tumble awakening of her sexuality, all while simply trying to understand the world in ways many of us take for granted.

Hough’s lacerating wit hits many targets, though none so often or so bitingly as herself. There’s a brutality to her honesty and to her self-deprecation that is compelling as hell to engage with. These alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious tales stand strong on their own, but as a unit, they form a multi-faceted memoir-in-stories that is a true delight.

We’ll start from the beginning. Specifically, the fact that Hough spent much of her childhood and adolescence entangled with the infamous cult known as The Children of God, one of the many quasi-religious entities that sprang up in America in the aftermath of the ‘60s. As such, she spent her developmental years moving from country to country all over the world, living in cramped quarters and dealing with the emotional and physical abuse not just condoned but encouraged by cult leadership.

As you might imagine, that sort of upbringing fundamentally alters your ability to relate to the world around you. And when that sense of remove is compounded by the struggle to come to terms with one’s sexuality, finding a real connection with people proves difficult.

At least it does in Hough’s case, who spends the first decade or so of her adult life on a bit of a wandering quest for some kind of meaning. She enlists in the Air Force, drawn to the regimentation and subversion of individuality, only to be forced out by bigotry. She spends time as a bouncer in a gay club, a gig that enables both her sexual awakening and her burgeoning affinity for drugs. In perhaps the most well-known of the essays – sporting the self-explanatory title “Cable Guy” – Hough relates some of the experiences she had while working as a cable installer.

There’s obvious overlap between these essays, with assorted elements of Hough’s life popping up throughout. I’ll note that they’re all exceptional pieces of work – poignant and hilarious and weird, all bundled together in unexpected combinations – though of course, I have my favorites.

The aforementioned “Cable Guy” was my introduction to Hough, so I have fondness for that one. “Pet Snakes,” a paean of sorts to a particular brand of small-time drug dealer, is bleakly funny (and more than a little familiar). The titular essay is an emotionally fraught look at what it means to extricate yourself from the abusive machinations and manipulations of cult life and how it isn’t nearly as simple as it seems.

But in all of these essays, we are left with at least one unmistakable understanding: Lauren Hough is one hell of a writer. The ability to lay bare one’s soul for the world to see – particularly when so much of what you are sharing springs from your own very real traumas – is a rare gift; Hough does so with empathy and emotional honesty while also being outright hilarious in spots.

Defining ourselves is one of the most difficult things that any of us ever try to do. Digging into the bedrock of our identity – who we REALLY are – can be painful and challenging. However, as Hough illustrates through every one of these 11 essays, it is an effort that can be incredibly rewarding (and, of course, more than a little strange).

I’ve been lucky enough to review a number of unconventional and excellent memoirs in recent months; while this collection may not fit the traditional notion of memoir, it’s tough to deny that that is precisely what it is. There’s a remarkable light/dark dichotomy at play throughout – a dichotomy that, like it or not, is reflective of the American experience writ large these days.

“Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing” is a wonderful assemblage of work from a gifted writer. Weird and genuine and idiosyncratic, it’s a quality reading experience of the finest kind. If you are interested in a unique and uniquely human read, this collection is for you.

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 April 2021 09:04

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