Interview with Julie L. Belshe and Gretchen Rachel Hammond

Julie L. Belshe and Gretchen Rachel Hammond are the authors of American Unpeople: A Daughter's Impossible Fight to Free Her Parents from The United States.

Interview with Julie L. Belshe

How did you become a writer?

When I was a kid, my dad kept a huge Webster’s dictionary on a podium in his den. I mean the thing was taller than me and I couldn’t lift the book if I had superhuman strength. Nevertheless, my siblings and I had to learn ten new words a week. Words grew on me and I started a journal to find connections with the people around me and my own experiences. Like many of us, it grew into an outlet and after, my parents were taken in 2013, it was the only place I could scream.

What inspires you to write?

Simply put, I want to help people understand that what happened to my parents could happen to any of us so that nobody has to go through the trauma that my family experienced. The issue of the judicial abuse of our parents and grandparents is something that needs a bright light and must be faced head on or, one day, it could be me or you who have no rights and no voice.

Could you share some of your challenges as a writer?

My present project American Unpeople is something few imagine can happen or that is happening in America today. Even the many reporters I spoke with, at first, could not believe it until they found out for themselves and they all had the same reaction: “This is something you couldn’t even make up!” Ensuring that people know it is not made up and articulating my experiences in a way that people can relate to when, before it happened to me, there was no way I could have related to it myself, is the challenge here.

What are your current/future projects?

After American Unpeople is released, I want to write a follow-up book with stories from families going through the same thing all across the country. The book will also focus upon how my family and I faced the aftermath of an unimaginable trauma and coming to terms with the knowledge that the America we were taught to believe in was a lie, the reality of which has shattered every area of our lives.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Never keep your experiences to yourself, no matter how private or against societal grain they may be. You never know who you could help, and I’ve found that doing so is the best therapy.

What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with you?

Email me at julie@kasemcares.com

Biography

Before professional guardian April Parks kidnapped her parents, Julie was a homemaker raising three kids. After Julie’s fight to free her parents became national news. Casey Kasem’s daughter Kerri, hired her as an advocate at the Kasem Cares Foundation. Today, she is an internationally recognized activist committed to restoring freedom to Americans like her parents and exposing the system that ripped it away. Julie lives in Las Vegas with her husband Scott and dad Rudy.

Interview with Gretchen Rachel Hammond

How did you become a writer?

Quite by disenchantment. I was a fundraiser for nonprofits—a career that’s fed purely by idealism. After I discovered that one of them had been engaged in unethical behavior, my rose-tinted glasses turned grey and I left the profession entirely. The editor of a Chicago LGBTQ newspaper hired me as a reporter and I discovered I had both a knack for it and an unyielding love of investigative journalism. You start out with a lead, a hunch and a canvas charred in obscurity. Each time you scrape and reveal a tiny piece of the picture underneath, there’s a rush that reaches ecstatic’s highest point. If your end result is the catalyst for change, particularly if it concerns righting an injustice, it’s better than a paycheck and the most prestigious award. So, I am still fed by idealism, I wrap myself up in like a blanket and, even when I’m writing satire or a simple feature story, it permeates everything I do.

What inspires you to write?

People. I have hundreds of hours of stories I’ve kept on multiple digital recorders. These are people that we pass by in a single moment, block or swipe left without more than a millisecond’s thought, but I could write volumes about them. The trans woman of color, who I visited in jail every day she was held there without a trial for an act of self-defense, the man who spent his childhood in a Japanese internment camp, the gay couple whose love not even Alzheimer’s could separate, the woman whose father survived a Nazi concentration camp only to be forcibly imprisoned in a locked down dementia ward even though he showed no sign of it, the small group fighting against systemic injustice in Michigan, they and so many more like them, have all been my teachers. The world they opened up is riveting, heartbreaking, joyous, maddening and inspiring. Without them, both it and my work would be infinitesimal, and my perception reduced to nothing.

Could you share some of your challenges as a writer?

Maintaining objectivity is always difficult. In 2019, I ran an investigation into a massive elder abuse and exploitation scheme allegedly run out of a Detroit-area probate court with thousands of victims, all vulnerable, disabled, elderly and without a voice. My team and I discovered instances in which victims, robbed of each of their constitutional and civil rights and placed under the control of a stranger, were forced into a series of unlicensed group homes with living conditions that were just subhuman. In one home, over Thanksgiving, we found three elderly women. Two days earlier, the group home owners had left for the holidays and padlocked the refrigerator doors shut. One of the women, a 64-year-old named Carolyn, took my hands and, sobbing, begged “Get me the hell out of here!” It ripped away at my soul. There was nothing I could do for her. The man who placed Carolyn there was given authority by a judge. The “Mr. Spock” veneer that was drummed into me by accepted professional standards evaporated and I cried with Carolyn and for weeks afterwards. Her agonized voice haunts me to this day. When it came to writing her story, I had to fight for a dispassionate narrative and there were times I failed miserably. Luckily, I had an editor who helped suppress the emotion but, my God, it is difficult to watch human suffering and not react. Honestly, though, I hope that day never comes.

What are your current/future projects?

Currently, I’m working with Julie Belshe on the book American Unpeople: A Daughter’s Impossible Fight to Free her Parents from The United States. It is the true story of Rudy and Rennie North, a Las Vegas couple who were seized from their home by a woman acting under the authority of a judge, forcibly imprisoned, isolated, and robbed of every penny and all of their belongings. Julie fought for six years to free them and for justice. It upends every belief, certainly I had, concerning my constitutional rights, independence, and freedom as an American.

Presently brewing into an outline is Happening Now on Devon Street, a not-at all-love letter to cable news.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?

I lost a lot of time running away from myself. Too much in fact. It led me from England to the US and multiple cities, to become an actor as a form of escape and to failed marriages because they were less about love and more about trying to fit into social norms. It was only when I turned 40 and so faced and accepted myself, that life changed for the better. It’s still not without its problems but at least I take them on as a whole, rather than separate person, one hidden and one too terrified to allow her to live in society. If I could by go back in time, I would have let Gretchen live, the minute I discovered who she was. I missed out on half my life without her.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

I don’t love that dress. I don’t love some bizarre concoction a Chopped chef made out of an octopus testicle and an old gym shoe. I don’t believe love makes a Subaru. Robots and members of the UAW do. In short, I don’t ever use the word “love” unless I genuinely feel it.

The same goes for its opposite. I hate Twitter. I hate Twitter with a passion. But then, the whole platform is built and thrives on pure, liquid hate and is responsible for innumerable disfigurements of society. It has reduced cogent arguments to vitriolic attacks via 280 characters, a hashtag, meme, or GIF. It has bred legions of bullies who live only to rip apart their fellow human being, forged a chasm between us, as we are separated into increasingly extremist political sides, and led to our value in society as a whole to be measured by our number of followers. Worst of all, people now exist in silos despite our commonalities. Chief among them is that everyone has a story to tell or one worth telling. You just have to listen to them. There are reporters who make a living writing 400 words on “Crap people tweet about.” They are missing out and missing the point of being a journalist. Unless we see and know each other, our work becomes solely rooted in personal experience and so limits our available material, dimensions, and worldview to no more than 280 characters.

So, do yourself a favor. Buy a digital recorder, the best $20 you’ll ever spend, go outside your circle of friends and family, ask perfect strangers if you can tell their story, sit down with them and listen. I know we have to be on Twitter to build a platform but, frankly, I think there’s more to savor, more to learn, more inherent joy and more genuine love in being a narrator of humanity rather than an influencer of it.

What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with you?

Via my website at www.gretchenrachelhammond.com.

Biography

Gretchen is a Chicago-based, multi-award winning investigative journalist whose exposes secured the release of a transgender woman jailed for four years without a trial and caused the Michigan Attorney General to form a Taskforce focused on reforming the treatment of the state’s vulnerable. Her donation of a kidney to one of the readers of her newspaper and reporting on the removal of three Jewish women from a Chicago pride parade garnered international recognition.

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