The Less People Know About Us
Secrets, finances, and fraud all unravel in the wake of a family death.
By October 29, 2019 - last reviewed on November 18, 2019published
In fifth grade, as my classmates chattered away about the new movie Jurassic Park, I had bigger things on my mind. My grandfather had just passed away, and we were moving into his house. At the same time, pieces of mail started to mysteriously disappear. First the electric bill didn’t show up. Then the phone bill went missing. Dad’s beloved copies of The Brayer and Mules and More magazines vanished. My friends asked if I had gotten their letters, but none had arrived.
Mom suspected that someone was stealing our mail to drive us out of my grandpa’s home because “people want this place.” Around the same time, our landline was shut off. Mom attributed this peculiarity to a neighbor’s son who worked for the phone company. The neighbor and my grandfather had had a heated dispute back in the ’80s, which made the son a prime suspect.
The phone wasn’t the only utility that was cut. One evening, I noticed a gas company vehicle parked in front of our house. A man in a gray uniform got out and walked toward the meter. I realized that meter-reading didn’t usually occur after business hours, and a jolt of adrenaline rushed through me.
I alerted Dad, and he quickly walked up the gravel driveway. I darted into my bedroom and peered through the crack in the drapes. From Dad’s body language, I knew something was wrong—his arms were crossed and his voice was loud, but I couldn’t hear specifics through the closed window. Eventually, Dad’s body language relaxed. They shook hands, and the man left.
When Dad came back in the house, he walked to the couch, where Mom was stationed in front of the TV. “They were here to shut off the gas for nonpayment for a property they claimed we owned in New Corydon!” We lived in southern Jay County, Indiana, and had no property in New Corydon, Indiana.
Mom began to worry that we were the victims of identity theft. She took the matter to the police but reported back that nothing could be done because of the way laws were written: Individuals couldn’t be victims of identity theft—that designation was reserved for defrauded banks.
The attacks continued. Mom and Dad believed the culprit was someone close to us, since he or she seemed to know every detail about our family, like Mom’s bank. My parents worried that the situation might escalate to physical violence, so new rules were enacted to protect me: If I was home alone, I was never to answer the door, even if I knew who was there. I was never to open the drapes. I was never to venture into the backyard alone, let alone the front yard. And I was never, ever to talk about the identity theft with anyone other than Mom or Dad because we didn’t want to inadvertently tip off the thief to what we knew. “The less people know about us, the better,” Mom declared. Dad parroted this truism often.
My ability to connect with the outside world rapidly diminished. I felt completely isolated. And the social scene at school was no better; I was more academically than athletically inclined and became a regular target for bullying. I worked hard to graduate early and was thrilled to enroll at Purdue University, a full two hours away from home, putting much-needed distance between me and my family’s problems.
College was a relief. I lived in the residence halls and studied agricultural communications, which combined my passions for animals and writing. I had finally escaped the identity theft and the lifestyle it had forced us to lead.
By the next summer, I secured a lease on an off-campus studio apartment. I called the electric company to set up service, and all was well until a letter arrived a few days later. Because of my credit score, I would need to pay a $100 deposit to establish service. This must be because I don’t have established credit, I thought. I requested a copy of my credit report, more out of curiosity than anything else.
Fall semester was in full swing by the time it arrived. As I stepped off the bus after a long day, I noticed the large manila envelope from the credit reporting agency sticking out of my mailbox. It must come with a lot of instructions, I thought. I opened the envelope and quickly learned that credit reports do not come with a lot of instructions. Rather, my report itself was 10 pages long, full of fraudulent credit card entries and associated collection agency filings. They dated back to 1993—the year my parents’ identities had first been stolen. My credit score was also enclosed: 380.
I burst into tears. I called Mom crying, “Why would anyone do this to me? I’ll never own a car, a house, nothing!” I was devastated to be unwittingly pulled back into the chaos of my childhood.
As I looked at the fraudulent charges, I thought, surely they’ll understand that I didn’t do this. I was just a kid. I located the customer service number for one of the credit card issuers, called it, and explained that this card was taken out by an identity thief and that our family had been targeted for years. The response I received was a slap in the face. “How do you expect us to believe that? Someone made two payments on the card and then stopped—identity thieves don’t do that. They run up credit cards and never make a payment on them.”
My frustration began to build. I kept being treated as though I were guilty—that I had run up these debts, that I was a deadbeat who didn’t pay my bills—but I wasn’t.
I channeled my frustration into my academic work. I enrolled in graduate school in a Consumer Sciences and Retailing program. I conducted research on identity theft in the hopes of helping others navigate the crime, increasing public awareness, and maybe even tracking down my own perpetrator along the way.
All the while, my family’s problems continued. They seemed to come in waves—a smattering of collection agency notices and phone calls for accounts that weren’t ours, for example, followed by weeks of silence.
I received my Ph.D. from Iowa State University on August 4, 2012—the same day Mom was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoblastic leukemia. The doctors told us that this type of cancer has an 80 percent survival rate, but Mom was one of the “other” 20 percent. She died six months later.
When she died, my internal world halted, but the external world kept going as usual: On the way home from the hospital, traffic lights changed from green to yellow to red. People waited in the drive-through at McDonald's. Postal workers walked along their routes. I was exhausted from three nights of fitful sleep in a dialysis chair by Mom’s hospital bed, waking up in tears each morning. Back at home, I took one of the anxiety pills I had been leaning on for the past few months and fell asleep in the spare bedroom, the one Mom moved into shortly after her diagnosis.
A couple of weeks after Mom died, Dad called me. He was livid. “What in the hell were you doing running a credit card over the limit in 2001?”
“I didn’t! What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you lie to me! I have the credit card statement right here in my hand!”
“What credit card statement?”
“Dad, that credit card was taken out in my name as part of the identity theft—how do you have that?”
“It’s here in a file of your mother’s, along with your birth certificate.”
At that moment, my blood ran cold. There was no reason my birth certificate should be in the same file as a credit card statement for an account opened by the identity thief. And I had my original birth certificate, so what birth certificate was in that file?
I’d found our culprit. A part of me hoped I was wrong, but deep down, I knew I wasn’t.
By the time I got back home, Dad had a mountain of papers piled up. The birth certificate he found was a certified copy issued on June 7, 2000. I wasn’t even living at home in June of 2000—I was taking summer classes in college. In the stack of papers there were denial letters for credit cards and bank accounts in both Mom’s name and Dad’s name—applications that Dad had known nothing about. There was a stack of recent paystubs in her maiden name, Pam Elliott, along with a variety of pawnshop receipts.
“Dad, Mom was the one who stole our identities. She’s the reason we’ve had to live the way we have.” I was caught between feeling triumphant—I’d solved our identity theft case after 20 years—and as if the ground was falling out from under me. I started to feel that everything I knew to be true about my life was a distortion at best, a lie at worst.
Mom spent most of her career in the financial services industry, as a tax preparer and then a stockbroker. Dad trusted her to take care of their taxes. When Mom died in February, Dad immediately concerned himself with finding a tax preparer. When he met with one, she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you; you haven’t paid taxes for the majority of the years since 2000.” We found correspondence between Mom and the IRS where she had defaulted on a payment plan for back taxes. We found a letter she received from the Indiana department of revenue, informing her of tax liens being placed on her and Dad’s vehicles due to unpaid state taxes. The more evidence we found, the more defeated Dad became. There seemed to be no end to Mom’s criminal activity.
I found out that she had purchased hotel rooms and booze, even though she didn’t drink. I logged into Mom’s Facebook account and discovered that she frequently talked about being engaged to another man. She had a boyfriend. I recoiled in horror.
As the reality set in that Mom was, indeed, our identity thief, Dad and I stopped grieving for her. In part, we were in survival mode trying to understand the disaster she created—and to clean it up. But we also realized we had no idea who this woman was. How can you grieve for someone whom you didn’t really know?
To try and understand who my mother was, I reached out to her friends through Facebook. A picture started to emerge of a woman who lied regularly, but with no clear rationale. One of Mom’s former friends said that Mom told her that Dad threw a “heavy ladle” at her one night and called her stupid. That never happened. Another friend said that Mom told her that Dad didn’t want Mom to have any friends. Another lie. Many people I talked to thought that she and Dad were divorced. One explained, “I think your mom was really sad, but I never understood why.”
Although the “why” behind the identity theft isn’t clear, a personality disorder may have been at play. More than two decades ago, the term multiple personality disorder fell out of favor for its connotation of separate and distinct identities existing in one person. Today, doctors call it dissociative identity disorder (DID) to better communicate how someone who suffers from the disease experiences the splintering of a single identity.
People with DID typically have a dominant, primary identity who is dependent, depressed, and guilt-ridden. The alternate iterations of their identity—often called alters—take on a completely different history, memory, and personality than the primary. The Pam Betz we knew was often couch-bound, prone to long spells of sadness and angst. The Pam Elliott her friends knew was spunky, generous, full of youthful energy. She had a starkly different backstory (her childless marriage, her abusive relationship, her divorce, and her new boyfriend) than my mother.
Like many emotional disturbances, this one generally develops during childhood, and may be triggered by severe trauma—often abuse. I have no evidence that my mother was abused as a child. What I do have are anecdotes about my grandmother’s icy nature, her compulsions and indiscretions. I know that she spent her husband’s money with a recklessness that bordered on spite and nearly drove him to bankruptcy. I know that my mom’s brother, my uncle Mike, would not speak about his childhood. I know that my mother became sexually active at 12 and was promiscuous her whole life, a common consequence of childhood sexual abuse. I know that my mother loathed the house she grew up in—the same one I grew up in. Dad says that after they sold the house, she seemed like a woman unburdened; I had noticed the change too. Did something happen to her there? Was her childhood home—like mine—a place of terror and isolation?
If she did suffer from the disease, her identity likely forked into the woman I now know her to have been. When an alter takes control of the primary, the disruption typically involves a drastic shift in one’s sense of self, sense of agency, and behavior. In studies conducted on those living with DID, more than one-third reported engaging in criminal activity when under the influence of their alter. Was my mother’s behavior her own conscious decision? Could she be held accountable if her actions were outside of her control?
Without her here, a diagnosis of DID is impossible. If I’m playing armchair psychiatrist, I’m more willing to diagnose my mother with psychopathy than anything else. She exhibited all the classic symptoms: lack of remorse, recklessness, irresponsibility, and the uncanny ability to lie. My mother was overconfident to the point of narcissism, compulsive, impulsive, and selfish. She was—and I am sure of this—incapable of love.
I haven’t fully processed everything she did. But I do feel cheated. I missed out on everyday Midwestern childhood activities because of how she mischaracterized our community. Things like Sunday dinners with family or chatting on the phone with friends were not a part of my life from age 11 onward.
Still, since discovering my mother’s duplicity, Dad and I have rekindled the close relationship we had when I was a child, which seemed to fall away in the chaos. We’ve also reached out to family and friends, the community Mom doggedly worked to disperse, gathering everyone together again.
Axton Betz-Hamilton, Ph.D., is an expert in identity theft and the author of the book The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets and Stolen Identity.