Lara B. Sharp's Transformation

By Dorri Olds 09/05/19

"AA is like parenting for adults. I got to have it as a child. My mom abandoning me in AA was the best thing she ever did for me."

Image: 
Lara B Sharp and Noni
Lara (21), reunites with Noni for the first time after many years. Images via Author

Close your eyes for a sec and pretend you’re watching a movie. It’s Christmas Eve, 1975. Lara, a five-year-old girl with white-gold hair, big green eyes, and olive skin, is scurrying to keep up with her mother, a five-foot-eight beauty.

Noni’s hair is black, her eyes blacker. Her stiletto heels click at a manic pace on the Manhattan pavement. With her large pupils and long-legged strides, she seems to be on speed but could also be soused. Her upper body teeters down Delancey Street. By rote she steps over drunks and around junkies without slowing, oblivious to her daughter racing behind. Lara mimics Noni’s dodges and weaves, also unfazed by the bodies littering the sidewalk. 

Everybody Has a Screwed-Up Childhood, Right?

The Lower East Side neighborhood was “kind of peaceful then. Heroin addicts are docile,” Sharp tells The Fix. “They don’t make trouble.” Yet, as she and her Mom laughed at the late shoppers, a speeding bullet whizzed by Sharp’s head.

“It was so close it blew out my left ear. We never saw doctors so nobody knew I lost my hearing on that side.” Noni frequently exploded at Sharp for “ignoring” her, but the child couldn’t hear much of what was said. Noni mistook the lack of response as proof that Sharp was dimwitted, or willfully not paying attention.

“Everybody has a screwed-­­­up childhood, right?” Sharp smiles and shrugs. “The only kids I knew were like me—living with a single mom, with no idea who their father was. We were like goldfish in water. You can’t see the water because it’s all you know.”

When her friend Marisol bragged about getting a letter from her father, Sharp didn’t believe her at first.

“I was so jealous. Not only did Marisol have a father, she knew his name and where he was. She could go visit him. They had conversations.” In Sharp’s five-year-old brain, it didn’t matter that Marisol’s father lived in prison.

Today Sharp is a graduate of Smith College and has written for Teen Vogue, Longreads, and is a top writer on Quora. Two years ago, her “Mansplaining Pool Post” went viral.

Poolside Johnny

Sharp explained what prompted the post: “Women all know a Poolside Johnny. We’ve met him in a hundred different places in a hundred different ways.” She was engrossed, reading Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me, when a man walked up and offered to be her mentor. 

"It was so funny. I started thumb-typing everything he said.” When she told him her name was Gloria Steinem, he responded "it's too Jewish."   

"So I said, ‘How about Betty Friedan?’ He just wasn’t getting it. He didn’t know who they were or that they both went to Smith College. While he’s still talking, I popped the conversation on the internet.”

When she realized he was not going to stop talking, she left. 

“I took a long shower,” she said. "When I get out, my phone is blowing up! Facebook alerts. My first thought was a terrorist attack. Then I see it’s my post. It kept going and going."

The famous post has now been written about in 6 languages and 20 publications including Glamour, Elle, The Daily Mail, Huffington Post and Refinery29. Sharp was surprised by the attention, especially from literary agents who wanted to rep her memoir, Do the Hustle, about growing up in foster care.

Love Is...

“My mom taught me what I needed to know. Like how to falsify documents—birth certificates, marriage licenses. We ran them through tea and let them dry on the window sill to make them look aged.” She also gave Sharp notebooks “to write everything down,” and great advice, like “Sometimes abortions are better than husbands.”

Beautiful Noni attracted men and married some. Sharp has no idea exactly how many.

Sharp self-published her first book at age five. She folded pieces of paper into a book and punched holes in it with scissors, tying it together with a ribbon. The book was a gift for Noni’s most terrifying husband, who verbally and physically abused both of them. 

Sharp’s book was titled Love Is. Each page contained an answer: A hug. A kiss. Asking someone how they are. She thought if he had that information, he would be nice.

“It didn’t go as planned,” said Sharp. “He accused me of plagiarizing. A five-year-old. So yeah, that was my first book, Love Is for a sociopath.”

Noni’s struggles with alcohol and drugs started before Sharp was born. “She was that way my whole life, which I think is good because if you had a great parent and then they go downhill, I’m sure it’s a lot harder.”

Sharp didn’t know any other life: “I met a girl outside of our circle who invited me over. It was strange when we walked in and her mother wasn’t lying face down in a puddle of her own body fluid. I was so surprised when the girl’s mother served sandwiches at a table with matching chairs.”

Sharp recalls Noni’s feelings were so overwhelming, she couldn’t control her behavior: “When my mother had a feeling, she expressed it by throwing a chair. When I voiced a feeling, even if it was just, I’m hungry, I’m hot, I’m tired, my mother’s immediate response was, ‘No you’re not.’”

AA and Foster Care

When Noni found AA, Sharp learned there were people in the world who lived and behaved differently. 

“Sitting in those rooms, I listened to people express themselves. They did it so clearly, appropriately. Well, despite the cursing,” she laughs. “What I mean is, they’d use words to say what had happened and how it made them feel and talk about what they were going to do. They’d say things like, ‘I’m going to sit with the feeling.’ That’s when, at seven, I realized, ‘Wow, you don’t have to react to a feeling.’”

By age eight, Sharp understood that Noni wasn’t bad, she was sick. “AA is like parenting for adults. I got to have it as a child. My mom abandoning me in AA was the best thing she ever did for me.” After getting her court slip signed, Noni would leave Sharp in the meeting while she went to the bar across the street. In those rooms, Sharp learned that addiction was hereditary and decided she didn't want to test her luck. She considers herself an "alcoholic waiting to happen" and has always been cautious about drinking.

At nine, Sharp went into foster care. At every new place she was shuffled to, she asked if they knew how to reach her mother.” Responses ranged from “No, she couldn’t take care of you” to “She left you and isn’t coming back.”

“Noni never came to visit me. No one did.” She tried every number in her notebook. None worked. Finally, she reached one of Noni’s friends who said Noni had moved to Florida.

“Birthdays passed—no calls, no cards. By 12, I started to believe she’d abandoned me,” Sharp said, “I figured nobody wants me because I’m unlovable. I talk too much, get in the way. I’m a burden.”

Sharp told me, “I think those social workers were trying to help but, as fucked up as my mother was, before foster care, I knew she loved me. Foster care took that away.”

The places she lived all had one thing in common: Jesus. Most of Sharp’s foster parents were fundamentalist Christians.

“I didn’t do Jesus. I wasn’t down with that. I knew this hippie guy from Egypt didn’t look like Kurt Cobain. That nonsense never sat well with me. And I’m glad my mother passed on her rabid femininity. She never yelled ‘Oh my God.’ For her it was, ‘Oh my Goddess.’”

On the Grift

Some of the families had money, but many just liked collecting a check. They’d take in as many kids as they could but they’d spend the money and not feed the foster kids.

“We were always so hungry,” said Sharp. “Whenever they gave us anything to eat it was rice.”

As she got older, her options narrowed.

“Once you hit double digits, the number of homes that will take you in plummets.”

The majority of older kids live in group homes, residential facilities. Or, if there’s no place to put them, foster kids are sent to detention homes. Sharp says at group homes, there was a lot of Christianity, too.

Sharp credits those East Village AA meetings with teaching her that if a situation is uncomfortable remove yourself from the situation. At 14, she ran away. Homeless, she wound up sleeping in Washington Square Park where she met “Gay Cher,” a transgender drug addict and sex worker.

“We were on the grift together,” said Sharp. “Gay Cher became my BFF. She gave me a makeover so I could pass for 18, get a job, and earn enough to rent an apartment.”

The plan worked. Sharp found jobs in the nightclub business: waitress, hostess, party promoter and bartender. She tried dancing and recalls: “I was a decent go-go dancer but never great at pole dancing. But I made a lot of money from then on.”

Doing the Next Right Thing

On 9/11 Sharp lost friends when the towers fell. Aching to do something but feeling helpless, she credits AA for guiding her to “do the next right thing.” At 31, she examined her life and realized she wanted to quit bartending. For years, she’d been serving alcohol to customers who had drinking problems. But, without any formal education, her opportunities were limited. As an avid reader since the days Noni left her alone in libraries, she decided to take the GED. On the day of the test, she ended up in the wrong room and was given a college exam instead of the high school equivalency placement. She aced it, and enrolled in a two-year associate's degree program for free. After that she won a scholarship to Smith College. With hard work and luck, she found her way to a career as a writer. 

“I’m not angry at my mom anymore. I’m grateful that she abandoned me in libraries and AA. Now I have a loving and kind husband. We live in a beautiful home in a safe and friendly neighborhood. I learned everything I needed to know to take care of myself. And I’ve done a damn good job.”

Lara B. Sharp reads an excerpt from her memoir in progress:

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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