“I wanted to be someone else”: A Reading List about Con Artists, Grifters, and Imposters

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The documentary film The Imposter (2012) opens with footage from a handheld video camera. This is Carey’s room, a child’s voice narrates. This is the birthday girl’s mattress, and she even got a TV in her room, ain’t she lucky. The camera, tilted, focuses for just a moment on a girl who smiles widely, tossing back her teased shoulder-length hair. Ain’t she beautiful. The camera whirls away to a blur of lamp and wall before settling close up on the face of a blond boy who looks amused. The narrator introduces him, saying, and here, is our brother, Nick.

The screen fades to black, and text appears: In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from San Antonio, Texas.

Three years and four months after the disappearance, in Linares, Spain, a tourist couple called the local police station to say they’d found a kid, who they presumed to be about 14 or 15 years old, no I.D. or documents on him.

In documentary-style interviews years after the events, Nicholas’ remaining family — his mother, Beverly Dollarhide, his sister, Carey Gibson, and his brother-in-law, Bryan Gibson — remember their reactions to hearing that Nicholas had been found alive, in Spain.

“Of course it was mysterious,” Bryan says. “It was exciting, worrisome, it was all mixed emotions.”

“Ecstatic, bewildered, you know, Spain?” Carey wonders. “How did he get there? You have a hundred thousand questions that you want answered immediately.”

“I felt wonderful,” Beverly says.

After the title credit, the documentary rewinds to the moment when the police were first called. In a re-enacted scene, rain pours over a dimly lit street. Someone huddles with their knees pulled to their chest in a phone booth, face obscured by a hood. Police remark that “he seems very young,” “he’s very scared,” and “we tried to get him some food, but he doesn’t want it.”

The scene cuts to a man being interviewed alone, his brown eyes expressive. “From as long as I remember, I wanted to be someone else. Someone who was acceptable. The most important thing and what I learned very fast was to be convincing,” he says with a French accent. “When the police arrived, I have immediately to put into their minds that they have a kid in front of them, not an adult so it was very important for me to behave like one. I wanted to provoke on them a sense of guilt, of being adults that close to a kid who is that scared. When you see a kid that have nervous reflexes, you can’t touch him, you can’t approach him, then you understand that something is wrong,” the man says. He stares directly at the camera for emphasis. “I was not the one telling them I’ve been sexually abused — I had them asking me that. By my attitude, by my way of doing things they were the ones who were thinking about it, and that gave me power.”

The man being interviewed for the documentary is Frédéric Pierre Bourdin, a man who viewers later learn was a serial impostor, someone who frequently stole the identities of missing children. What’s interesting about the documentary, is that Bourdin narrates the reasoning behind his decisions while the events of his impersonation are re-enacted onscreen. As the events of the documentary unfurl, questions are raised. Who would steal the identity of a missing child? What family who lost a slender blond 13-year-old from the U.S. would accept a 23-year old man with a dark five-o’-clock shadow and an unshakeable French accent masquerading as their own 16-year-old family member just three years later? What is so appealing about adopting an identity — and a family — so far from one’s own? Who is harmed by an act of impersonation?

These questions are not unique to The Imposter. The following essays about con artists, grifters, and imposters are compelling in their attempts to answer why and how people deceive others.

1. Who is Anna March? (Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg, July 26, 2018, LA Times)

Anna March — or a woman who goes by Anna March — who portrayed herself as a “spunky, apologetic, sex-positive feminist ready to raise hell” began to raise the suspicion of the literary community with her outlandish events and mysterious generosity. Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg, in an immense feat of reporting, uncover Anna March’s past identities, reveal her significant debts, and detail how she harmed others through her deception.

2. The Secret Life of a Con Man (Dustin Grinnell, August 12, 2014, Narratively)

For a price of $75 and under the condition of anonymity, Dustin Grinnell interviews “GM,” who he describes “a con man with a conscience.” GM divulges how he came to be a grifter, his methods, and his anxieties.

“GM once spent three weeks casing a mother of three, learning everything he could about her life, routine and preferences. When he finally found a way in, he robbed her of over $1,000. It was a good score. And because she was a piece of shit, GM concluded, the crime was justifiable.”

3. The Rise and Fall of Toronto’s Classiest Con Man (Michael Lista, May 29, 2017, The Walrus)

Michael Lista, in this fascinating piece, exposes the breadth of James Regan’s swindling, which reaches many years back in time and covers a wide array of establishments.

“Regan is a man at war—with landlords, car dealers, courts, hotels, clubs, and civic institutions. He is at war with the NHL and the Catholic Church. He is at war with law, at war with facts, at war with human nature. He’s even at war with gravity—as his cons come crashing down, he refuses to do anything but pretend to rise.”

4. The Lives and Lies of a Professional Imposter (James C. McKinley Jr. and Rick Rojas, February 4, 2016, The New York Times)

Jeremy Wilson — if that’s even his real name — began his life as a con man in high school, when he showed up to class in a wheelchair in order to solicit money from peers. Since that time, he has assumed an alarming number of identities, leading to comparisons between his case and that of Frank Abagnale Jr., “the notorious con artist whose life was chronicled in the 2002 film ‘Catch Me if You Can.’”

“Investigators say Mr. Wilson is a professional impostor and a skilled forger. Though fraud has become an increasingly invisible offense in a digital world, Mr. Wilson has stuck with a decidedly old-fashioned approach, stealing checks and creating new personas, occasionally with accents and falsified papers, the police said.”

5. How Anna Delvey Tricked New York (Jessica Pressler, May 28, 2018, The Cut)

After Anna Delvey checks into 11 Howard hotel in Soho, New York for a month-long stay, she quickly makes an impression with her money, handing out $100 bills to nearly anyone who crossed her path. She befriends — or at least spends significant time with — Neffatari Davis, who goes by “Neff,” the concierge at the hotel, who became privy to Delvey’s wildly extravagant lifestyle, one that included $4,500 spent on a personal trainer, dinners with Macaulay Culkin, and party after party. In this widely-shared and captivating essay, Jessica Pressler unveils Anna Delvey’s elaborate money-related schemes and what happens when Delvey’s lies — and lifestyle — begin to collapse.

“WANNABE SOCIALITE BUSTED FOR SKIPPING OUT ON PRICEY HOTEL BILLS, blared the headline in the Post, which referenced an incident in which Anna attempted to leave the restaurant at Le Parker without paying. “Why are you making a big deal about this?” she’d protested to police. “Give me five minutes and I can get a friend to pay.””

Related Reading: “As an added bonus, she paid for everything”: My Bright-Lights Misadventure with a Magician of Manhattan (Rachel DeLoache Williams, April 13, 2018, Vanity Fair)

6. The Great High School Impostor (Daniel Riley, May 1, 2018, GQ)

At the age of nineteen, chasing his idea of the American dream, Artur Samarin paid an American couple two thousand dollars, changed his birthdate so he would appear five years younger, and just a few months later, started his first day as a freshman at Harrisburg High, in Pennsylvania. The ruse continued until just three months of Artur’s senior year, when police entered his classroom and escorted him away. In this riveting account, Daniel Riley explores the complicated relationship between Artur and the American couple who initially supported him, Artur’s intentions, and the legal issues that arose as a result of Artur’s deception.

“There was a suggestion that a sort of transference had occurred, a blurring of the lines between the real person and the fake, a sense that Artur Samarin actually was Asher Potts.”

7. A Con Man Reinvents Himself…As a Reality TV Magician (Jess Zimmerman, October 13, 2015, Atlas Obscura)

After spending five years in federal prison as a result of illegal schemes carried out as a con man, Aiden Sinclair asserts that he has changed his ways. Sinclair claims that, in place of deception, his only tricks now are acts of magic, ones he performs on stage at America’s Got Talent. But rather than accept Sinclair’s new life at face value, Jess Zimmerman, in this compelling piece, asks, “Sinclair has made his “grifter magician” background part of his performance persona, but is it just a performance? Can con men really change?”

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness.