Lauren Hough shares her outspoken and unique voice in the essay collection Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing. It’s a memoir that wanders (in the very best way) through the various chapters of her life. Listening to the audio version, narrated by Cate Blanchett and the author, felt like listening to Hough process the events of her life through the lens of her childhood.

While that sounds like psychobabble, Hough grew up in the midst of a virulent cult. So her lens on life is skewed from day one. Once her parents join the cult, their indoctrination leads to intense rules and both physical and emotional instability. Just like any cult, the brainwashing forever changes the way Hough interacts with the world. And as her titular essay says, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing.

Hough doesn’t limit her essays to the realities of growing up in a cult. She tells about being a gay woman in the military during the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Particularly interesting is her realization that the military operates somewhat like a cult. And as you might expect, Hough has stories about dating and relationship drama.

Post-military life isn’t easy for Hough, especially when she’s unhoused for a while in Washington, DC. Her career path skitters through various service industries including bartending and bouncing at clubs and cable installation. Here, her essays explore the oddities of human behavior, both cringe-worthy and frightening, as well as sexist policies and labor exploitations. On the upside, Hough explores the ways she and her coworkers hold each other together during life’s difficulties.

My conclusions

As I said, this collection of essays offers a variety of experiences. Hough is clearly a strong person, despite the early damage done by the cult. Much of her strength comes from anger and rebellion against whatever mind games she experiences. And that gives these essays a hard edge.

As a result, there were times I put the audiobook down after listening for a while. That’s on me because I support Hough’s right to write with whatever emotion she needs. But it’s worth saying that this book comes with plenty of content warnings, from parental neglect and cult life to drug use and relationship violence.

At the heart of all of those topics is an honest person with a story worth hearing or reading. She addresses important societal issues while exploring the deeply personal aspects of her own life. It’s gratifying to see glimpses of Hough’s progress in finding her way and her place in the world. But, like all of us, nothing is solid in a changing world.

I recommend this if you’re comfortable with a memoir that never varnishes the dark parts of life with a happy-go-lucky attitude. Hough tells it like it is, and I hope she never stops hitting hard.

Pair with Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett because his parents also belonged to a cult and then got out later. The way both authors approach their experiences is completely unique but also tied together by their childhood experiences.