Author Lara Love Hardin in front of her former Aptos home.
Author Lara Love Hardin in front of the Aptos home where she used to live during the time when she was convicted and sent to jail.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

How Lara Love Hardin survived addiction, incarceration and shame to rebuild her life

As “The Many Lives of Mama Love” hits bookshops Tuesday, the tale by Santa Cruz County author and literary agent Lara Love Hardin of rebounding from rock bottom to stability — and fame — shows a dizzying transformation.

This is a story about shame.

It’s a story about a woman who built a comfortable and respectable life — a life many would envy, in fact — then lost it all in a vortex of addiction and criminality.

But that’s only half the story. It’s also the story of a woman who decided to fight her way through the relentless rip currents of inner shame and public disgrace to get back her life and her self-respect.

And it all happened in Santa Cruz County.

The story unfolds in the new memoir “The Many Lives of Mama Love” (Simon & Schuster) by La Selva Beach resident Lara Love Hardin. The new book hits the bookstores Tuesday, and to celebrate, Hardin begins her big book tour with a reading and appearance at Bookshop Santa Cruz on that day.

August in fact is poised to become an unforgettable high spot in Hardin’s life as she embarks on a major book tour that has her appearing at The Strand in New York and Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., among other stops, all on the heels of the kind of media spotlight that the vast majority of authors can only dream about: a majorfeature story in the New York Times. The book, Hardin told me, is also slated to be adapted into a TV series — provided the twin labor strikes in Hollywood are ever settled.

It is a dizzying precipice for Hardin, especially considering how far she had to come to meet this moment. In 2009, Hardin was being escorted to the county jail by a deputy at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. She was in a panic because child protective services was taking away her youngest son, just a toddler at the time. The deputy said out loud maybe the most damning thing a parent could hear: “You know, you shouldn’t be anybody’s mother.”

“But the lowest moment was two nights later in the jail,” Hardin said at an outdoor table on a beautiful summer day in Aptos, the community where her spectacular fall to ruin occurred. “I really thought that I just completely imploded my life. I had just failed at life and I thought I was going to prison forever. And I tied a sheet around my neck. I had written a letter to my four boys because I really believed that it would be better for them to have a mother who wasn’t alive than to have a mother in prison.”

Originally from New England, Hardin, 56, has lived in Santa Cruz County since first attending UC Santa Cruz in the mid-1980s. After graduation, she married and had four sons, worked in real estate, had a talk show on KSCO and coached her sons in Little League. But she eventually fell into addiction, first to pain medications like Vicodin. That put her into a dangerous downward spiral. Before long, she was smoking heroin and stealing to support the habit.

Author Lara Love Hardin's new book, "The Many Lives of Mama Love."
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It all came to a head in November 2008, on Election Day, in fact. While the rest of the country was witnessing Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency, Lara Love (as she was known then) and her then-husband were arrested at her house in Aptos and charged with multiple counts of identity theft, including stealing credit cards, creating phony accounts in other people’s names and stealing mail from neighbors’ boxes. In a headline, the Santa Cruz Sentinel famously referred to Hardin and her accomplice as “neighbors from hell.”

As part of a plea deal, Hardin pled guilty to 32 felonies and spent nearly a year in the county women’s jail on Blaine Street, just off Ocean Street in Santa Cruz. It cost her the legal custody of her children. After her release from jail, she began the long painful journey of reemergence in the community. The former soccer mom had to get sober, reconstitute her family, conform to the demands of her probation, and somehow find a job.

The new memoir tells the whole story, in readable and lively prose, shot through with often cutting self-deprecating humor. On the day she was arrested, she first saw the sheriff’s deputies from the top of the stairs at her home. “Like Scarlett O’Hara at her first ball, I descend the stairs slowly,” she writes.

Author Lara Love Hardin.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The book also reveals the surprising, almost miraculous plot twist that has delivered Lara Love Hardin to where she is today. In her hunt for gainful employment post-incarceration, she found a job with a local literary agency called Idea Architects. And, after hitting rock bottom as an heroin-addicted mother who lost her children and landed in jail, she soon found herself in the stratospheric orbit of such luminaries as the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama.

As part of that job at Idea Architects, Hardin has become a successful ghost writer and literary agent. The man who hired her, Doug Abrams — who also could have fired her when she didn’t reveal she had been incarcerated during her job interview — is now her agent.

The literary angle didn’t come completely from left field. Hardin grew up enchanted by literature, partly because she grew up near Concord, Massachusetts, once the home of Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and others. She went on to earn a master of fine arts degree in creative writing and taught writing at UCSC. In the opening chapter to her new book, she calls books “her first addiction.” In that way, “Mama Love” is an amazing story in its own right, but it’s delivered by a woman with a particular talent at storytelling.

“I am a better mother because I went to jail,” said Hardin. “But I’m also a better writer. I started ghostwriting in jail. I would write letters for all the women in jail. Eighty percent of incarcerated women are mothers. So I would write letters to get them into residential treatment, and I’d write letters to the judges for them.”

Yet, still, this is a story about shame. As she worked to repair her life, she began carrying the burden of the secret of her past. The Sentinel article was always a Google search away for anyone curious to know about her, and she often lived in fear. Despite her best judgment, she read the cascade of condemnation that came as comments to the online article. For a while it appeared that she would have to leave the area, pick up the pieces in a place where no one knew her. “I just felt very isolated and like the community would never accept me,” she said.

She then became part of a local improv group with longtime improv leaders Clifford Henderson and Dixie Cox. In improv, Hardin began opening up about her crimes and her time in jail. That began a gradual coming-out, to friends, acquaintances and business associates. It culminated in a TEDx talk, when she stood on a stage and spilled what she had been keeping secret for years.

“I asked everyone to close their eyes and think of the worst thing they’ve ever done,” she said. “Then I had them turn to their right and tell that to the person next to them. And everyone kinda freaked out. And I said, ‘That gasp right there? That’s what shame looks like and feels like.’”

She described her own experience of coming clean publicly as “feeling like a weight coming off.” Since she emerged from her ordeal in jail 14 years ago, she has confided in friends, faced angry ex-neighbors, exposed herself to condemnation, and now, she’s written an account that she says spares nothing from the awfulness of her actions and her experience.

“I really felt I had to be all the way honest [in the book],” Hardin said. “And I had early readers tell me, ‘I was screaming because I was so mad at you.’ And I was like, ‘I know, I know.’ But I wasn’t going to pretty up addiction. But I had to constantly check myself and say, ‘Can I really be that honest?’ and not think about [the consequences]. Because when it’s raw like that, I think that’s what makes the story work.”

Lara Love Hardin will speak about her new book, “The Many Lives of Mama Love: A Memoir of Lying, Stealing, Writing and Healing,” on Tuesday, Aug. 1, at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7 p.m.It’s free.