I hate identity-fraud stories. A $2 charge at a gas station, then a bunch of online purchases? And your credit-card company, which covered the charges, won’t give you any information about the case? No need! I can conjure images of a bored Russian sitting at a crappy computer café, trying hundreds of credit-card numbers he bought for $5 apiece on the Dark Web. There’s a reason the only attempt at an identity-theft movie starred Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman and you still didn’t see it. (I saw it and liked it.)
Luckily, The Less People Know About Us is not really an identity-fraud story. Sure, the author, Axton Betz-Hamilton, is an assistant professor at South Dakota State University who studies identity theft. And, sure, she and her parents had their financial lives ruined by identity theft. But this is actually a story of a miserable childhood. Of an insulated life in 1990s rural Indiana. Of a woman, Axton’s mom, who is so unpredictable, unconventional, and unknowable that I want Melissa McCarthy to give an identity-fraud movie another chance.
Nose for Crime
A depressed, home-shopping, television-addicted, brilliant young woman with little interest in motherhood, Pam Betz yearns for a bigger life. But she’s trapped. Then one day a spooky identity thief (How does this person know so much about their lives?) causes so much havoc that the electricity and phone are shut off, delinquency notices arrive on a property they don’t own, and cops show up to arrest her for forged checks. Soon there are bills for things they didn’t buy and there’s not enough money for food, and Axton goes without lunches at school. Fear leads Pam to make her family’s life as small as possible, in order to keep out the unknown enemy. Drapes are always closed. Friends and relatives become suspects. They sell their family farm and move to another address.
Axton is trained to listen for cars passing by as she does her homework; if one slows down by her house, she’s supposed to alert her parents. One day her grandfather—living in the single-wide trailer on the property where her own family resided until her other grandfather died and left them the main house—invites a plumber over to fix some pipes. Axton, who distrusts the police after years of their not helping with the identity thief, grabs a huge knife, yells, “Get the fuck outta here!,” and chases him off the property. Afterward, her dad tells her he’s proud of her. “Mom laughed, too, when she came home. As if chasing would-be intruders away at knifepoint was just a cute part of growing up,” she writes.
To keep out the unknown enemy,
drapes are always closed. Friends and relatives become suspects.
Mine was a happy childhood, so my desire to read about other peoples’ miserable ones makes me a jerk. But the small-town Indiana in Betz-Hamilton’s detail-saturated account is as foreign to me as Afghanistan is. Once, on a day trip, her dad, a hay farmer, gets intrigued by a sign that says, Donkey Show, which leads the family to a totally G-rated donkey show; he then goes home and raises 47 donkeys, calling his hobby Up to Our Asses Donkey and Mule Farm. The first sign of identity fraud comes when his subscription to The Brayer magazine doesn’t arrive, and they suspect their mail is not being delivered. People in the book say things such as “She didn’t know shit from apple butter.” In a throwaway line, Axton reveals she was named after Afton Cooper, the avaricious lounge singer from the TV show Dallas. Axton named after an Afton? Don’t ask.
The big twist in the story is telegraphed so early that you wonder which reader doesn’t see it. But it still leads you to ask questions, some of which Axton can’t answer. She also includes photos of herself and her family, and their mundane, generic, Midwestern Americanness—all offices, dogs, Christmas trees, and rocking chairs on porches—makes the story even creepier. It’s a Black Mirror episode about greed, fear, betrayal, sex, and self-creation.
After reading The Less People Know About Us, I got a password manager for all my accounts. Thank you for that, Axton Betz-Hamilton.
Joel Stein is the author of In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better than You and You Are Better than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book