From the driver’s seat of her Tesla, Lara Love Hardin leveled a steady gaze at a house on a sun-bleached cul-de-sac in Aptos, Calif. and talked about the afternoon in November 2008 when she was handcuffed and yanked out the front door by a sheriff’s deputy who told her she didn’t deserve to be a mother.

“This whole street was filled with probably 10 sheriff’s cars. The neighbors were all standing here,” said Hardin, now 56. That day capped off a lengthy drug binge that cost her six years of sobriety and custody of her four sons, ages 3, 13, 16 and 17. Hardin’s second husband was also arrested; their toddler went to emergency foster care.

“There was no more magical thinking,” she said. “There was no more, ‘I can talk my way out of this, I can spin a story.’ It was just over.”

Before her cataclysmic nosedive, Hardin owned a pet cemetery. She is now a literary agent and ghostwriter who has collaborated on several best-selling books, including ones by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. She represents Stanford professors. She has had lunch with Oprah.

Most people would have trouble pulling off such a dramatic pivot; if it appeared in a novel, an editor might flag it as unrealistic. Hardin wrote a memoir instead: “The Many Lives of Mama Love,” which explains in heartfelt, humor-tinged prose how she built a bridge from her old life to her current one. The book comes out from Simon & Schuster on Aug. 1.

The neighbors who watched her arrest that day were the parents of her sons’ friends, who’d brought over dinner when her youngest boy was born. They were also her first victims. Hardin had stolen a checkbook, credit cards, gift cards, mail and painkillers from their homes, pirated their Wi-Fi while gambling and smoking heroin, and appropriated one of their social security numbers to apply for an Amazon card she then used to buy a Kindle and parenting books. She’d also rifled through a hotel room and cars, searching for anything that would finance her next fix.

“It was just survival mode. If I didn’t have the drugs, I would die,” Hardin said.

During a 90-minute tour of her crime scenes — it was only her second visit to her old home since her arrest — Hardin recalled the preschool teacher who asked why she was lurking in a distant corner of the parking lot: “I think she knew. There’s slightly haggard mom drop-off look, and then there’s ‘I’m living on heroin and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.’”

She pointed to the window of what had been her boys’ playroom and the yard where they played basketball and piled into a hot tub. She talked about trick-or-treating on the cul-de-sac, how proud she’d been of her blue accent wall and carpeted master bath.

Her regret and remorse loomed over the day, sturdy as redwoods.

Growing up in the Boston suburbs, Hardin said, “I was the kid in the apartment, the poor kid with the single mom.” After a childhood spent escaping into books, she was the first person in her family to go to college. She fled to the University of California, Santa Cruz, then to U.C. Irvine, where she got an M.F.A.

Here’s what they don’t teach you in grad school: If you charge $500 of groceries on a stolen card, then realize you forgot milk, the second transaction counts as a separate crime. Hardin pleaded guilty to 32 felonies and faced 27 years in prison. Thanks to a plea deal, she spent 10 months in county jail, a figure the sheriff’s office was unable to confirm because, according to a public information officer, California law prohibits the disclosure of criminal histories of people who are no longer in custody.

Promotional copy for Hardin’s memoir promises a jaunty-sounding account of “her slide from soccer mom to opioid addict to jailhouse shot caller.” But, parked outside the Santa Cruz County Jail, a grim octagonal building where she attempted to end her own life, the view was decidedly more “Law & Order” than “Real Housewives.” Even the rosebushes Hardin once earned the privilege of pruning looked defeated. Green signs bolted to walls and fences warned, “Unauthorized communication with jail inmates is unlawful.”

Hardin survived incarceration by making her voice heard. She started writing — essays, poems and short stories, plus legal and personal correspondence for fellow inmates. “I worry I could get in trouble for pretending to be other people,” she writes of this side hustle, which earned her the nickname Mama Love. “I don’t yet realize that what I am doing is honing my empathy — the superpower of all great ghostwriters.”

But the hardest part was yet to come. Once Hardin had served her time, she learned how hard it was to find a job and housing when she had to check a box indicating that she had a criminal record.

“There’s over two million people sitting in prison right now who believe that they’re paying for their crimes,” Hardin said in a 2019 TEDx Talk. “What many of them don’t realize is that they will pay for those crimes for a lifetime.”

The same week Hardin applied for food stamps, she landed a job as a part-time assistant at Idea Architects, a literary agency founded by Doug Abrams, who represents Tutu and Mandela. He never checked her references.

“I decide that if I’m asked, I will reveal my background, but if not I won’t volunteer the information,” Hardin writes. “It’s a don’t ask, don’t tell policy that I feel still jibes with my rigorous honesty policy.”

Abrams said he had a sense that Hardin had “been through some hard times,” but was immediately impressed by her talent. At the recommendation of a friend, he searched for her name online. An article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel described Hardin and her second husband as the “neighbors from hell,” he found.

“Here is somebody that I’ve just hired to help me run the company and do the banking and the accounting,” said Abrams. He was working from a home office; his children were on the premises; he was (understandably) concerned.

Abrams called Cynthia Chase, the director of the re-entry program Hardin completed before leaving jail.

“Doug said, ‘Can you guarantee that she’s not going to relapse?’ I said, ‘No. Anybody who says yes is lying; that’s not how recovery works,’” said Chase in a phone interview. She is now Hardin’s partner in the Gemma Project, a nonprofit that helps incarcerated women as they re-enter society. “What I can tell you is, unlike the average person off the street, Lara has so much more to lose.”

After a “dark night of the soul,” Abrams kept Hardin on the payroll for 12 years, a decision he considers one of the best he’s ever made. She eventually became the co-CEO.

He said, “Her identity theft crime was also her identity translation superpower. She could get somebody’s voice, mind and soul onto the page in a really powerful way.”

Anthony Ray Hinton worked with Hardin on “The Sun Does Shine,” his best-selling, Oprah-endorsed memoir about the decades he spent imprisoned in Alabama for three murders he didn’t commit.

“I felt so comfortable telling Lara things I have never told anybody,” he said in a phone interview. “Every time I would cry, Lara would stop and say, ‘Hold on. Let’s take a moment.’ She didn’t rush me to get back. I knew then that this is a gentle soul.”

After writing 12 books for other people — 11 of them male — Hardin still wasn’t sure if she was ready to tell her own story. She said, “Shame is so sticky. I was so used to keeping my secret.”

After her TEDx Talk, Abrams encouraged her to get cracking on a proposal, which he sold in a five-way auction that ended in the high six figures. She used part of the advance to finish paying more than $15,000 in restitution for her crimes.

In early 2022, Hardin rented a house in Thailand, where she wrote a draft of the memoir in seven weeks. She said, “As I was writing the darkest chapters, thunder was shaking the villa.” She appreciated the symbolism.

When Hardin sent the manuscript to Eamon Dolan, her editor at Simon & Schuster, he pointed out that “I wonder” appeared 43 times.

“It was me not committing to what I was going to say. It was hedging,” Hardin said. “I dove back in.”

In a phone interview, Dolan went on, “I don’t want a memoir to be the means by which an author figures themselves out, and oftentimes that’s the case. Lara had substantially figured herself out. She didn’t hold back. She pushes herself harder than almost anyone else I know in my personal and professional life.”

“The Many Lives of Mama Love” contains notes of “Wild,” “Orange is the New Black” and “Catch Me if You Can.” Hardin delves into her troubled childhood (her earliest memory is of her mother smashing her own head against a wall); two failed marriages; the escalation of her addiction from opiates to Valium to heroin; and her determination to rebuild a stable home for her sons, all four of whom lived with her first husband until she got back on her feet.

She also addresses the Twister-like demands of the criminal justice system. For instance, by the terms of her discharge, she had to be at drug court and a work-release program at the same time. This was challenging, even for someone with a car (albeit one that had trouble with hills).

“I was coming from a place of privilege, being a white woman, being middle class, having an education,” Hardin said. “It was still almost impossible not to get sent back to jail. You’re set up for failure at every turn.”

In a phone interview, Hardin’s son Ty Love, now 27, recalled the first time he visited his mother after she was arrested — “the glass pane, the orange jumpsuit, the phone on the wall” — and said, “I remember her putting on a brave face for our benefit.”

Reading his mother’s book took him back to that difficult time, Love said, but “it was also healing because I got to see my mom’s perspective. I was happy to see her using herself as a light a little bit more. She’s definitely one of my heroes.”

As Hardin drove over a bridge into downtown Santa Cruz, she said she still dreams that her children are being taken from her. Pointing to a house on a hill on the other side of the San Lorenzo River, she said, “I remember being in jail and looking up there. I just wanted to be someone who lives in a house.”

Now, once again, she does. Hardin is married to her “third-time’s-a-charm husband.” She doesn’t use drugs. And last year, she opened her own agency. It’s called True Literary.

“I picked the name because I like true stories you wouldn’t believe if they were fiction,” Hardin said. “And because I want to do what’s true to me.”


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