In "Badlands," she writes about the constant vigilance she had as a child, how she knew to expect violence, and how she learned to enact it on those smaller than her—in particular her little brother—because what other models did she have for how to deal with her anger and hurt and upset at the time? In "Speaking in Tongues," she lists some of the cult's rituals, the fasting and sleep deprivation used in the name of practicing its spirituality according to their leader, but which really served to make everyone too tired and hungry to see clearly what they were doing. The Family was also a sex cult, and in "Boys on the Side," Hough details the encouragement children got to "express themselves sexually," how when "an adult groped a preteen girl, she might freeze; she might be called unloving and told to be more receptive. She'd learn, eventually, to only freeze on the outside."
But 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.
In "Solitaire," the first essay, she's gaslighted by her superiors in the Air Force after her car is torched in what is clearly a hate crime—Hough is gay, and she'd been getting death threats for some time—and instead of trying to find out who did it, they try to pin it on her. "I knew I wasn't guilty," she writes. "But guilt or innocence had never mattered all that much in my experience." In the Family, after all, she was punished simply for being tired or not being upbeat enough.
In "The Slide," Hough describes her days living out of her car in Washington, D.C., trying to find work and a room to rent. It was her first time encountering a gayborhood, in the form of Dupont Circle of the early aughts, but that didn't make it home, because "both cultures—the religious cult and the white-teeth gays—share a rule about smiling. Both believe in the power of positive thinking to keep things like homelessness at bay. This way, when you fall, you have only yourself to blame. There has to be a reason because no one wants to think it could happen to them."
The United States is a nation full of people to whom it has already happened; people who are one paycheck, accident, or unexpected bill away from it happening; and people who are so astronomically far away from it happening to them that they can only imagine that those of us closer to the bottom of the financial safety rungs must be morally bankrupt, stupid, lazy, or all the above. There's less space in between these tiers than we think.
At her cable guy job, Hough watched a man get an award for never taking a day off in ten years—not a sick day, a snow day, or even a vacation. He had a wife and kids. "In a sane society, he would be a cautionary tale. In our society, he got a plaque and a fifty-dollar gift card to Best Buy." You can't make this kind of thing up—it's all too common, the praise Americans get for working hard, the way we're obsessed with "efficiency" and "productivity hacking" and even "self-care," that term that originated in Black activist circles and that has become another marketing tactic to sell us things.