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Mar 17

Is Frank Abagnale Still Conning Us?

Frank AbagnaleIf you know the name Frank Abagnale, it is probably from the film Catch Me If You Can or his autobiography of the same name. He’s one of those colorful characters that we Americans love. And as portrayed in the film, what’s not to like? It is the only movie in which I’ve actually liked Leonardo DiCaprio. In the film, Abagnale seems immature and lost and very much alone. We can forgive him for his trespasses. The real Abagnale is not so lovable. The thing you should know about him is that he’s a con man.

Abagnale started off defrauding his father and then worked his way into check fraud. Far from being immature, he managed to pull off many of his cons because he was large and looked old for his age. He ripped off a lot of people over the course of his criminal career. Hooray! But he is best known for having impersonated airline pilots, doctors, and lawyers. The problem is that there is very little documentation of many of his exploits. The primary documentation is from Frank Abagnale himself — a con man.

I remember watching some feature about the making of the film Catch Me If You Can. In it, someone mentioned how when Abagnale was on the set, he was the center of attention with everyone hanging on every word of his stories. And that makes sense because being charismatic and a good storyteller are critical to the con artist. So I wonder just what we are to make of Frank Abagnale. I tend to think that his story is not one of redemption, but rather just the extended story of a con artist who found a better way to pitch his con.

In 2002, Abagnale released a statement on his website claiming that his book was never meant to be an accurate autobiography. It was just his ghostwriter who “over dramatized and exaggerated some of the story.” He’s not willing to come out and say what is exaggerated. Instead, he immediately discussed some matters of fact that have nothing to do with the allegations people have made against him. In other words: he used the standard con man’s trick of misdirection.

Another aspect of Abagnale is the white privilege that he demonstrates. In his statement, he wrote:

In the U.S Federal Court, I was sentenced as a youthful offender because of my age at the time the crimes were committed. Even so, I was given 12 years of which I served a total of five years. This was considered harsh punishment then and almost unheard of today.

Not really. Just a week before he made his statement, Texas executed a young man for a murder he committed as a minor. But the truth is that after getting out of jail, far from suffering for the rest of his life under a felony conviction, Abagnale was able to use his criminal past to his benefit. I just don’t see that happening for him if he had been black or brown. Of course, his original crimes were likely only possible because he was white.

I have no doubt that Abagnale is a brilliant man. And I don’t begrudge him his life and his $10 million net worth. But it does bother me that he is held up as a hero. It’s very much like Jack Abramoff, but over a very long time. And no one ever mistook Abramoff for someone interesting. At least Abagnale — regardless of how much of a liar he may be — has interesting stories to tell.

4 comments

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  1. Emerson Aarnio

    I could not agree more with this assessment of Frank Abagnale. I just finished his book Catch Me If You Can and after the first fifty pages, I was sure that I was being conned as well. The story reads like a young James Bond story that is just too perfect and absurdly ridiculous to believe. He jumps from one amazing story to the next while seducing lovely women in exotic locales and reeling in scammed money that in today’s monetary value would be the equivalent of several million dollars a year. After finishing this glossy work of fiction, I searched for some verification or validation of his escapades and there was none to be found. One example was his claim of escaping through the toilet of a large jet after touching down in NY. You would think that this would have made for paper selling headlines at the time, but I found no news reports of this dozy of a tale when searching headlines from major newspapers of the time. Most all of the articles written about Frank are swooning puff pieces that don’t question any of his exploits.
    I did enjoy the movie very much but to claim this as nonfiction and sell it as a biography, that is the true con.

    1. Frank Moraes

      Good for you for looking into the escape from the jet! I find it fascinating that his ability as a storyteller has made him pretty much immune to criticism. He is, after all, a con man. You would think that no one would believe anything he says. I guess people see him as a reformed sinner. But one thing that is common among reformed sinners is a tendency to embellish their past sins. (See, for example, people at AA meetings.) And this is assuming that Abagnale is reformed. I seriously doubt it. I think one can be a con man outside or inside the law. Once he was outside the law and now he’s inside it. But otherwise, I doubt much has changed.

    2. Kevin Nixon

      I reread the book recently and realized that most of it is pure fiction. It made me pretty angry that a publisher would pawn this off as an actual autobiography. I thought they were supposed to do fact-checking. I don’t believe most of it, including escaping from the jet. His description of the French prison in which he stayed is ludicrous. I don’t believe he was a lawyer either. All of this stuff would have been easy to verify, but nobody bothered.

      1. Frank Moraes

        I’m with you. But being a 3-decade veteran of the publishing industry (mostly print — so we can’t even blame the internet), the point of publishing is to make money. And Abagnale has admitted as much as he ever would that he lied in the book. It’s sad too, because I think he did live an interesting life. If he were a real writer (he’s not; the book was ghostwritten), he could have written a truthful book that would have been riveting. But the one thing I know about Abagnale is that he cares more about money than anything. And self-reflection is not something that he excels at. (He’s a con man; self-reflection is a hindrance in that field.) It’s too bad. I suspect a good biography could be written about him. I just wonder if the writer would get sued. It’s food for thought, because I think I could do it.

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