The Dishonest Liar

It’s a maxim told in magical circles that the magician is the only honest entertainer; they say they are going to lie to you, then they do. I’ve talked about it in the past, with magicians selling access to their tricks (when obscured) then selling access to their tricks (when revealed), in the history of the discipline. Once, there was a purpose to explicating methods in courts, where magicians could be accused of consorting with dark powers, and needed to be able to prove and demonstrate what they were doing, actually. Books from the early days are full of explicated methods of magical tricks, and with the rise of the camera, luminaries of the pre-camera era did whole talks, whole lectures, explaining the language magicians used for just the entirely anodyne description of a technique, the sort of cladistic or medical language for academically explaining what an audience sees regardless of how a magician makes it happen.

If you are willing to listen, and learn, any given magician will absolutely tell you how a trick is done, and usually for money. Magicians are honest – for a fee. Of course, that fee is commensurate to the fee for their dishonesty, too.

It can be easy, then, if you’re interested in the media surrounding magicians that you start to think of people who write confessional material, explaining methods and means, as being honest. Obviously, that’s not the case — Jasper Maskelyne was an aggressive fabulist, even if his story was about making fun of people. Notably, though, the official sources he claimed to work with don’t back him up, and people with power to make choices didn’t give Maskelyne a lot of opportunities to do things.

That’s not the case for every liar who tells you about their lies.

Do you know the name Frank Abagnale Jr?

Frank Abagnale Jr first entered my awareness with the release of a film about his life, starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2002. This film was made by Steven Spielburg and full of at the time, top line movie talent. I saw it in a cinema, and then learned backwards about it — You know, hey, this biopic is about a guy, and now that guy is someone I know about, so I’m going to learn more about him as a tangential thing and see how true the movie is.

The story is, simply put, that there was this guy, Frank Abagnale Jr, who through a series of traumatic deprivations as a child, wound up lucking into a life as a liar and confidence trickster, who defrauded banks and state bars and airlines and the French police and finally got caught by one lone, dogged FBI agent who was able to follow him all the way through the world, closing in on him eventually. Then – caught. Then escape! Then caught again. And then, in the finale of the story, Abagnale turns up at the FBI offices and starts helping them with a new case, of a new counterfeiter, like Hannibal Lector assisting the police, but with less cannibalism.

Oh, what an inspiring tale!

The story tells you as the camera pans upwards that Abagnale quitting crime, becoming a FBI expert consultant, and touring the country explaining how con artists work and how to avoid being fooled by them. It’s a great story!

It’s also probably pretty much complete hooey.

If you’re not going to click the link, it goes to Modern Rogue, which is a website for, well, dorks like me who are interested in things like lock picking and magic tricks and counterfeiting and all those things that it’s fun to know how to do and you don’t need to actually execute on. Things that tell you about how the world is a little more loose, a little less secure than anyone wants you to think of it. In my mind, this kind of skeptical inquiry into the world isn’t just interesting, it’s also thrilling and invigorating, to remember that things like handcuffs and legal systems aren’t as untouchable and perfect as they like to pretend that they are. On their site, they do a breakdown of how Abagnale, in public record, simply didn’t do a bunch of stuff he did, because we know he was busy in prison, or under arrest, for things we know he did. The career of the man who fooled the FBI is largely, fabulism.

It’s kinda cool in one way – the greatest conman’s greatest con is that he’s the greatest conman. Then you remember that he’s also getting paid and lying to people about ways to protect them from scams, and suddenly a lot of his behaviour is a lot more unpalatable.

See, that’s the thing with honesty as a merchandisable product. You need clearly delineated boundaries. You need to be able to say, yes, I am being honest with you about my dishonesty, and here, Abagnale doesn’t bear up to scrutiny. Never has, really – as far back as the 1970s, people were pointing out that none of his big scams ever worked and instead he was just an ordinary petty crook who lied about being more. And uh

There are a lot of those.

So why believe this one in particular?

I don’t think anything Abagnale did is particularly believable, per se. There’s a lot of ‘hey, does that work?’ and a lot of lax opportunities just landing in his lap, and him being, as presented in the story, daring enough to take it once, then rely on it again going forward. It’s a neat idea, it genuinely is but a lot of how it works relies on people who don’t know how scamming these situations works, and also, being willing to trust that they do work that simply. And yes, there’s all sorts of security holes you can encounter nowadays based on looking through organisations for the laziest idiot around – but that’s not how Abagnale’s story goes. It’s just…

Hey, can I do this?

Oh turns out I can!

Well, whoopsy doodle I just a felony.

Looking back at the story, I think the thing that surprises me the most is how little effort it seems he puts in. How small the schemes that work are. How… well, the greatest conman told me a lie about being a great conman and the conman he was seemed very boring in hindsight.

Fun movie though.