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Friday, June 10, 2011

Sociopath alert: Frank Abagnale.


You may remember the movie Catch Me if You Can, which was released in 2002. Frank Abagnale is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, then still in his teen heartthrob phase (Titanic had been made just five years before). His chief pursuer from the FBI is Tom Hanks, who gamely plays the role of an incurable square, a mere foil to the brilliance of Abagnale/DeCaprio.

Abagnale is portrayed as a charming con man, and we delight in his cleverness as he gets away with various impersonations and scams: how quick he is on his feet! How clever he is! What nerve! The movie allows us to experience the delight a sociopath takes in fooling others. (When a sociopath fools you, that "proves" to him that he is smarter than you; and when he fools the world, that proves he must be the smartest man in the world.) Abagnale's cons are portrayed as relatively harmless youthful pranks.

This is life inside a sociopath's head.

Abagnale would have to have been a sociopath in order to want to, and be able to, pull all his scams off. So he may be charming, but he's also incurably impulsive, completely narcissistic, and untrustworthy -- as are all sociopaths. And even if the movie makes him seem lovable, well, rest assured he would never return that feeling.

A quick look at the rest of Abagnale's (real, not cinematic) life reveals plenty of other hints to his sociopathy. His parents divorced when he was 16, and he was the only one of the four children to be remanded to the custody of his father. However, his father was also his first scam victim. According to Wikipedia, "As Frank Jr. grew interested in women, he found that he could not stop spending money on them." (What kind of person has so little self-control that he cannot stop spending money?) Frank was given a credit card from his father with which to buy gasoline, then entered into an arrangement with various gas stations to false charge him, then split the profits with him.

Anybody who would scam his own father like that must would have to have a very weak parental bond, always a likely signifier of sociopathy.

Abagnale went on to a prolific career as a check forger and impersonator. Among the roles he claims to have played are airline pilot, teaching assistant, doctor, and attorney. (Think of the potential damage he could have caused as a "pilot" or "doctor.")

Abagnale later escaped federal custody twice, once from an airplane.

On top of this, it turns out that he may not even have pulled off the cons he claimed to. A later investigation into the veracity of his claims turned up no proof that he did any of them. Abagnale claimed that no one was willing to admit it because of the embarrassment involved. But his glorious history of nervy impersonations is, at best, murky. Either way he is a sociopath. Had he the nerve and lack of compunction to pull off all his scams, he would have to be a sociopath. And if he is enough of a pathological liar to weave a past which is entirely fiction, that is also sociopathic. (The surest sign of sociopathy is to be a serial killer; the second surest is to be a "pathological liar.")

Since Abagnale got out of jail, he has gone legitimate, and is now a consultant on fraud for banks, and even consults with the FBI. This is the kind of "character arc" that Hollywood loves: ah, see, he really was a good person beneath it all!

However, while one may change one's occupation, one may not change one's psychology.

17 comments:

Diane said...

Absolutely. I thought the same thing. I spoke with some people about this movie recently and as usual people find excuses for this type of behavior other than sociopathy; 'he had such a tough childhood' bla bla. It doesnt matter, when you can scam people to that extent without having a hard time at one point emotionally dealing with it, youre a sociopath. Ofcourse in the movie Leo is made a more loving character for the viewers to get more attached to him...

John Craig said...

Diane --
You understand perfectly. And yes, people will always make excuses for a charmer. But that's part of a sociopath's stock in trade, as they tend to have a lot of charm.

What part of the world are you from that you're writing at 3:39AM NY time?

Anonymous said...

I knew this man personally. He didn't do any of it. He lifted his stories from The Great Imposter and what he didn't steal, he made up. Hard to believe no one has investigated it.

FAIIRPLAY said...

The problem with 'Con men and Con Women' is the heartless breach of trust they inflict on the bystander victims they come into contact with. For instance the hotel receptionist might be fired from her job for being gullible enough to cash a cheque for him. The Hospital Administrator might be dismissed for not checking his references or credentials closely. Many a small business owners business might fold by the losses he inflicted on them. In other words these people leave a trail of hurt and wounded pride and the loss of hard earned income or profits. A sociopath surely is nothing more than an heartless person, a lazy person, a bully, a person who wants everything to be easy, quick, fast and to hell with the tomorrow-land consequences they have to face. In jail I imagine they say to themselves "Well, it had to happen". But you know it didn't have to happen, these people choose to be criminals. The FBI had no right to consult with Abagnale, to speak to him, nor to use his alleged services. He's off limits for the rest of his life to them, to banks, to the Military or to any employer, and to those who work honestly. To use an old expression this man Abagnale criminal scum and to be cold shouldered for evermore.

John Craig said...

Fairplay --
You are completely right. I don't see any possible way Abagnale is not a sociopath, and as such, he should be isolated from the rest of society. At the very least he shouldn't be hired as a consultant to the FBI, banks, etc.

Anonymous said...

John Craig said...

"Abagnale is not a sociopath, and as such, he should be isolated from the rest of society."

What?! Or maybe he should have therapy and be fixed? Jesus Christ. A psychological problem now means exile and to be shunned? Are you serious?

John Craig said...

Anon --
W/hat I actually said was "I don't see any way Abagnale is not a sociopath, and as such...." which has an entirely different meaning.

And I did not say that any psychological problem should mean exile, even though you're trying to imply that I'm suggesting neurotics, phobics, schizophrenics, etc, should be exiled somehow.

But yes, in an ideal world, sociopaths would have to live with each other, and not have innocent people to prey on. And sociopaths, by the way, don't see themselves as having "a psychological problem." They see themselves as stronger and smarter than normal people, and above the rules that govern others. So, yes, I'd like to see them isolated, the same way murderers are. Now obviously, you can't convict someone if they haven't committed a crime; but all sociopaths leave a trail of bitter, disappointed people who end up feeling used at the hands of the sociopath.

Nice effort at trying to twist things around though. Do I miss my guess or are you a sociopath yourself? (Don't worry, I don't expect you to answer honestly.)

Anonymous said...

the psychopathic description sounds very familiar to our current political arena, and explains a lot of behavior there in.

John Craig said...

Anon --
YES!

Anonymous said...

You guys are going crazy.

For starters, sociopaths aren't all violent or criminals. They have a tendency towards the same, but that does not mean it is a certainty. In fact, the vast majority of sociopaths live among us virtually undetected. This may make you feel uncomfortable, but I can think of a list of even worse traits in humans that do not technically break the law [and are therefore permissable, if not socially acceptable].

In any case, Frank Abagnale Jr. is clearly a Grade A b|▬|▬|▬|▬|▬|▬|tter. Investigations on his life have turned up virtually NO evidence of his [elaborate] crimes. We essentially have to take his word for it.

Some of the stuff he talks about when dealing with current modern electronic security are clearly misinformed. I am not surprised he claims to be an "expert", and the FBI/national security folks just follow everything he says. As someone familiar with electronic security and computers in general, I have heard Frank talk about possible ways of breaking the law [in modern times] that are clearly silly to anyone who has some technical expertise in the matter. He is a fraud. But clearly a "con man" in the original sense of the word [charlatan]. In that he can get many people to believe the stories he tells and fool them into thinking he has competence [where he clearly does not].

Irritating that he gets paid so much for it, too.


♣ MusaIbra

John Craig said...

Musalbra --
I'm no expert on electronic security, so thanks for that info. Certainly the fact that Abagnale would portray himself as more of an expert than he is is in keeping with the rest of his personality. And yes, he is a Grade A bullshitter. (Spelling out swear words is permitted on this blog.)

But I'm not quite sure why you say, "You guys are going crazy." I think most of the commenters here are pretty much in agreement that he is a con man and sociopath.

Anonymous said...

So the comment I was trying to make the other day was that I don't agree that Abagnale is a sociopath. He may have been ruthlessly manipulative as a young man, but he's clearly grown out of it - which is something sociopaths don't do. He's stuck to the same job for decades, and he's refused the President's offer of pardon three times. All sociopaths are narcissists and a narcissist would jump at the chance to receive an official pardon from the US President himself. Imagine the admiration that would bring! But, instead, Abagnale refuses it thrice, saying that he is genuinely sorry for how he behaved and that he doesn't deserve a pardon. Doesn't sound like sociopathy to me.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
Thank you for taking th trouble to rewrite the comment.

I'm afraid we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. It's easy to imagine Abagnale refusing to take a Presidential pardon as a sort of pose, to "prove" what an honorable fellow he is. You're right, that's an action which one would normally associate with a principled, decent guy. But once you've proven you're a sociopath, once you've done a certain critical mass of things that only a sociopath would do, that's it: you're a sociopath, no matter noble you try to make yourself appear later on.

I'll offer the example of Bill Clinton, who seems to have devoted his life to good works since his Presidency ended. He may have accomplished a lot of good (depending partly on one's political viewpoint), but he's also given us lots and lots of proof of his sociopathy in the past, and the fact is, character doesn't change. (I put up a long post on his sociopathy back in August 3, 2010.)

Likewise, with Abagnale, whether he did the things he claimed as a youngster or not, either way he's sociopathic. He was either an incredibly slick con man or a pathological liar about having been one. You can't be either of those rings an snot be a sociopath.

Anonymous said...

As long as we're concerned about veracity, it might be noted that, in the picture posted with the blog, the man between DiCaprio and Hanks isn't Abagnale. It's Steven Spielberg.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Ah, thank you, you're right! (How did I not see that?) I'll change that.

mark said...

what is this the Jerry Springer show ? Is that retard Steve Wilko going to throw people off the stage. Uneducated finger pointing trailer trash calling people sociopaths and narcissists as if the they have a clue. Passing judgement is so unproductive.How disrespectful to this life we are lucky enough to have that you draw conclusions with such tiny amount of facts. So this is what feels like to be a hypocrite.

John Craig said...

Mark --
"Passing judgment is so unproductive"?

What exactly is it you just did?