It’s an eerie day in Colorado as we greeted the arrival of our second bomb cyclone. The day started rainy, gray, and foggy with an impending sense of doom and eventually turned to a heavy wet snow which is much more appropriate for a bleak midwinter than an early spring. The gloomy weather hanging over my home seems the appropriate time to reflect on events that occurred on March 26, 2018 on the northern coast of California, sometime in the early hours of the morning.
This is a story about abuse, neglect, and murder, and it’s been eating at me for quite some time. I had to collect my thoughts, and the point of posting them is to call attention to this case, to these kids, to what they experienced and why they experienced it, and to the forces that intertwined to create a situation in which they never got the help they desperately needed and were desperately seeking.
TW: Tough subject matter ahead. Read at your own discretion.
A quote from a podcast called “Broken Harts” –
“We assume that people who are abusive are abusive both in their private lives but also in their public lives. We know this now not to be true. Many people who are abusive in their private lives are well-respected in their communities and not considered abusive, and this is problematic for us. It’s inconsistent, and I think as human beings, we like to see consistency.
If we want to continue to abuse and have access to victims and your family, these acts of private violence have to be managed, because if you do anything outside the house, that might alert people to the fact that you’re abusive, you might lose your ability to continue to abuse.”
This quote, heard in the eighth episode of the podcast, is from an expert on female family annihilators. I find it to be disturbingly true – there’s often a sense of shock when someone who is abusive is outed. And I always think…why is this a surprise? Why is it that people think abuse is easy to spot? It’s not always obvious, and those involved – abusers, enablers, and victims alike – often go to great lengths to conceal it.
Seeming good is the best cover that someone with an abusive nature could possibly have – because if someone *seems* good, then people are willing to overlook quite a lot.
On March 26, 2018, after being reported to CPS eight times in ten years, Jennifer and Sarah Hart killed themselves and their six children. This was long suspected by many following the case, and it has recently been ruled by a California jury as the explanation for why Jen Hart drove her entire family off a cliff in the middle of the night. Prior to the plunge, her wife, Sarah, had a taken a toxic dosage of Benadryl, and the children whose bodies were recovered also showed signs of having been given large amounts of the same drug. Searches of Sarah’s phone revealed that she was not a victim, as some originally thought, but was complicit in this final act. It was a murder-suicide in which both mothers decided together to end their children’s lives along with their own.
A question that seems to be haunting people following this story is why take the kids’ lives? One detective on the case was quoted as saying something to the effect of that they felt that if they couldn’t have those kids, no one could have them. I think there’s a truth to that – my experience with abuse situations is that abusers seem to feel a sense of ownership of their victims, and I think that’s especially true of an abusive parent.
But there’s more to this than simply a trail of visits from CPS finally catching up to them. The final visit from CPS that triggered their fatal road trip was merely the last and most urgent threat to the collection of delicate stories, like dominoes, that Jen Hart constructed around them for years. Stories that were largely untrue.
Jen Hart was a charismatic presence on Facebook and at various festivals, followed by many of the people she met on the festival circuits. These festivals were about peace and love and community, about music and meditation and social consciousness – all things that Jen wanted to, and successfully did, project to the world. While her wife, Sarah, stayed home to work, Jen would take the kids all over the country to various events. Many of her photos were a sort of journal of all the places that she and her children traveled to, with uplifting words to go with them.
Jen posted the bad along with the good; about microaggressions, about the homophobia and rejection she and Sarah had faced, as well as about wanting to make the world a better place, about her talented and funny and amazing children about their adventures and special moments. Her posts were often beautifully written, even if some of her recounted dialogue was a bit cringe-inducing. Not many people saw her posts as the fiction that they were. It seems that people didn’t just like the Harts – there was a sense of awe and reverence about them, a cloud of idealization that was largely cultivated by Jen.
It turned out to be nothing but a facade. The special moments were photo ops, the conversations exaggerated or even completely fabricated. Even their veganism and shunning of television was lie – after their deaths, a fridge full of meat and a widescreen tv were found in the home. It’s hard to know, from where I sit, if Jen’s narrative was total fiction, or based on grains of truth. I suppose it doesn’t matter now. What’s important is that the whole thing – the family life, the happy kids, the mothers who “saved” them from abuse and neglect, was an elaborate piece of performance art.
I need to put out there that there was a steady stream of ‘white savior’ running through every story Jen told about the origins of their family. The race issues surrounding this story are complex; the children have birth parents and other biological family still alive, and had relatives who wanted to raise them. That didn’t happen – I urge people to listen to the podcasts, which dig a bit more into the race issues surrounding these adoptions to find out how systemic racism resulted in a system that felt that two random white women would be better suited to raising six black children than their own families.
There are a lot of questions about the Harts, their case, their lives, and their mental states. But the big question, the one that floats on top of all the other questions, is this: Why did this happen?
From the very beginning, I understood exactly why Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Devonte, Abigail, and Ciera Hart died at the bottom of a cliff. Part of it was likely an “if I can’t have you, no one can have you” mentality. That hearkens back to that ownership attitude, and these kids definitely seem to have been objects to Jen and Sarah. After their deaths, their home revealed that the kids had no beds, no personal possessions, and few activities to keep the occupied – authorities would say that there was no indication that multiple teenagers lived in the home. It was described as “sterile,” except for Jen and Sarah’s room, which was one of the few areas of the house that seemed lived in. That alone indicates that these children were accessories to their mothers. What sort of parents don’t even have beds for their kids to sleep in? What sort of home has no decor in the children’s space? One of the bedrooms where the children slept looked like it doubled as a storage space. There was nothing warm or comforting or personal about it.
But…there’s something else here, something bubbling underneath the abuse and racism and objectification. It’s something that anyone who’s ever dealt with a highly narcissistic personality knows – it’s all about the story.
Narcissists are master narrative builders, and even if the narrative seems a bit off, the sheer charisma of the narcissist causes others to overlook these little red flags. Example – Jen told people repeatedly that the kids were developmentally delayed and that some, if not all, would never be able to live independently. There’s no evidence of that; people who interacted with the kids didn’t necessarily see children who seemed disabled, and Jen’s own Facebook posts recounting the often deep conversations and ‘woke’ moments her kids had don’t seem to support a ‘developmentally delayed’ narrative. Why that dissonance wasn’t more readily noticed while Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Devonte, Abigail, and Ciera were still alive is a testament to how believable some narcissists can be – they weave stories like spiders weave webs.
When you only see the web from afar, or only now and again, it’s easy to take it a face value. If it *seems* good, it must be good, right? You don’t question what seems good. It’s not until you’re up close and personal on a much more consistent basis that it begins to fall apart. And that up close and personal perspective is what Jen did her best to block.
Abusers tend to isolate their victims for the reasons the quote above states – because they don’t want people to know they’re abusers. Because they’re counting on that “but he was such a nice guy” or “she was such a doting mother” narrative they build to cover up or sweep away anything suspicious that might accidentally leak out.
With narcissists, the stakes are even higher, because the story is their life. Their lies become their truth. Real life, real people, real feelings and real consequences never matter as much as the narrative they build.
Everything I’ve learned about Jen Hart in the past year points to her having narcissistic traits, something that my personal experience with that particular personality type and the enablers the attract, as well as my personal research on narcissistic abusers confirms. One really interesting hallmark of that sort of personality – they often believe their own lies.
I’m not sure what was going through Sarah Hart’s mind when she swallowed 42+ doses of Benadryl so that she’d be safely unconscious before her wife drove them all off a cliff – I would guess that whatever anxieties she had about the death process were tempered by relief at just having it all be over.
What was going through Jen’s mind is a little clearer to me – her narrative web, which had been fraying for a while, was finally about to be unraveled. The dominoes were going to fall. The children were getting older and harder to control. Several, including the one who was arguably her favorite, had told people about the abuse and neglect. Something triggered their sudden departure – it’s possible that the children pushed back, and indicated that they would no longer lie to CPS. But even if they didn’t say as much, perhaps Jen and Sarah feared as much. Why else would they run with no luggage, no toiletries, no personal effects? Something was different about that final CPS contact. Something sent them into a panic – enough of a panic that within hours of suddenly leaving home, they were doing Google searches for information about possible ways to die.
I’d guess that they could no longer deny that things weren’t looking good. Add to that financial concerns, Jen’s gaming addiction and neglect of the kids, isolation and lack of support system, depression, kids who were trying to escape from them, a loss of subsidized income due to the kids beginning to reach adulthood, and narcissist/enabler dynamic within a strained marriage, and you’ve got a recipe for some really distorted logic to take hold.
If all Jen and Sarah wanted was an easy out, they could easily have left the kids on the side of the road and just killed themselves. But if Jen let those kids live, they would have unraveled all her stories, smashed through all of her careful lies. My gut feeling has always been that Jen was attempting to preserve the legacy she built – keeping the story alive, keeping the narrative in-tact, was more important than her life, or the lives of her wife and children. That’s how important narratives can be to narcissists.
There’s evidence to back me up here. Aside from what I know to be true about how narcissists construct elaborate alternate realities from own experiences and research, there are two disturbing details about this case that came out in the recent jury hearings: First, in the hours after they left their home for the last time, Sarah searched for ways to commit suicide and searched for how long it would take to die – then either she or Jen deleted those searches. Second, Sarah searched for no-kill dog shelters, but there’s no evidence that the dogs were ever dropped off.
You’re about to die – why do you care what’s on your phone? If you didn’t want to kill the dogs, why wouldn’t you just drop the them off somewhere?
And, as many people have pointed out, why would you care more about your dogs’ lives than your children’s?
Some of it was no doubt about control and ownership. Some of it was about escaping accountability. Some of it may have been punitive – I’m sure they were pissed that the kids were trying to get help. Some of it may have been pure desperation and emotional exhaustion from trying to sustain an unsustainable situation, and a desire to just put an end to everything.
But at the heart of Jen’s twisted logic was something else: The master narrative.
She had to protect the story. Jen wasn’t content with simply ending them all. She wanted them to be memorialized as the beautiful loving family that died in a tragic accident, and not have it become what it inevitably became – two women who chose to drive themselves and their six children off a cliff because CPS – and their own kids – were about to take them down.
To me, deleting those searches and failing to drop their dogs off before going over the cliff speaks volumes – it tells me that to Jen Hart, what mattered the most was how people perceived them. Even though she’d be dead, she still cared about how people would remember her. It couldn’t look planned, or everything would fall apart. So that meant the dogs had to stay with them, and Sarah’s phone had to be cleared. The ‘tragic accident’ narrative was going to be the last chapter of her story. She was going to die a hero.
You may have noticed a bit of a contradiction in my analysis. I said that narcissists often believe their own lies, then told you that the Hart family died together so that Jen didn’t have to witness the fall of all those narrative dominoes she’d been setting up for years. That means that she was aware that what she was doing was wrong. She was aware she was lying, and she was aware of how easily her lies would fall apart.
So what gives? How can someone both believe her own lies, and be so aware of them that she was willing to kill her entire family to protect them?
The short answer: People are complicated. Narcissists even moreso. I witnessed in the narcissist who used to be part of my life both an ability to believe their own lies and stories, and an acute awareness that how they treated me was not right, and that if others knew, they would object. People can hold completely contradictory thoughts and feelings simultaneously, sometimes conscious of the contradiction, sometimes not. Human brains are weird like that.
It’s very possible that Jen both believed herself, and understood that she had constructed a false reality. It’s possible that she thought she loved her kids, even as she was abusing and starving them. If you’re ever been up close and personal with a narcissist, you’ll see that they tend to contradict themselves without noticing and have rapidly shifting moods. They can seem normal for short periods of time or from a distance. Up close and for long periods of time, they’re just a mess of rage, depression, self-loathing, and extreme need. Many of them deal with these feelings by storytelling, and they become very protective of their stories.
In my opinion, the real reason the Hart children died was so that Jen’s narrative could live. The only comfort I find in this infuriatingly tragic situation is that the narrative did fall apart, and relatively quickly.
So how did people not see this woman for what she was?
That’s where the story gets twisted. There were many people who believed Jen’s narrative, who idealized Jen and Sarah and their large family. Some of them are still struggling to reconcile the “character” Jen Hart that they all knew with the “real” Jen Hart who abused then murdered her children.
But some people saw through it. Jen’s family of origin seem to be aware that she wasn’t what she projected, but she had cut them off (and that might be why.) There were CPS workers who saw the coaching and felt that something was off, but felt that they were unable to conclusively determine that the kids were being abused. There were neighbors and friends who saw it. At least one of Sarah’s coworkers and a friend Jen made in her online gaming community had their suspicions. The kids definitely saw it, and they tried to tell people.
There were a lot of points of failure that allowed Jen and Sarah to adopt then abuse these kids, and I’m going to restate that systemic racism plays strongly into this story in a number of ways. But it was an interplay of failures – CPS failed them multiple times, the courts that removed these children from families of origin failed them, a society that prefers to remove children from struggling parents rather than connect those families with resources failed them, friends and acquaintances of the Harts who couldn’t or didn’t want to see the red flags failed them, white saviorism failed them, laws that don’t require oversight of homeschooling families failed them, and most notably, Sarah Hart failed them.
As the other adult in the situation, Sarah was the one who had the agency to potentially stand up to Jen and stop the abuse. It’s also possible that Sarah participated in the abuse, though the general feeling I’ve gotten from my research indicates Sarah was more of an enabler/abused wife. If Jen was abusing her, and it seems that Jen was at the very least emotionally abusive toward Sarah, then Sarah had her own issues she was dealing with as a victim of spousal abuse. Normally that’s a person you would to give lots of support and compassion. What complicates the situation is that despite her own issues, Sarah had a responsibility to her six children, and she failed miserably in that responsibility not once, but countless times over a long period of time.
My personal experience clouds me a bit here, because when I hear these stories, I sometimes feel more rage toward the enablers than toward the abusers. But whatever your personal stance, it’s clear that both women were complicit in ending their own lives, and the lives of their children. In their final act, Sarah was not a victim – she was an active participant. She took the easiest way out – she agreed to allow her wife to murder their children, then swallowed a bunch of Benadryl so she didn’t have to be awake to see it happen.
A lot of people are now talking about unanswered questions. This case doesn’t bother me because of lack of answers. In my mind, it’s clear why six innocent kids are dead. It was a combination of systemic failures combined with Jen’s need to protect story. Subsumed in that was Jen and Sarah escaping accountability for their actions, and Jen and Sarah feeling overwhelmed/depressed/backed into a corner. But the way it occurred was, first and foremost, about ending their family narrative in a way that would allow Jen’s lies to live on as truths.
That leads me to the other thread that I think pushed two women to drive six kids off the side of a cliff. Even without that last CPS call, the dominoes were perilously close to falling. The oldest, Markis, was 19, and though I’m not aware of any evidence that he tried to leave, I can’t imagine that Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Devonte, Abigail, and Ciera would have stayed with their adoptive mothers forever.
Jen was receiving subsidy checks for each of the kids, but that stopped once the kids turned 18. They were about to transition from being a paycheck to being a burden. They were never given the skills by Jen or Sarah to be independent adults – likely on purpose, as narcissists tend to like to keep their kids dependent on them, even into adulthood. But it must have started occurring to them that their lack of parenting and Jen’s narrative of six children who would need lifelong care was about to catch up to them. They’d either be on the hook for supporting eight adults for the rest of their lives, or (more likely) they’d have to face a day when one or more of the kids finally left. It was a bind – I don’t think either of them wanted to support the kids long-term into adulthood, but they also couldn’t risk the kids leaving and beginning to interact with the world. Isolation is what had kept the safe from exposure, but how can two adults possibly control and isolate six other adults indefinitely?
In March of 2018, as Markis reached young adulthood with his siblings at his heels, exposure was imminent. Their family structure was no longer sustainable. The kids were fighting back and CPS was at their door.
Jen had tried to prepare for that day. She had already attempted to proactively discredit the kids with the ‘crack baby’ and ‘developmentally impaired’ narratives about children who acted out because of their supposedly violent or neglectful lives before she and Sarah stepped in to save them. It worked when the kids were young. The problem with that particular method is that it was going to be easy to disprove once the kids reached adulthood, and/or finally told a CPS worker the truth. There are tests that can determine whether someone is developmentally disabled. I think all six children would have passed with flying colors.
Suffice to say, neither Jen or Sarah wanted the truth to come out – but I suspect their reasons were different.
For Sarah, the decision to commit suicide may have been more about escaping accountability and escaping a life she seemed to find overwhelming and unfulfilling.
I honestly think that when Jen decided that suicide was the best option, the thought going through her mind was protecting the image. Protecting the story. Not allowing the kids or CPS to dismantle it.
I wonder if that’s why Jen was the only one wearing a seatbelt. It could be that in those final moments, which were clouded by alcohol and probably a lot of fear and anxiety, she simply forgot to take it off. Or it could be that she was adding a last little detail to the story, to make the ‘tragic accident’ narrative seem more credible…
Because why would you have a seatbelt on if you were trying to kill yourself and your entire family?
In the end, I suppose that what people need to take away from this is that monsters hide in plain sight. One of the first CPS workers that encountered Jen and Sarah noted that “the problem is, these women look normal.” That one weighty little sentence perfectly encapsulates how this story ended with six adopted children dead at the bottom of a cliff. What was normal here? What does that look like?
I guess normal looks like two white women “saving” six black children…from other black people. It looks like racism disguised as caring. It looks like love and happiness being performed rather than being given. It looks like dozens upon dozens of pictures of skinny children, ribs fully visible, racking up likes on Facebook instead of calls to CPS.
Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Devonte, Abigail, and Ciera deserved so much better.