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Photo Courtesy of Vintage Books & Anchor Books | The Knopf

“Leaving” an Impression

An Interview with Lesbian Writer Lauren Hough

By Gregg Shapiro

Memoirs are a tricky form of writing. Remember James Frey and A Million Little Pieces? Nevertheless, memoirs are also an endless source of fascination for readers and Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing (Vintage, 2021) by Lauren Hough is definitely fascinating. Raised in the notorious Children of God cult, Hough’s rough-and-tumble life during that time period, as well as in the years that followed, is nothing less than astonishing. From her time in the armed forces to her stints as a bouncer at the beloved DC gay disco Badlands, and working as a cable installer, as well as jail time served, readers will marvel at her ability to write about her experiences in such a clear and inviting manner. Hough was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of the publication of her book.

Gregg Shapiro: Were the essays in Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing written in the order in which they appear in the book?

Lauren Hough: No, but I couldn’t tell you the order either. Some of the essays began as one and a digression turned into a separate essay, or the digression was the essay and I had to go back and delete 90% of the first draft, or keep one sentence that turned into another essay. It’s as fun as it sounds [laughs]. The Badlands essay about working at a club was my white whale for several months. I just couldn’t find a way in. The great thing about Twitter is I’ve made friends with writers who are incredibly generous. I could send an essay that might as well have been a few post-it notes to people, like Sandra Newman and Heather Havrilesky, who could tell me I’d made it too complicated, again. And the jail essay, I simply didn’t want to write it. I didn’t want to have to think about it long enough to write it. As it was, I kept having to get up and stand outside, just to remind myself I could.

GS: When did you realize you had a book?

LH: I think I always knew I had a book. I spent a long time not writing it, and writing anything else. I tried songwriting. I thought maybe instead of writing a book, I’d be the lesbian Townes Van Zandt. But, I’m lousy at guitar, and Mary Gauthier already has that covered. I wrote half of a few novels that sound exactly like someone else. It wasn’t until I started writing about my life that I started sounding like me.

GS: The “leaving” theme, including the Children of God cult, the military, and your girlfriends Rhonda and Autumn, is one of the threads that stitches the essays together. Do you think this personal history would have been different if you hadn’t spent your formative years in Children of God?

LH: They do call them formative years [laughs]. It’s impossible to say who or what or where I’d be, who I’d be with, what my life would look like if I’d grown up any different. It’s one of those thoughts that’ll keep you up at night, make you reach for your drug of choice, or write a book trying to unravel and understand it all. I think it’s safe to say I might have had healthier relationships earlier had I not been raised in a cult.

GS: You mention murdered gay soldier Barry Winchell a couple of times, and refer to other victims of homophobic violence, including Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, and Arthur Warren. Would it be fair to say that your experiences in both Children of God and the military also made you hyper-aware of the potential for harm to LGBTQ+ people?

LH: I think most queer people are hyper-aware of the threats out there. Some are definitely more sheltered. That used to anger me. It’s one of the less attractive human traits, the need to be pissed at those who have it better. Runs right alongside being pissed at those who have it worse, who might be allowed a little sympathy. It’s beautiful that we live in a world where not every queer kid is raised to be ashamed, not tortured. Unfortunately, it’s still a world wherein we do have to be aware of the threats. I think it’s important we remember the price some paid, that we recognize how easily the freedoms we enjoy can be taken, that if we have a voice, we use it to fight for and protect those who don’t.

LaurenHough_book Cover
Courtesy of Vintage Books & Anchor Books | The Knopf

GS: You write a lot about the music you were listening to, including Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, and Ani DiFranco, among others. Does Sarah McLachlan know about how much you wrote about her?

LH: God. Let’s hope she’s too busy being Sarah McLachlan to read my book [laughs].

GS: On a recent episode of Finding Your Roots, Glenn Close talked about her family’s involvement in the Moral Re-Armament religious cult. Have you ever encountered Close, or Rose McGowan or Joaquin Phoenix (also raised in Children of God), and shared stories of your experiences?

LH: No, but if you run into Glenn Close, can you give her my number [laughs]? I’d love to talk about anything else with her.

GS: If there was a movie version of Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, who would you want to play you?

LH: I don’t know. I’ve had some shockingly bad hair phases. I’d hate for anyone to have to spend a year growing out a yellow mohawk.

GS: Have you started writing or thinking about your next book?

LH: I have an idea for it. I’ve started writing sentences. I’ve even written a paragraph or two. But, if I’ve learned anything it’s that what I think will be the next book will in no way resemble the book I write.