If 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:
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.