Catch Me If You Can by Frank W. Abagnale

This was an enlightening read. Not only in the behaviour of a conman but in his exploits.

The memoir details his youth and his exploits as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, but most importantly, as a cheque forger. It spans over his entire career before ending at his final escape, right before he’s caught for the final time.

It’s a fast-paced, adventurous read. If I didn’t know it was based on true events, I would have thought it was a highly entertaining but very improbable story. If this autobiography had gone on for any longer, the boasting would have gotten tiring but it ends at exactly the right place. Abagnale knows how to control his story for the audience and when to end it before it goes too far, and I expect nothing less from one of the most daring American con artists.

Abagnale thinks highly of himself. Like, really thinks he’s the bee’s knees. He even admits in the opening paragraph that “Modesty is not one of my virtues”. But even from the most damning critic, you can’t deny that he was a bright, talented, young man with a desire for wealth and beautiful women. Here was a man who could understand medical journals, pass the bar exam and teach himself the inner workings of a bank, all before the age of 21. Abagnale was, for all intents and purposes, a force of nature.

And like any arrogant young man, Abagnale humble-brags. For example, he points out his own inexperience and lack of contacts in counterfeiting but quickly points out in the next paragraph that this autonomy prevented the police from finding him for years since they didn’t know anyone who knew him. He also emphasised that he “shunned any place that smacked of being a criminal haunt”, like he was above the common riff raff.

But there is absolutely no doubt that he knows his stuff, and whilst his crimes are unbelievable, his knowledge and character make it believable that he could have committed all of this. Abagnale takes care to outline the detail behind his crimes, like discussing the serial numbers on each cheque, almost as if to remind his audience that he didn’t just coast by on his good looks and personality.

His writing style is not that of a trained author though, but I don’t think a ghost writer was in play, or at the very least, Abagnale wrote 99% his autobiography himself, and it’s because too much of his personality shines through. The writing feels a little cheesy at times but I feel like that’s part of the charm; Frank never downplays his confidence or his intelligence and I can see why so many people fell for his act. For example, he refers to himself as the “Prince of Philanderers” which is a title even Don Juan would not have called himself. But it works.

He even drops little gems of wisdom that, if written by any other author would have made me roll my eyes but really fits in with his charm. When explaining to his audience how he can get away with the occasional mistake in his forgers, or con experienced colleagues into forgiving his mistakes, he explains:

… A thrift-shop dress is usually mistaken for high fashion when it’s revealed under a mink coat.

There were two additions to the memoir that I liked: a third person recount of what happened to Frank after his final escape and an interview with Stan Redding. Abagnale writes his adventures as nothing more than hijinks that spiralled into something out of control, and that he never intended to let it get so far. But these two elements grounds his memoirs, so it’s reads less like Abagnale is bragging about his wonderful brain and I was reminded that the events weren’t charming antics of a young man, but rather a criminal act.

It’s fascinating and audacious and everything you expect a conman to be. I highly recommend this.

 

On Another Note

I watched the movie before I read the autobiography so I was surprised by some of the events written because, shockingly, Spielberg has to make a few concessions to cram a 300 page book into a two hour movie. For example:

  • The portrayal of his parents greatly deviated from the movie, for example, Movie!Dad was a conman who encouraged Frank to pursue a life of crime as a means of revenge against the US Government vs. Book!Dad who was, by Frank’s accounts, an upstanding man.
  • Amy Adam’s character, Brenda Strong, was comprised of several of Frank’s girlfriends and is a much, much more sympathetic character.
  • Spielberg really played up Abagnale’s tragic past and just how big of an impact the divorce had on him. Even by Frank’s own admission

But I’m glad the main events were actually rooted in truth like Abagnale’s encounter with a high-class call girl and swanning into Miami airport with a bunch of women. Those were my favourite cons in the movie and I’m happy they weren’t exaggerated. Spielberg did the autobiography justice.

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