I usually don’t read non-fiction, but something about the title and cover photo grabbed me: “The Less People Know About Us” tucked over the photo of a woman holding a baby with a harvested field in the background. The subtitle gave a little more information but was just as intriguing: “A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets and Stolen Identity.”
The sign alongside said that author Axton Betz-Hamilton, an assistant professor in the Consumer Sciences Department at South Dakota State University, would be speaking at the Brookings Public Library on Jan. 21.
I was hooked.
Axton Betz was a child when her parents found out their identities had been stolen. It started simply enough and just seemed to be an annoyance. But the incidents continued to multiply and so did the seriousness. It escalated from inconvenience to run-ins with the law.
As the problems added up, so did the stress. Axton’s parents coped by cutting themselves off from family and most others in an attempt to keep their information private and thwart the identity thief. Her father was angry about it, her mother tried to figure out which of their estranged family or acquaintances was behind it. They both did a lot of explaining because no one knew what identity theft was back then.
Even though they reported the identity theft to the authorities repeatedly, there was no development in the case, no suspect was brought forward. The lack of progress wore the family down even more.
The identity theft was a constant malevolent presence in the house.
An only child, Axton was well aware of the dread and frustration that permeated her family’s life. Cut off from extended family and any friends, she consoled herself with her cats and pushed herself to excel in school. Axton’s self-esteem suffered greatly; she felt what she describes as an “otherness” and being “less-than”; she didn’t feel worthy of anyone’s regard. As her family continued to reel, Axton’s deepest desire was to control her life and she chose destructive ways to do that.
While Axton was in college, the other shoe dropped: when she requested her own credit report, she found out the identity thief had compromised her information, too.
Wondering who was targeting her family, Axton’s anger was sparked, but she realized she could fight back and she was persistent. Her need to find out the truth spurred her to became an expert in identity theft, someone whose knowledge was sought by other professionals, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice – all so she could find the person responsible, put a stop to it and get her life back.
This is the story of how she did that.
Betz-Hamilton poignantly captures the common-place routine of family life, even as she draws out the suspense surrounding the identity thief, and her crusade to find the perpetrator. Betz-Hamilton is brutally honest about what happened and “The Less People Know About Us” is shocking to read at times.
She chronicles everyday life on their Indiana farm, helping her dad with the chores, being bullied at school, and striving to make good grades. Her father was a typical Midwestern man, stoic and hardworking: he had a regular job in addition to being a farmer, but he also listened to his daughter and often took her side. Her mother’s constant search for something to make her happy led to frequent job-hopping and a taste for attention.
“The Less People Know About Us” is so much more than a memoir about living with identity theft; it’s a study in the psychological effects of living with a treacherous specter hovering over everything. It’s a warning to everyone to be personally involved in their own finances. It’s a portrait of a family of imperfect people and how they adapt to insidious mental pressure. It’s a check-list of the many signs – mental, medical and physical – that preface a violation of trust and allow it to continue. It’s a yanking back of the shroud that hides these crimes and how perpetrators can get away with them for so long.
And ultimately, it’s about reconstructing your life after a deep betrayal.
To learn more, read “The Less People Know About Us” or attend the author’s talk at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21 in the Cooper Room of the Brookings Public Library. No registration is required.