If you’re a true crime podcasting aficionado, you might already be familiar with the heartbreaking case of the Jen and Sarah Hart and their adopted children. They were a white lesbian couple who seemed to be living a progressive fantasy of post-racial harmony with the six beautiful African-American children they adopted and photographed endlessly for public consumption. But, if the Harts’ heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity and racism seemed too good to be true, that’s because it was. The illusion of racial harmony the Harts built up over a period of years — primarily on social media — exploded with the news that the family had died in a fiery murder-suicide when Jen drunkenly and deliberately drove a Yukon carrying her wife and children off a cliff to their grisly deaths in Mendocino County, California, earlier this year. So, the big question is this: Because the family used social media so much, how much did Facebook play a part in the tragedy?
The terrific true crime podcast Broken Harts establishes that, for the Harts, Facebook was much more than just a way to share their adventures with a voracious digital audience who rewarded their evocatively written, gorgeously photographed posts with likes and shares and other forms of virtual and addictive validation. For the Harts, particularly Jen, the “stay-at-home mom,” social media seems to have become its own reality—one that bore little resemblance to the family’s real-life woes.
Their carefully curated Facebook page depicted a life full of travel and adventure for the inter-racial blended family that came to be known, affectionately, as the Hart Tribe. Friends and associates marveled at the couple’s seemingly saint-like selflessness, at their willingness to live their politics and their ideals even when it meant giving up seemingly everything—money, free time, privacy, freedom—to care for vulnerable, underprivileged African American children and teenagers in need.
This, it seems, was a lie disseminated to an admiring and deceived world via a Facebook page that inspired admiration, envy, and wonderment from chums and acquaintances who wondered how it was possible for two women of modest means to do so much good.
The telegenic family had a genius for ending up in the media spotlight. When a bird famously landed on Bernie Sanders’ podium during his campaign, the Hart family, big Sanders supporters, were in the frame, witnesses to progressive history.
— Geysar Gurbanov (@geysar) December 1, 2014
Devonte Hart similarly attained social media fame when a picture of him hugging a cop, in uniform, spread like wildfire across social media. The arresting image powerfully captured the same desperate, hopeful yearning for a way out of our country’s thorny racial quagmire as the Harts’ own seemingly inspirational and certainly telegenic existence.
Beneath the beautiful images and viral fame lie ugliness and abuse that sometimes spilled messily into the frame, casting dark shadows over the carefully manicured image the moms worked so hard to promote.
The Harts starved and physically and emotionally abused their children. The Harts presented their lives as a progressive fairy tale. In reality, Jen and Sarah were closer to Wicked Stepmothers than Fairy Godmothers. The kids tried to escape their awful fate, to let neighbors know that they were living in squalor, but it was to no avail. If anything, the prospect of child abuse charges hanging over the Harts might have served to push them further towards a deadly endgame by making the gulf between who the Harts pretended to be on Facebook and who they actually were in private too vast to ever be ever reconciled. Indeed, one of the interview subjects in Broken Harts hypothesizes that if Facebook did not exist the Hart children would still be alive.
Part of what makes the Harts’ story so disturbing is that it’s partially relatable. The Harts are guilty of doing, to an extreme, horrific and almost unimaginable degree, something that seemingly all parents are guilty of in the social media age: using the adorableness of our children to present the best possible version of our family life to the outside world.
The interview subjects in Broken Harts talk about the way the children seemed almost like a troupe of actors or models. Their real job, and one they did perhaps too well, was to pose and model and perform in elaborately staged tableaus designed to reinforce the family’s image. This aspirational figure of post-racial perfection, alas, existed only in artfully composed photographs on social media, and clashed violently with the lives of Dickensian abuse and want these poor, powerless kids were actually living.
It’s human nature to want approval, validation, acceptance. We all want to be liked. That’s part of what makes social media so dangerous. It turbo-charges our desperate, not terribly dignified need for validation. Social media transforms our collective abstract longing for the respect of our real-life peers into a maddeningly literal hunt for likes and shares and re-tweets.
The Harts made their children pose for photographs. We all do that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. When I take a picture of my four-year-old son to put on Facebook it’s not going to be of him crying and looking miserable because he just had his tonsils taken out. That wouldn’t be fair to him, nor would it be fair to followers who understandably probably aren’t interested in looking at images of my family when we’re sick and miserable.
No, I’m going to take pictures of my son at a Christmas festival or picking strawberries or doing something else that silently but powerfully conveys that he’s a happy little guy enjoying a fairly idyllic, stable, and secure childhood. I like to think that’s true, but it’s not true 100 percent of the time, obviously. Sometimes he’s on the couch looking pale because he just had the first surgery of his life. Sometimes he’s in the throes of a tantrum, throwing toys and remote controls, unable to communicate what is making him so terribly angry. That’s his life and his truth as well, but not anything that needs to be shared with anyone, let alone put on social media.
We all selectively edit the images and experiences and ideas we put on social media, generally to make ourselves and our family look good. It’s natural and healthy to want to accentuate the positive and frame our online lives in flattering ways.
Broken Harts suggests, that the problem comes when we live for Facebook. When the likes and shares and admiring comments become not only an end onto themselves, but a measure that seems to matter more than all the others, particularly the happiness and security of your children. The tragedy came when the fissure between dazzling images and unlovely truths threatened to collide.
It’s okay to exaggerate the good for the sake of trying to win the public approval we all crave. But when you lie on the level that the Harts did, when your whole online life is an elaborate performance that bears only a passing resemblance to your actual life, it creates problems that can become impossible to solve. Portraying yourself as an angel on social media can make it impossible to deal healthily with the demons that are an inevitable part of being human.
Broken Harts made me think long and hard about my own relationship with social media. If nothing else, the harrowing and heart wrenching series should get some folks off Facebook for good by illustrating that sometimes our desperate craving for the electronic love of strangers can lead to places so dark and so grim that there’s no coming back from them, and the unthinkable—murder-suicide involving teenagers society foolishly entrusted in your care, not knowing the darkness in your soul—begins to seem just thinkable but like an acceptable option.