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In this powerful true crime memoir, an award-winning identity theft expert tells the shocking story of the duplicity and betrayal that inspired her career and nearly destroyed her family.
Axton Betz-Hamilton grew up in small-town Indiana in the early '90s. When she was 11 years old, her parents both had their identities stolen. Their credit ratings were ruined, and they were constantly fighting over money. This was before the age of the Internet, when identity theft became more commonplace, so authorities and banks were clueless and reluctant to help Axton's parents.
As a result, Axton spent her formative years crippled by anxiety, quarantined behind the closed curtains in her childhood home. She began starving herself at a young age in an effort to blend in–her appearance could be nothing short of perfect or she would be scolded by her mother, who had become paranoid and consumed by how others perceived the family.
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IT HAD BEEN A LONG DAY at school and the roots of a headache had planted themselves near the outer corners of my eyes. There were hours of homework in my immediate future but as I walked through the parking lot of my building, I wistfully considered a nap. The manila envelope I found folded over and jammed in my mailbox was the last thing I wanted to deal with.
With a groan of resignation, I yanked it from the box. It was a lot bigger than I had expected a credit report to be. Must come with a lot of instructions, I thought. Most of me wanted to drop it by the front door and forget about it for a while, but I leaned against the arm of my hand-me-down, green-floral-print couch with my legs crossed and tore it open instead.
There have been a few moments in my life when reality has skipped in front of me like a broken television—and I remember this one in slow motion. Sliding my finger under the thick flap of that envelope, feeling the adhesive give way and the paper tear in jagged intervals—those were the last indelible sensations of an existence I understood. And then, as sure as the sharp edges of paper in my hands, another existence took its place. A new life, a different identity.
I did not find any instructions inside the envelope. Instead, I found the report, with the bulk of a term paper, full of fraudulent credit card charges and collection agency entries in my name. Discover, Bank One, First USA. Pages of numbers and dates as foreign as a language I did not speak. The first line of credit had been opened in 1993, when I was eleven. That was the year my parents' identities had been stolen.
My credit score was 380. For a merciful second I thought maybe that was good. After all, 100 is perfect. It always had been in school, anyway. Then I saw the corresponding key. My score of 380 placed me in the second percentile of all scorers in the United States. About as low as it gets.
As my body folded over the arm of the couch, my mind struggled to make sense of these bizarre numbers. Surely they'll know—I was just a kid; I couldn't have done this. I felt the sting of tears on my cheeks. Who would do this to me?
ALTHOUGH TODAY I QUESTION the legitimacy of my own claim, for many years I believed that Grandpa Elliott was the first resident of Jay County to own a satellite dish. I remember the colossal shadow it cast across the backyard, where it stood planted behind the limestone exterior of his single-story, ranch-style house. In the summers, heat would hover above its concave face, bending the fields behind it into a green vapor. On many afternoons when I was outside, helping Dad feed the animals, I would hear the growl of its motor, shifting the dish from one side of the Indiana sky to the other. Nesting deep in his brown La-Z-Boy, Grandpa had changed the channel.
I would follow its arc with my eyes as it inched from a White Sox game to the evening news. The cold automation of hard, beige metal moving against the blooming countryside: it almost didn't seem real.
My grandfather bought the satellite dish so that he could watch his games: the Pacers, the Hoosiers, the White Sox. It was a happy accident (for me) that it also delivered cartoons to the rural farmhouse. This new development provided a serious upgrade to the hours my grandfather and I spent together after school, before Mom came home from work. Ostensibly, he was supposed to be watching me, but I was the one who did most of the caretaking. Grandpa suffered from severe arthritis—among lots of other ailments—so I became a shuttle for the things he needed around the house: his pills, his drink, the remote. His fingers and wrists were so tangled in pain that I was his designated beer-opener. The whisssska of the Old Milwaukee can and the tiny escaping bubbles that tickled my palm filled me with pride every time I popped one open.
I didn't mind doing those things for him. It made me feel important. That a towering man like my grandfather would let me take part in the sacred rituals of his life meant more to me than any 4-H ribbon ever would.
He had been in poor health for decades when he had the heart attack. More than the stomach ulcers or the poor circulation or the arthritis, though, Grandpa seemed to suffer most from an unrelenting awareness of his own mortality. He rarely left the house and when he did it was so that Sassy, his wool-white toy poodle, could enjoy a ride in the passenger seat. The decor strewn along the mantel had been gathering dust for decades. When he was diagnosed with depression, he washed his antidepressants down with a lunchtime shot of Canadian Club whiskey.
This grim outlook was how he convinced my parents to stay on the farm in the first place. They had moved a mobile home onto the land before I was born, relocating from Muncie back to Portland, and intending only to stay while my grandmother, Lelah, battled breast cancer. Like my parents, Grandpa wasn't actually expecting Lelah to die, and when she did, the impact was sharp. For months after, Grandpa remained morose and surly, moaning incessantly about what would become of him, what would become of the farm. His despondency wore on my mother's conscience. She agreed to stay nearby for a while, but reiterated that eventually she and my dad would need to move on to a place with the kind of social opportunities she craved, a place where she could make some real money. Dad felt confident about a job transfer to Bloomington, and Mom often looked forward aloud to their new life in Brown County, a picturesque slice of the state that lured visitors with its rolling hills and startling foliage.
But, somehow, there they were, all those years later, in the small town they had both grown up in. My dad had essentially become a full-fledged hobby farmer and the only home I had ever known was this farm, where just a driveway separated us from Grandpa. Fifteen years after she witnessed her mother succumb to cancer, Mom prepared to watch her father slip away.
It was a Saturday in March when the blood suddenly stopped flowing to my grandfather's heart, triggering massive kidney failure. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors stabilized him but informed my parents the end was near. My grandfather seemed to will himself better then, or at least better enough to be released so that he could die at home. Against my father's wishes (ever practical, my father thought it an appropriate time for hospice), but with my mother's blessing, Grandpa returned to the limestone farmhouse. He was perched in the living room one day when I came in from school. Mute with pain, he leaned back against the rented medical recliner and stared at the ceiling like he was trying to think of a word he had forgotten. My eleven-year-old body recoiled in fear of his unrecognizable form.
For the next few days, my parents assigned me to rounds of supervision when they couldn't be in the house. Midweek, I was instructed to sit with Grandpa while Mom worked and Dad tended the farm. By now, Grandpa was stationed in the back bedroom, the one that would become mine, in a rented hospital bed. Mom had dressed him in a red sweat suit; the activewear wilted on his dying body. I read a book aloud to fill the silence.
"I'm hot," he suddenly said, interrupting my dutiful recitation, tugging at his sweatshirt. I put my book down slowly and glanced through the door in the direction of the living room. There was no backup in sight.
"Grandpa, I know. But just leave that on, okay?" I knew that just as soon as he would take it off he'd be too cold, clutching for the balled-up comforter at his feet.
"I'm too damn hot!" he said louder, this time yanking the bottom edge of his sweatshirt up to his chin, his pale, skinny belly exposed.
"Grandpa, please don't. Mom and Dad said—" I stood up and put my hands near his chest, but I didn't know quite where to place them. It seemed wrong to work against the last gusts of his energy. I watched as his ragged face emerged from the inside-out ribs of the crewneck.
"Axton! Why did you let him take off his shirt?" Dad was suddenly behind me.
"I tried to stop him! He said he was hot!" I said, hands up in defense.
"George, I know you're hot." My dad's voice was void of patience. He pushed past me gently, picked up the damp sweatshirt, and began to fold it. "You hungry? The doctor said you can have anything you want. What'll it be?"
"Sherbet and Old Milwaukee" was my grandfather's immediate answer.
Without a word, I walked to the kitchen to grab a beer.
* * *
Grandpa slipped into a coma two days later. On Saturday, Mom was home from work, marching in and out of the back bedroom like a palace guard, every fifteen minutes on the dot. I had been outside with Dad feeding the animals, but came in to get a Coke from Grandpa's harvest-gold side-by-side refrigerator. Suddenly my mom screamed from the back bedroom.
"Axton! Get your dad! Grandpa's not breathing!"
My feet were already moving when I processed what Mom was saying. I shoved shoulder-first through the brown storm door and into the fading afternoon toward the barn. Dad wasn't far; one loud bellow was all it took.
Back inside, I arranged myself on the orange, flower-print La-Z-Boy like a doll on a shelf, my back straight and my hands on my knees. The moment felt enormous. I didn't have to strain to hear Dad consoling Mom, who was making noises I'd never heard her make.
They emerged from the back bedroom together, my father's arms around Mom's shoulders as he led her slowly into the living room. Her face was shiny with tears and her chest was jerking in sharp and sudden heaves.
"He's gone," my dad said to me, placing Mom onto the couch.
"Go say goodbye, Axton," Mom said between sobs.
As I stood up, my parents didn't move; I realized they wanted me to go in there alone. I walked down the short hall, my breath evading me. I didn't want to cry in front of my grandfather—he was always so analytical, so convinced that everything could be handled with reason—but I couldn't help it. There was only one overhead light shining in his bedroom, and below it, Grandpa looked fast asleep.
I stood next to his bed for a while. I studied the trophy he kept on his dresser: a miniature golden boy frozen in mid-layup above the words Portland High School, Sectional Champions, 1926. Grandpa had been a sophomore on the team. He went on to play in college, before the Depression cost him his basketball scholarship.
"I'm gonna do so much with my life, Grandpa," I said, suddenly full-on sobbing. "I'm gonna try out for the sixth-grade basketball team, I promise."
I don't remember what else I said or tried to say, only that I wished he would wake up and ask me to pass the remote. Soon, the funeral home would arrive and wheel my grandfather past us in a thick, black body bag, just like in the movies.
My mother was inconsolable.
* * *
"Wear the dress, Axton!"
"Mom! It's so ugly! I'm not wearing it."
"Axton, you will wear the dress!"
This dispute had been going on for nearly an hour. Dad had long since excused himself to find something to do out in the barn.
"Greg and Kathy spent good money on that dress, and you're going to wear it."
"Grandpa would have wanted me to be comfortable," I howled, absolutely convinced that it was true. Grandpa was a terrible dresser, regularly mixing plaids and stripes. He didn't care. He knew what really mattered.
I had worn the dress, a light blue floral number with a white collar to match the white faux-leather shoes it came with, to my baptism just a week prior. Greg and Kathy, my mom and dad's friends who were now my godparents, gifted it to me for the event. I liked Greg and Kathy—they owned the skating rink in Winchester where I spent most of my free time—but in my mind, my baptism was to be the first and the last time I donned that awful thing. The pattern looked like an old couch and the shoes squeaked like dog toys when I walked.
"Everyone is going to be there this afternoon," she retorted. "They expect you to look good." In the days since Grandpa died, Mom's few soft edges had sharpened. She seemed only to be either crying or yelling. With her father gone, she was a child without supervision. It was like her rope to harbor had snapped, and now she was adrift and flailing.
In the end, I wore a white dress shirt and black plaid slacks to Grandpa's funeral. I'm not sure I looked pretty like Mom wanted but I felt more like myself. When we arrived at the funeral home, I fought my way through a jungle of pantyhose and polyester suit legs to find my friend from the skating rink, Carrie. Together we explored the alcoves of the funeral home, eventually roosting in the powder room. We sat on the pink padded stools, under the bright glow of the vanity lights, looking at each other in the mirror. We talked about school and the skating rink. I appreciated that Carrie didn't ask me anything about Grandpa, about his body or how he died in what was going to be my new bedroom.
Suddenly, the echoes of my mother's laughter enveloped us. Her cackling seemed to bounce from wall to wall, rising well above the steady din of the crowd. I looked with wide eyes at Carrie, who was already looking at me. We wordlessly slid off our stools and crept down the hallway to see what was so hysterical.
I zeroed in on her, standing in the front of the room with an old friend. Like a street performer, she moved her arms in exaggerated gestures and maintained an unnaturally large smile. Every few beats she threw her head back and unleashed another terrible guffaw.
Directly behind her, my grandfather lay in his casket, his face rose-touched and rubbery.
"What do you think is wrong with my mom?" I asked Carrie.
Carrie offered a sincere shrug.
Whatever was wrong with my mom continued throughout the day, after the service and back at the house, where we hosted everyone for dinner. She didn't return to her normal self until the last guest had left, late in the evening. Then she slid out of her heels and onto the couch, where she would stay for the next six months.
Out in the yard, the satellite dish turned and searched the empty night sky for the Home Shopping Network.
I GREW UP IN JAY COUNTY, Indiana, on the flat eastern edge of the state, a place where livestock easily outnumber people, and time is measured in crop cycles and church calendars. There isn't a lot of money in Jay County, and most folks there lived modestly, including us. My grandfather's one-hundred-acre farm was by far the most valuable asset in the family. It sat seven miles south of the city of Portland, a small enclave of about six thousand people, with a low-slung courthouse and town square, where we would go to the post office and get books from the library, where we would pick up a bucket of Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken for special family dinners.
Family dinners were actually a rare event for us. Mom was never a cook, Dad was so busy, and neither was particularly close with their siblings. But sometimes, Grandpa would give Mom a twenty-dollar bill and instruct her to go get us some fried chicken. He didn't have to explain anymore that "a bucket of fried chicken" also meant fries from McDonald's and, since Mom was already there, a hamburger for Sassy the poodle. McDonald's hamburgers were Sassy's favorite. Then we'd gather around Grandpa's table for our greasy feast, eating our chicken off old yellow plates stamped with red roosters.
Other nights Dad and I would forage in the garden, choosing a random assortment of ripe vegetables and bringing them back to our small kitchen in the mobile home. I would wash our haul and Dad would do the chopping. Without prejudice, we'd mix everything together in one large pot with butter, pepper, salt, and garlic. I thought this method of preparation was quite fun; Mom thought it was gross. She never joined us for our one-pot meals.
But Mom was like that. She didn't go in for the farm stuff. She had, after all, never meant to come back here, to this land where she grew up, her bedroom window facing the same ash tree she used to play beneath. In a way, she had been an only child like me. Her half brothers were well into their teenage years when she was born, so she had grown up enjoying the undivided attention of her parents, and, when it behooved her, their inattention, too. By the time I was born, Uncles Mike and Larry didn't come around much anymore, except on Christmas and Easter. Grandpa Elliott had been the only father they'd ever known, but once their mother died, the already loose family bond seemed to slacken even more.
Back then, I was too preoccupied with my 4-H projects to lament my lack of cousins. I was also studying the anatomy of farm animals for my first 4-H competition. I had been waiting to join 4-H, the nationwide youth program that encourages agriculture-based service learning, practically my whole life, it seemed, or at least as long as I had been going to the county fair. Watching the older kids with their goats and chickens stirred something deep within me. Dad had been in FFA, and when I turned ten—at last eligible for 4-H—he helped me acquire bantam chickens (known as miniature chickens to anyone not brought up on a farm) to raise and show at my first 4-H fair. The months of feeding, caring for, and getting to know my chickens were as exciting as I had always known they would be. I felt completely at home in the barn. I still do.
And yet, anxiety sat like heavy stones in my belly on the way to the fair. Looking over at me sympathetically from the driver's side, Dad tried to ease my nerves.
"Don't expect to win," he instructed. "This is just your first year. This is just practice. You're here to learn."
I nodded. But I wasn't nervous about winning or losing, simply getting through it. What if the judges asked me questions I didn't know the answers to? What if my rooster got spooked and flopped me? What if I tripped in front of everybody?
With my expectations so low, I was at a loss when, hours later, a judge placed the junior showmanship trophy on top of my rooster's cage. Befuddled, I turned to my father, who stood just behind me.
"Does he mean me?" I asked, pointing to myself. My father smiled proudly and nodded yes. It was the best day of my young life.
Except for one thing. Grandpa wasn't there. Lacking the stamina to stand in the poultry barn for hours at time, he had wished me luck that morning from his recliner. I couldn't wait to get home and wow him with my trophies and the slew of ribbons I ended up winning for my chickens. When we passed his truck going the other way on our ride home, I was deflated. He and Sassy were making their daily trip into town and I'd have to wait awhile to show him my winnings. But Dad had a plan.
"Why don't we go into the house and spread out all your ribbons and trophies on the table?" he said with a coy smile.
So we snuck into Grandpa's house and turned his kitchen into my personal trophy case. When he walked in through the garage door an hour later, Sassy under his arm, I was there waiting. He froze in the doorway. A rare smile bloomed across his face.
"Well? Tell me all about it!" Grandpa said, as if he wasn't even surprised at all.
Mom was happy for me, too, but she didn't wholly approve of 4-H. She said it was "full of cheats and liars" after a controversy involving a sheep and some ice cubes a couple of years back. Small-town life was like that—gossip and grudges—but I for one wasn't going to let it get in the way of something I was good at. As the only kid at home, and not exactly a social butterfly at school, 4-H made me feel as if I was a part of something, and I liked that.
In so many ways, I was luckier than a lot of the kids in Jay County, who waited for the bus in front of ramshackle, run-down houses. But I felt different from them, too, like my family didn't quite belong. Maybe it was because we didn't have big Sunday dinners, as was so common among my classmates. Maybe it was because our family was fragmented, its history, I was learning, brimming with divorces and abusive relationships. Or that we didn't technically belong to a church until my mother decided she wanted me baptized. Maybe it was because my mom refused to act like everybody else's, that after one year of being a homeroom mother, she wasn't invited back. Whatever it was that set us apart, I felt it even more intensely after Grandpa died. And when Mom got depressed, our already unconventional system—unmoored from the pillars that seemed to stabilize all the other families around us—seemed precariously close to collapse.
I KEPT WAITING FOR THINGS to go back to the way they were. I kept waiting for a bucket-of-chicken night or an afternoon at the skating rink. As we slowly transferred our things from the mobile home to Grandpa's house, I yearned for a sign that, at some point, we would be us again.
But every afternoon when I came in the front door, still wearing my backpack, I would find her there, zoned out in front of the TV on Grandpa's old Halloween-colored couch. Usually the phone had been moved from the yellow Formica bar that separated the living room and kitchen to the seat next to Mom. Sometimes she would be on it when I came inside. As I spread out my homework on the floor of my new bedroom, my 4-H ribbons tacked up across the walls, I would listen to her politely request the color earrings she wanted, the length of the necklace.
She called it "cheap, chunky jewelry." It was chunky—shiny and hollow like Christmas tree ornaments—but I wasn't sure how cheap it could be considering how much of it she bought. When we did leave the house for church or to shop, she would show it off to her friends. "Look at my new ring," she would say, momentarily reanimated by someone's attention. In those moments, I always felt surprised to learn that the purpose of these flashy things was not for her to look good but to be looked at.
No one ever taught me to worry about money, but I did anyway, and from a very early age. My parents deliberated often and openly about what and what not to spend money on, and they spoke in hushed tones about their financial anxieties—the normal, middle-class calculus of getting by—when they thought I couldn't hear. It seemed obvious that we were better off than most of the kids I went to school with, but in Jay County, that didn't mean much. And I knew for sure that we didn't have the kind of money for all that pointless jewelry.
Those afternoons stretched on across seasons. Summer turned to autumn, and Mom was still making calls, reciting our address and credit card number like multiplication tables. She started sending me across the busy highway we lived on to retrieve the packages, and recruited me to help clean up the wrapping a few minutes before Dad was due home from his shift at the grocery. Only then would she get off the couch to make herself busy elsewhere, returning the phone to its position on the counter.
"I don't think you should buy any more jewelry, Mom," I told her one afternoon, finding my courage.
"Oh, Axton. It's just chintzy stuff. It's not hurting anyone," she said dismissively, lit up by the glow of the TV.
A few days later, I found another package stuffed in the mailbox. When I delivered it to Mom on the couch, she stiffened with glee, insisting that I open this one. Inside, there were two identical gold rings, a roaring lion balanced on each. The lions' heads were studded with little fake rubies. They looked like bedazzled door knockers. One was for me, she said, and watched with a smile as I pushed the cat by his ears down my skinny finger.
I was glad to see her happy, but my complicity in her new hobby didn't make me feel special the way fetching Grandpa's beer had.
* * *
My mother was in business for herself back then. She worked as a tax and payroll preparer for people and local businesses in the area. Prior to that she had been working for an insurance office when her boss told her that she was savvy enough and ought to start her own business. Mom was never one to ignore a compliment.
- "Reads like a grim folk tale...intimate and engrossing."—The New York Times
- "The air of menace is palpable...A deeply compelling story of a crime that hit close to home."—NPR
- "The tension of a thriller...[and] jaw dropping revelations. Astonishing and disturbing, this emotionally resonant book is perfect for true crime fans."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "This memoir has all the suspense and twists of a thriller; even as readers begin to suspect the truth, it still shocks...highly recommended."—Booklist
"Betz-Hamilton expertly blends true crime and memoir in this tale of family, lies, and identity...a brave, candid examination of her painful past [and] a poignant and fascinating exploration of identity theft."
- "'Identity theft' sounds like something that happens far, far away and only to other people...certainly not within a seemingly picture-perfect family in the rural U.S. In a gut-wrenching portrayal of victimization starting at age 11, Axton Betz-Hamilton shows that's simply not true. The stunning revelations will keep you looking over your shoulder for a long time and even more troubling...at the ones you think you know the best!"—Nancy Grace, legal commentator, broadcast journalist, and New York Times bestselling author of The Eleventh Victim
- "Axton Betz-Hamilton's story is remarkable. One of the primary challenges for those of us advocating for more rights and resources for identity theft victims is their reluctance to share their experience. Betz-Hamilton writes with candor and grace about both her relationship with her mother/perpetrator, and the long term effect victimization has had on her life."—EvaCasey Velasquez, president/CEO of Identity Theft Resource Center
- "A brave, rueful memoir of fear and heartbreak in rural America. Axton Betz-Hamilton mines the most essential of life's questions: can we ever really know the people we love? The Less People Know About Us is an unflinching portrait of grit and determination in the wake of a fractured childhood and complicated grief."—Carolyn Murnick, author of The Hot One
- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2019
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing