Though [Bourdin] emphasized his cunning, he acknowledged what any con man knows but rarely admits: it is not that hard to fool people. People have basic expectations of others’ behavior and are rarely on guard for someone to subvert them. By playing on some primal need — vanity, greed, loneliness — men like Bourdin make their mark further suspend disbelief. As a result, most cons are filled with logical inconsistencies, even absurdities, which seem humiliatingly obvious after the fact. — David Grann, “The Chameleon,” The New Yorker, 11 August 2008

The crime

Serial chameleon Frédéric Bourdin inhabits the identity of a missing Texan kid in 1997. Busted again after a few months, he claims that he’s hardly the biggest criminal in the situation.

The story

I’ve always found that fascinating, the willingness of the average person to trust others. It’s partly neurobiology, no doubt, the same way the optic nerve will complete visual patterns with parts missing; it’s one way in which we order the world, assuming that most things are as they appear. When I worked as a records clerk, chasing down current addresses and career information for the alumnae office, I saw a variation on it every day — that if you act as though you have the right to information, you will usually get that information, no questions asked. People want you to know things, want you to know them. It’s a little flower of hope that this is, and is usually, true.

But now and again a weed gets a foothold, and that’s a subset of true crime that fascinates me — the “identity con,” I suppose you might call it. Sometimes, as in the case of James Hogue, it’s identity creation; other times, it’s identity conspiracy, a flimflam of hope, a case solved, all those Anastasia Romanovs and Charlie Lindberghs that used to surface years ago (recent episodes of American Horror Story cleverly traded on it).

And then you have the outright identity thefts, although it’s hard to say what, if anything, is “outright” about Frédéric Bourdin, the subject of Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter. Bourdin, a serial imitator of homeless teens across Europe in the 1990s, stepped into the role of a lifetime — and across the line between “grifty” and “monstrous” — in 1997, when he decided to imitate an American teen who had gone missing three years earlier.

Or did he?

Bourdin imitated Nicholas Barclay, this we know. He’s admitted it, and was sentenced to six years for the various fraudulent activities surrounding it. What’s interesting about the case isn’t just that Bourdin did it, or how he did it, or that he’d done it so many times before, or that he did it again after the U.S. deported him back to France, although seeing that particular compulsion in action is both disturbing and captivating. It’s that Nicholas Barclay’s family let him do it — may have wanted him, or someone anyway, to do it. The “humiliatingly obvious” discrepancies Nicholas’s mother and sister almost defiantly refused to see, the obvious dye job, the different eye color, the accent he shouldn’t have lost after only three years away, the Peter Straubian abduction tale, at first seem like the understandable blindness to the truth of a family desperately hoping to reunite with a lost son and brother.

As the facts and months accumulate, though, it starts to seem more like they want the rest of the world to buy the reunion…like they knew all along he wasn’t Nicholas, because they knew all along Nicholas wasn’t “missing,” exactly. If Bourdin manipulated Nicholas’s family into accepting him wholeheartedly as their own, yes, he’s a monster. But if they knew from the get that he was a French man with an agenda, it’s far less clear who the monster is, or if there’s just one.

The case first came to my attention in the excellent Grann piece linked above, which goes into more detail than the film about the murky family connections, as well Bourdin’s activities prior to 1997 — and I’d recommend pairing them. The Imposter is prosaic on the filmmaking level, but more recent, and among the cloo-channel-esque reenactments, you’ll find story just in the faces of Bourdin and Nicholas’s family. You could call Layton’s pointed holds at the end of interview segments tricksy, but I thought it was effective. The media complement each other, and the story, wonderfully.

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