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.