Amateur Shrink on the Movies

Well, this semester I took Psych 102, which delved into the history of Psychology, human development, and psychological disorders. One of our big projects was identifying a character from a list of movies, watching the movie, and identifying where that character was psychologically.

This was an assignment I had a lot of fun with. My wife thought it was a little weird that I sat down to watch a movie and took notes, but it’s something that really changed how I watched movies. Add in my diligent study of a cinema analysis textbook, and the way I view movies has changed dramatically.

Unfortunately, my Psych professor hasn’t seen any of the nerdy movies that I enjoy, so I had to settle on Frank William Abagnale, Junior, from Catch Me if You Can, By Steven Spielberg. (I already have two pages of notes on characters from Firefly, so I’ll be posting on them soon.) This is the 2002 film featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. The real life Frank William Abagnale was also a consultant for the film, which made it really cool.

So, here you go, hope you enjoy my first attempt at being an amateur shrink.

 Movie: Catch Me If You Can, directed by Steven Spielberg

Character: Frank William Abagnale, Jr. Played by Leonardo di Caprio

Age during the movie: 15-17

The identity of Frank W. Abagnale is solid. He learns from a young age that he can use deceptions to obtain whatever he needs or wants. This begins just before his fifteenth birthday, when his father uses a slight deception to obtain a suit for a bigger deception to help save his stationary store. His father, Frank Abagnale, Senior, never acknowledges that what he is doing is wrong. Frank Junior associates these deceptions with his father’s creed.

Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned.

The second mouse, wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually

he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.

Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.”

Therefore, Frank Abagnale’s future deceptions never became evil or wrong, but him as the second mouse and struggling in a world where many were likely to drown. His adherance to his father’s code of conduct is sealed when he observes what he identifies as real deception. While his father is gone working, Frank comes home twice to see his mother, Paula Abagnale interacting with a friend of Frank Senior’s, and his mother quickly tries to cover up the action, rather than defend it. Frank junior soon sees that his father is working for the family and his mother is working against the family. This adds a level of validity. Frank Sr. never excused his actions, but boldly acknowledged what it was he was doing.

According to Piaget, Frank Abagnale would have been straddling the lines between concrete operations and formal operations. There are moments when he beautifully demonstrates abstract thought, from the ability to use the resources on hand to create airline payroll checks to forging doctor’s degrees and cramming for bar exams. However, there are still times he cannot operate without seeing what is going on right in front of him. With all the luxuries offered him at a grand hotel, Frank purchased a cheap deck of cards, something familiar.

After seeing his mother cheat against the family, Frank is soon hit with his parents’ divorce, and all he is told is that he needs to choose which parent he would live with. This must have struck him on a personal level. He ran from the physical choice, but in his mind he had already chosen the ideology of his father. Frank Senior was a hero already. In a world where honest men and honest corporations were unwilling to help, he kept a level of adaptability and a resolve that wouldn’t quit. Frank Abagnale Junior accepted that code, especially if it included the deceptions against the honest who refused to help.

Frank Abagnale, jr. achieved his success from his high emotional intelligence as well as a practical intelligence. Many people who saw and interacted with him were immediately drawn to him as a person, and he know how to respond to them. He studied roles, and obtained information about checks and check forging techniques from bank tellers who thought they were showing a cute guy around their place of work. Throughout all his roles, he was able to use his emotional appeal to succeed where his analytical intelligence lacked. Combine that with his practical intelligence, his ability to solve problems in real world time, and it’s easy to see how he could succeed. His ability to adapt and use “social camoflage” as Speilberg puts it, gave him all the tools he needed.

According to Erickson’s model, Frank Abagnale stays in an identity crisis/role confusion mode throughout the movie. This served to help him in many situations, but wouldn’t let him deal with ideas such as prison and being forced to work at the FBI. He had to maintain a single role, rather than the shifting to whatever got him what he wanted or needed.

Whenever a problem arose, Frank Abagnale solved them using a set of guidelines that he had established through his early scams and the backbone his father had given him in through the two white mice creed. This Heuristic approach, however, would be put on the back-burner when he didn’t have time to prepare a con and needed to act in the moment. In the scene where Frank is at a hospital and witnesses a nurse being scolded, he acts rashly and tells her he is a doctor to cheer her up and put himself in a position of trust and authority.

While Frank Abagnale doesn’t present any disorder, he does act on some symptoms characteristic of obsessive/compulsive disorder. From the very first time we see him, he is peeling the label off of a bottle of wine. He does this again at the Riverbend apartments, leaving an entire table of food containers with peeled off labels. This compulsion is even evident at the engagement party in Baton Rouge. Tearing off those labels appear to be symbolic. Since he left home after his parents’ divorce, tearing the labels must have provided not only a reminder of what the ideal family was like with his own parents, but also reminded him of his own ability to tear off the label that society had given him. This doesn’t impair his ability to function, but it is clear that he has the compulsion.

Frank Abagnale’s identity crisis is apparent whenever he sees the nuclear family at work. He longs for how things were before the divorce, and it is evident when he sees his future in-laws washing the dishes together and dancing, or when the entire family is gathered to watch television together. He almost even feels like he could belong to a regular family. Then comes the ultimatem of either admiting to this family that he feels a part of, or escaping the FBI and exposing that he’s not who he says he is. He heuristically falls back on what he had been doing for over a year now, and escapes to put on a different identity.

Despite his mother’s betrayal, he still carries an Oedipal stigma. When he runs out of checks and needs a supply, he flees the country and goes to the city in France his mother was born in. This action also displays the adolescent concrete operations at work. Rather than change his method of operation, he would take the obtaining of what he knew how to do to extremes.

Years later, it was his mother’s house he would return to when he broke out of federal custody upon re-entering the country.

In conclusion:

A. According to Piaget: between concrete operations and formal operations. Demonstrates an ability to adapt, but still hangs on to ideas he knows work.

B. According to Erickson: Identity Crisis/Role Confusion. Superficially he takes on many careers, but in his mind he struggles between being like his father, and being a part of a real family.

C. According to Freud’s model: Ego dominates his choices. If Frank Abagnale believes he can do it, he does it, regardless of legal implications. Second in command is his Id. He acts on his wants, he acts in a way to get back at the honest businesses who refused to help his father, his hero.

D. Any psychological disorders? None, though he does exhibit symptoms of OCD through tearing the labels off of bottles and food containers.


One thought on “Amateur Shrink on the Movies

  1. What about PTSD? The young Frank was catostrophically wounded in being forced to choose which parent he wanted to live with — a choice so annihilating he chose the streets. It was all the more traumatizing because he didn’t see it coming; he had no preparation for it and seeing his father, his hero was dismantling. In order to provide for himself – he created all these alternate selves if you will — but not so in the sense that he didn’t “split” for psychological reasons -but rather, for his physical survival. The fact that he could not return home (to either his mother or father) because of the depth of his devastation is very significant and indicative of a complicated PTSD, imho.

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