When Axton Betz was 12, her father stopped getting his issues of The Brayer.
She and her parents lived on an Indiana farm, distant from almost everything; her mother's passion was the home shopping network, and her father's passion was raising donkeys. Those magazines were his professional favorite. Axton pointed out that her pen-pal letters had also gone astray, and the family agreed how strange it was that someone would take that kind of thing.
But someone had definitely taken them. And for the next 20 years, they didn't stop.
Sometimes, the things that most influenced someone's childhood are shrouded in mystery, leaving us to wonder for awhile. Other times, their book-cover bio mentions a "PhD in human development and family studies, focusing on child identity theft and elder financial exploitation perpetrated by family members," and removes all doubt.
The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity is a memoir by way of a true-crime story. For Axton Betz-Hamilton, this identity theft her family experienced when she was a child reshaped her personality, her relationships, and the way she experienced the world — a theft from which she never really recovered.
There's a strange narrative tension in a true-crime story being told by someone who experienced the crime. (When discussing identity-theft laws, Betz-Hamilton talks about her ambivalence about the term "victim" — it codifies that a crime has been committed, but does so with a label that sounds powerless.) We understand immediately that such stories aren't here to reconstruct the crime so much as they are to take you through the visceral experience of the crime itself.
Betz-Hamilton dutifully lays out just how damaging it was. Their phone got cut off, which isolated them even further in a small town where neighbors were few and far between. Never very popular in school ("I was a bully's dream," she notes), it hardly seemed strange to avoid making friends. It made sense, when money was so tight, to try to get by without meals. It made sense to keep the curtains closed, and never to answer the door. And given the troubled family history she lays out, it only made sense for them to distance themselves. After all, who could be trusted?
The trauma casts such a long shadow that things which might preoccupy another memoir are only footnotes here. (Her high-pressure Baptist private school hardly registers against the increasingly high-stakes game playing out at home.) Betz-Hamilton details the hard work of trying to move on, even when the criminals follow you everywhere from credit score to social habits. But things at home never got better — her parents were "never quite able to regain the control of their lives that had disappeared with the donkey magazines."
Betz-Hamilton deliberately focused her studies on identity theft, becoming an expert in a burgeoning subject, always with the hope that one day she'd find out who had managed to so wholly destabilize her family. When she finally discovers the culprit, it turns out to be only the beginning of a long, painful process to assemble all the pieces of her past.
It's a briskly-written book; the air of menace is palpable — and occasionally so effective that Betz-Hamilton seems to recede from her own narrative, bursts of visceral motion overshadowed by long periods of passive action narrated through a fog of dread. But then again, that's part of the point; how do you — how can you — put aside something that followed you for so many years? The mystery of that childhood identity theft — interwoven with her understated coming-of-age and some family truths — is a deeply compelling story of a crime that hit close to home.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.