“People only know what you tell them, Carl.”
-Frank Abagnale Jr, “Catch Me If You Can” (2002)
Last night, in the unearthly hours succeeding midnight, I was enthralled by Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Frank Abagnale Jr.’s ‘Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake.’. For those who are unaware of its story-line, ‘Catch Me If You Can’ tells the true story of the author, who was one of America’s most notorious criminals in bank and cheque fraud. He took on the rolls of a Pan America Worldwide Airlines (Commonly known as Pan Am) co-pilot, doctor and lawyer, whilst funding his exploits with fraudulent cheques. His first impersonation, of the Pan Am co-pilot, meant that he had the ability to travel around the world for free, his uniform allowing him to stay without charge in hotels as he deadheaded across the globe. As a bright child, Abagnale soon realised that he could create fake pay cheques from Pan Am and cash them in at different banks under his variety of aliases. However, he did experience a brush with the law on a deadhead flight to Miami, but escaped due to his acquaintance’s belief in his disguise and his false identification card; as a result he took refuge as a paediatrician in Atlanta, Georgia. This did not last, however, as he found that he could not cope with the fact that other people’s lives were in his incapable hands.
Failing at his alias of a doctor, Abagnale moved on to law, forging a Harvard Law School certificate. He took the compulsory Bar exam three times, saying in an interview years later that “Louisiana at the time allowed you to (take) the Bar over and over as many times as you needed. It was really a matter of eliminating what you got wrong”, which is exactly what he did. After studying for eight weeks, he received his practice license, at the tender age of nineteen. Although acquired under false pretense, Abagnale’s job was earning him a legitimate living, yet his false sense of security did not last. He reacquired his pilot persona, finding his way to Europe. The FBI, headed up by Joseph Shea (Carl Hanratty in the film adaption) soon caught up with him in France, and he was charged with fraud, forgery and swindling. He served six months of a twelve month sentence in France, before extradition to Sweden, where he served another six months. He then was extradited to America, where he served four years of a twelve month sentence in a US prison. The FBI then recruited Abagnale to help identify cheque and bank fraud, as his experience had led to incredible intelligence in that field. He remained friends with Shea until his death in 2005, and is now married with three children.
What seems to be so endearing about Abagnale’s character is that he used these impersonations as escapism from the real world. He first ran away when he was sixteen, directly after his parents’ divorce, his acquired persona a way for him to make his way in the world, entirely alone. It also indicates at an discomfort with himself and who he was as a teenager- he felt he needed to become someone else to truly be admired. In the film this is evident, as he is often stopped by children who are in awe of the ‘pilot’, which just enforces this point even more so.
But why can we connect with him? I believe that the reason is quite plain- we all wish to be someone else. Whether it be a singer, actor/actress, writer or fictional character, we all aspire to copy someone we admire. It’s a key aspect of human nature and we experience it every day. I believe that Abagnale felt the same way, and that it was partly what led him to lead such an adventurous and risky life. He deceived thousands with his words, but he got carried away, and reality soon caught up with him.
So today, all I can say is, run with your dreams, but don’t let those who you aspire to be run you away from reality.