As an adult, Lauren Hough has had many identities: an airman in the U.S. Air Force, a cable guy, a bouncer at a gay club. As a child, however, she had none. Growing up as a member of the infamous cult The Children of God, Hough had her own self robbed from her. The cult took her all over the globe, but it wasn't until she finally left for good that Lauren understood she could have a life beyond The Family. The essays in Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing interrogate our notions of ecstasy, queerness, and what it means to live freely.
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 ... 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.
... revealing and honest ... 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 ... [Hough] 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.
... a memoir in essays that, taken together, form less a trajectory than they do a blast radius ... Hough’s writing about her post-cult life buzzes with tension between a fearful goal of fitting in and the eventual relief of belonging she finds via fellow queers, a job as a club bouncer, and drugs. Hough’s side-eye at American systems that conflate conformity and morality—the suburbs, the pharmaceutical industry, pop-culture attempts at LGBTQ 'inclusion'—is as heartbroken as it is piercing. Either way, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing is impossible to forget.