Lauren Hough in Austin, Texas. ‘I realised you could take a terrible thing and make it worth reading.’ Photograph: Phil Kline for the Observer

“Do you remember me?” she asks, as a hopeful smile spreads on her face, like she’s trying to tease the right answer out of me. We’re not children any more. We’ve left. Some of us left with our families, some with our friends and some alone. Now we’re living in this other world where we keep having to explain – why we lived in so many countries, why our accents change when we talk to strangers, why we didn’t go to school, why we can’t sleep. But to one another, to those of us who grew up like me in the Family, we don’t have to explain.

Yet on message boards, on Facebook, and now, outside a coffee shop on South Congress in Austin, Texas, this same question – “Do you remember me?” – comes up over and over. It’s usually followed by the volley of questions we’ve tested to figure out who we were then.

“What was your name? Who were your parents? Were you in Osaka? Switzerland?”

Part of the problem with growing up in something so secluded as a cult is that our pasts are so unbelievable we need a witness for our own memory. And so we seek out those who remember.

When I met Ruthie, I was crossing the country in a tiny Winnebago because this is the sort of brilliant idea you get when you can’t sleep.

My trip stalled in Austin with a broken clutch, so I sent out a message on a board for cult babies: “Anyone here?”

Ruthie responded and I invited her for coffee. I didn’t need to figure out who this woman was, I knew. She was a frazzled German with an American accent who clutched her coffee, her fingers worn ragged. Those calluses and scars were a by-product of what our parents would call home-schooling, but whose curriculum was heavy on diaper-changing, cooking and the words of our prophet. With its lack of anything that might be considered a real education, some of us have difficulty finding work that doesn’t make our hands bleed.

We were 13 the last time Ruthie and I saw each other. Her name was Faithy back then and I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone, because the last time I saw her we were both still in the Family and we were in serious trouble.

We lived in a huge, 10-bedroom chalet in Switzerland which had once been a quaint bed and breakfast. If it weren’t for the Family’s avoidance of even basic upkeep, it would have been like something you’d see on a postcard. Our window boxes were filled with rotting memories of carnations, the roof leaked and the floors sagged under the weight of all the people they supported. We’d managed to cram nearly 70 of us into this particular home. Its one virtue was that it was close enough to the American military bases in Germany that we could pick up Armed Forces Radio. That was important, because I had a radio.

Hough in Elgg, Switzerland in 1991 while she was living with the Family. Photograph: Courtesy of the author

One night, a home shepherd called Auntie Mercy shook my shoulder to wake me. My first thought was that the Romans were at the door. Romans were cops and we practised constantly for when they made their inevitable raid on our home. As Auntie Mercy put a finger to her lips to shush me, I looked around and saw that the other kids were still asleep. This was not a good sign. I followed her out on to the landing in my undershirt and panties because when a home shepherd summons you, you don’t stop to get dressed. She didn’t say a word, only turned, and I followed her down the stairs.

The other home shepherds were in the dining room along with the shepherd for my age group, Uncle Stephan, who waved his weirdly hairless arm at me and said: “Have a seat, sweetie.” When a word like sweetie, so innocent and saccharine, slips out of the wrong mouth, you’ll wish you were wearing pants. I sat in the chair facing them, and rubbed my eyes, acting sleepy to buy time, like staring down a gun and pleading for a cigarette.

“Should we pray?” asked Auntie Mercy. We held hands, mine clammy, and we prayed as I flicked a hardened, yellow grain of overboiled rice with my toe. The eels began to turn in my stomach as I waited for the inevitable next line.

“Do you have anything to tell us?”

I started small with the confessions. I’d played this game before. “I haven’t been putting my heart into my chores,” I said. If I got it right on the first guess, they’d just keep digging for more. I would give them anything. I would have to. But I wasn’t giving up my radio.

One thing most cults have in common is that you have to give up everything to join. In that home, and every other home I’d lived in, there was a pile somewhere of random items someone had given up to follow Jesus. If Grandma or Aunt Nancy sends you a package, that goes in the pile too. Occasionally, all this crap is divvied out to those who need the supplies, or those with enough pull to get something they want. When I had been tasked to clean up the pile, I found the radio.

Faithy caught me listening the first night. She slept below me, in the middle bunk of the triple-decker. I was up top. Wherever we went, the bunks were built out of two-by-four and plywood. The mattresses were bare foam, but weren’t too bad. The foam was easy to cut into if you wanted to hide something – hard-boiled eggs, a book, a corner of a chocolate bar, or even a radio. Faithy and I hadn’t talked much because I had been on silence restriction and not allowed to speak to anyone but a shepherd.

Silence restriction and sign-wearing were the newest tactics in arbitrarily inflicted punishment. Silence restriction is pretty simple to understand. Then we wore signs around our necks made of cardboard or plywood with catchy slogans like “Silence restriction” or “I need to count my blessings” or “Please remind me to smile” – that last was being worn by an eight-year-old whose desire to smile remained unchanged. Punishments came and went like any other fad in the outside world but favourite methods included writing essays, memorising chapters of the Bible, a paper-clip daisy chain wrapped around your head and then hooked to each cheek to force a smile, running laps around a driveway, pointless manual labour, isolation, public beatings, bread-and-water diets. These, usually in some combination, could last days or months and there was no way to tell which way it would go.

Faithy was new to our home, louder than the rest of us had learned to be, and she had more than one pair of socks, a sign she’d been living in smaller homes where kids get things like socks. I met her the night I accidentally pulled out the headphone cord from the radio and she heard the static from the little built-in speaker. From that night on, when we were pretty sure no one else would check on us, she’d climb into my bunk. I snapped the plastic band attaching the earpieces, we’d each take one and huddle together under my blanket to listen.

Hough aged about five, in Chile. Photograph: Courtesy of the author

Since it was my radio, I got to choose between our only two English music stations. And for a few hours each night, we experienced a whole new world.

The Family produced their own music but their songs weren’t about love or loss or pain. Family songs praised Jesus, or our prophet, or the Family itself. The radio brought music and words that made us feel hope and loss. I could live another life in the radio’s music, another life where I wasn’t so afraid of everyone. Sometimes we’d hear the Cure or the Smiths. I loved the angst-ridden, painful voices I didn’t understand but felt pouring into me. Faithy wasn’t as enthralled. She liked Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson. We’d tap our toes against the footboard until we remembered that we weren’t alone, and stopped for fear of waking up the kid in the bottom bunk.

Our secret created a bond and we started talking during the day.

We talked about places we’d been and told stories from before, when the cult had been just hippies, travelling in caravans and living in camp grounds, and we remembered being happy. There wasn’t much else to talk about. She saw and did everything I saw and did. She was good at remembering movies and as she’d lived in some of the more liberal homes, she’d seen more than I had. She’d tell me the movies, scene by scene and sometimes line by line, like they were stories.

I hadn’t made many friends, or at least didn’t keep them. I was in trouble a lot and few of the children around me were stupid or brave enough to be friends with someone on the shepherds’ radar. Friends in the Family were a liability, but now I had a friend, or something close to it, and I liked having someone to talk to.

Then a few weeks into our nightly listening party, Auntie Mercy caught Faithy in my bed. We’d accidentally fallen asleep. Auntie Mercy didn’t see the radio, but she told us she’d better not catch us again. When she didn’t say anything to us the next day, we thought she’d let the infraction slide. If she had, it would have been the first and last time she’d shown anyone mercy. I didn’t know her well enough yet to fear her as I should have.

“What else?” asked Uncle Stephan. His eyes were cold and blue and he had this German accent, which was perfect, really.

I had tried to avoid him, but avoiding him was impossible. I hadn’t seen any Nazi movies or I might have known that he fitted the mould, like a caricature. His eyes terrified me.

Despite only wearing a thin undershirt, I wasn’t cold. Still, I folded my arms over my chest and shivered.

“I was foolish. I told some jokes I know,” I said.

“What else?”

After the first hour, I ran out of things to confess. I was tired and confused. I stopped talking. I didn’t know what they wanted. I closed my eyes and I was quiet when I heard his boots on the tiled floor.

Uncle Stephan always wore boots in the house. No one else ever did.

Grandpa didn’t like wearing shoes indoors because shoes dragged filth inside and evil spirits could hitchhike on shoes and clothing.

Grandpa was David Berg, the founder of the Family. The adults called him Dad, which was as confusing as it sounds. In another reality, another time, he’d have been locked up in an institution. In my reality and time, he founded a cult.

I felt Uncle Stephan’s breath on my face for a moment. Then he slapped me hard across the face. I heard the shepherds praying for me again, or maybe they were praying against me. I felt my lip with my tongue and tasted blood. I didn’t know where my parents were or if they knew what was happening. I didn’t dare ask.

I opened my eyes and met his across from me. I hated him.

Uncle Stephan had already put me on silence restriction for a month. I’d only recently been allowed to talk again. We hadn’t seen a movie all year because we weren’t “following the spirit”. It’s not like we ever watched anything but musicals anyway, but those were better than the nothing we had now. He liked public punishments. And he used a bamboo cane he carried around with him. Spanking wasn’t anything unusual, but his cane, which broke skin, only happened behind closed doors. Most of the time they just used a belt or a paddle.

So I stared at his eyes and I didn’t blink and I wanted him to see I wasn’t crying. I knew he’d break me. They hadn’t broken me yet but it was inevitable. All I wanted in that moment was for Uncle Stephan to know that breaking me wouldn’t be easy. I looked above Uncle Stephan’s head and saw a poster of Jesus. This wasn’t the blond, friendly Jesus.

This Jesus was coming down from heaven on a horse, surrounded by the flames of a burning Earth.

If the shepherds had watched any cop shows before they dropped out to follow Jesus, they would have known the proper way to do an interrogation. While I sat in the dining room and tried to figure out what the shepherds wanted from me, Faithy was in the shepherds’ office upstairs and probably wondering the same thing. They didn’t know they were supposed to tell me Faithy was upstairs and I should tell them everything before she cut a deal. But then again, there were no deals in the Family. Confession, while possibly good for the soul, was not good for my immediate future.

I couldn’t think of any more small crimes. So I just started making shit up.

“I took some apricots from the pantry.”

“Why?”

“I was hungry and there were lots so I thought it was OK.”

“What else?”

“I murmured about having to watch the kids instead of going postering last Saturday.” That was a lie, but a lie that might work in my favour. I liked taking care of the little kids. Plus, my mom was in charge of them so being assigned to help with the little kids meant spending the day with her while most of the home was out raising money by selling posters or knocking on doors and asking for donations.

“What else?”

Six hours later, the sun was up and I could hear the home stirring upstairs. The kids assigned to make breakfast walked around the circle of shepherds and me. The kids looked straight ahead as they passed. There was a time when I might have felt humiliated. But we were used to public punishments now so I didn’t mind them seeing me. We’d all been in this chair at some point. Those who hadn’t knew it was only a matter of time.

The shepherds either had what they wanted from me or gave up trying. Auntie Mercy wanted to pray again. This time I had to hold their hands and the words she prayed told me this was just the beginning of my ordeal.

A few weeks later, still in the attic where they’d decided to store problem kids like me, where we’d read the insane ramblings of our drunken prophet, where they expected us to report every thought that passed through our heads, where the beatings happened daily, I broke. It sounds more like a sigh than the shattering you feel in your soul. I remembered how it didn’t hurt when I broke, how it was easier after.

The Romans came that night. But they were too late. Someone tipped off a reporter at the local newspaper, who tipped off the home shepherds. Before the sun rose, we quietly crammed ourselves into vans, kept our heads below the windows, and our shepherds drove us to the next home.

Faithy didn’t come to the new home and I knew better than to ask where she’d gone. And now, this woman named Ruthie, with Faithy’s face and voice, was asking me about the radio. “Did they ever find it?”

“You didn’t rat me out,” I say. No, they never found the radio.

“But then why did you get in so much more trouble than I did?” she asks.

“I wondered about that for years. But you know how it goes, you just stop thinking about it. Then one day, I was telling my girlfriend about the radio and I finally figured it out. They thought I was gay.”

“Goddammit,” she says, smacking the table. The pearl snap-shirted Austinites stop to stare at the interruption of their peace. We both smile at the three Family sins she’s just committed – drawing attention, unwomanly loudness, and the greatest and least forgivable, taking the Lord’s name in vain. “How much did that suck?”

I laugh and shake my head and say: “Fuckers.”

This is the shorthand we speak because she knows, without me having to tell her, how hard it was to give them that one thing. To know they were right, even if only once. But at 13, I wasn’t yet a lesbian, or anyway I didn’t know it. Back then I was just an awkward tomboy.

She shows me pictures of her husband, her kids. I show her pictures of my dog. We talk all afternoon. She says she’s doing all right. Maybe we’re both grading on a curve, but I tell her I am too.

And we don’t have to explain. We remember.

The Shepherds by Lauren Hough first appeared in Granta 137 (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.65 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846

Q&A with Lauren Hough

Hough, 39, was born in West Berlin and brought up in the Family, founded by David Berg in 1968 in California and originally known as the Children of God.

Where do you live now?
In Austin, Texas. I’ve only been here a couple of months. I sold my house in Washington DC last year and I’ve been travelling in my camper. A couple of months in Portland, Oregon and Berlin and now I’m here. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously, but I’ve rented a house in Santa Fe and I’m moving there in a couple of weeks.

You moved around a lot with the Family?
We travelled around in campers, caravans, lived in tents. We moved to Chile for a couple of years when I was four. Japan for a few years too, then Switzerland and then Germany.

It must have been quite something when you left.
Oh God, yes. I was done. I just couldn’t figure out how to leave on my own. I would think about it… do I run to the embassy? How can I get my passport? Then one day Mom just told us to pack. There was absolute relief and absolute terror – we stayed in Munich for a couple of weeks and my brother and I were convinced we were going back in. But we didn’t. My grandmother took us into her little house in west Texas.

What made your mother decide to leave?
Mom was worried that we’d had absolutely no education and that she couldn’t protect me. My stepdad was just frustrated that they were never going to make him a leader.

Why did your parents join the Family?
My mom was upset about the Vietnam war. She was a hippy, protesting and everything else, and here were people who were actually doing something – dropping out, leaving society, following Jesus. The way she saw it was, yeah, a great, utopian thing. She met my father and he was there for much the same reason. He was travelling around so he wouldn’t get a draft card. My mom doesn’t talk about the Family and I don’t ask her about it. We’re close, but only so much. I only recently talked to my dad about it [Hough’s parents split up when she was 7]. We’re close now. We weren’t always.

You don’t blame them for what happened?
Well, I know what an idiot I was when I was 19, the age they were when they joined. It’s kinda hard to hold it against someone.

How have you felt since coming out? Have you had a lot of therapy?
Not so much and most of it wasn’t so helpful. I’ve had therapists cry and hug me and it was really strange. They just don’t really know what to do with it. I mean, I still hide things. I still have nightmares, I can’t deal with crowds. I will always feel kind of separate. For a long time, I just didn’t really have friends. In high school, I had no idea how to talk to people. I didn’t understand cultural references. Ninety per cent of conversations are: “Hey, do you remember that episode of Seinfeld?” and shit. And I was weird, I was just awkward. I read everything I could get my hands on. It’s just what I did, I hid in books.

Which books particularly?
On the Road: the book that made me want to write. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. The Glass Castle [by Jeannette Walls] – reading this, I realised you could take a terrible thing, that bad thing in every memoir, and make it worth reading. There’s no self-pity in it.

Do you know what has become of the so-called “Shepherds”?
Oh, God… thank God, no. “Uncle Stephan” – the last anyone saw he was holding a cardboard “The End Is Near” sign in Amsterdam. I mean, some of these people are my friends’ parents. We’ve all reconnected through Facebook. But… I stay away from the subject of whose parents did what to whom and I will meet them but not their parents. There’s a very clear line drawn between who we associate with. Second-generation people versus the people who joined. We have our secret Facebook groups where we can talk. We kind of provide our own free therapy.

What’s next?
I’d like to write more. I don’t know if I can support myself doing this but I’m working on a book – a memoir trying to put it all together.
Interview by Ursula Kenny