Frank Abagnale in His Own Words

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Many people are familiar, through the movie Catch Me if You Can, with the Hollywood version of the story of Frank Abagnale, the young, international con man who eventually turned his life around professionally and personally to become a productive, well-regarded security consultant and a family man.

The story is very interesting and it is inspiring to know that it is possible in some circumstances for someone to see the error of his ways, make fundamental changes, and achieve meaningful success. The movie dramatizes this general arc, but it left me wondering. How did he become motivated to change?

Yes. A life of crime is untenable: The criminals who don't get caught face that prospect at all times, and the amount of effort these "successes" have to put into keeping it that way sounds exhausting and draining to say the least. And yet some continue being criminals, and many reformed criminals go on to achieve only modest success. The negative of avoiding capture cannot replace the positives one needs for real motivation. We see this fact more clearly when we hear Abagnale tell his own story, as he once did at the National Automobile Dealers Association Convention. (Both the 40-minute audio and its transcript are available at the link.)

My best guess at the key to Abagnale's turnaround comes from three points in his story: His parents' divorce when he was a teenager, his stay in a French prison, and his courtship with his eventual wife during his early days in the FBI. These were, respectively when he went off the rails, when he saw in undeniable terms the price of his choice to defraud others, and when he grasped on some deep level a motivating reason to change.

I don't have time to elaborate much on my reasoning, but the following three passages tell me (1) how deeply his parents' divorce (which, contrary to the movie, was the last he ever saw of his father) hurt him:

Image by Abagnale & Associates, via Wikipedia, license.
Many people write and say, "Well, you were certainly gifted." That I was. I was one of those few children -- very few -- who got to grow up in the world with a daddy. The world is full of fathers but there are very few daddies -- and any child who's had a daddy is an extremely gifted child. I had a daddy who loved his children more than he loved life itself. Steven Spielberg would later write "the more I researched Frank's youth, the more I couldn't help but put is father in the film through the likes of Christopher Walken.

My father was a man, who, every day of your life, told you he loved you, literally, not only by the spoken word but by sheer physical affection. 6 foot 3, every night at bed time, three boys and a girl, he was in your room. He would drop down on his knees to come down to your bedside, kiss you on the cheek, pull the cover up, and he'd put his lip up on your ear lobe and whisper in your ear "I love you. I love you very much." He never missed a night. As I grew older I sometimes fell asleep before he got home, but I always woke up the next morning -- knew he had been by my bed. [italics in original, links omitted]
(2) how he realized his life of crime was hurting him in the same way:
While I was sitting in that French cell, my father, 57, extremely physical, athletic man, climbing the subway steps in New York as he did every day, just happened to trip on a step, reached his arm out to break his fall, slipped again, hit his head on the rail, rolled to the bottom of the step, he was dead. I didn't know he was dead. I was sitting in that pitch black cell. But I was thinking about him -- how much I loved him, how much I missed him, how much I couldn't wait to see him, hold him, hug him, kiss him -- and tell him how sorry I was. But I never got the opportunity to do that. [bold added]
and (3) why the prospect of marriage deeply motivated him to reform:
Now I could tell you that I was a born-again Christian. I could tell you that prison rehabilitated me. I could tell you that I was a kid who made some mistakes and grew up. But the truth is, God gave me a wife; she gave me three beautiful children, and in doing so she gave me a family. She changed my life: she and she alone. Everything I have, everything I've achieved, who I am today, is because the love of a woman and the respect three boys have for their father, something I would never, ever jeopardize.
There is no substitute for reading the entirety of Frank Abagnale's story; I isolate the passages only in an effort to understand it better, and to grasp the nature of what a dramatic change of course for the better in a life takes. Were I to hazard a quick summary of what he learned (in words or not), it would be something like this: Other people are an enormous value, and if I don't change, I will never get to experience being connected with them again.

I have mentioned that I keep an eye out for troubleshooting stories. Until I ran into this account, I would have told you that a close second genre is the rare personal reform story. But in a sense, the second is a a very important subtype of the first. Man has free will and this can be greatly burdened by trauma and bad circumstance during a person's formative years, not to mention a lack of good guidance. Whether one is interested in helping oneself improve, or a loved one reform, or advancing a cause to improve the world in general, understanding this type of story cannot but help.

If you read Abagnale's account and have a different opinion, or know of other stories of this type, I'd be very interested in hearing about it, either in the comments or via email.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, I haven't read the article, but I read his book Catch Me If You Can a month or two after it was published back in 1980 because I ran into it by sheer happenstance on the new books shelf at the local library. It sounded interesting, and after the second page I immediately checked it out and went home to finish it, and then over the next two or three years got my parents and all my friends in high school to read it too. I eventually reread it about 15 years ago and still loved it. The movie was quite good, but I remember the book more fondly. Judging from what you quoted of the article, the first two points are the important parts of the book distilled to their essence, while the third, his wife, doesn't come up much in the book, if I remember it as well as I think I do.

The Invisible Man said...

I agree with much of what he said. I just lost my father. The man who shaped me. Taught me. Read to me. Loved me. Although I spent MANY more years with mine than Frank did with his, the loss is too much to bear. This year will make or break my family. Nearly lost my mother also. It’s just me. I may not read replies to this, maybe ppl won’t ever read it. But, give your loved ones a hug. Bury the hatchet if need be. This life is short. So short. I hope I can save my mom, and keep her in her home. Homecare is so expensive. But my dad raised a kid who doesn’t give up easily.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you for mentioning the book, as well as for the rest of your comment.


Gus Van Horn said...

Invisible Man,

My condolences for your loss, and my thanks for the perspective you have offered.