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Truth & Consequences: One Journalist’s Real-Life Relationship with the Fabulist at the Heart of ‘The Imposter’

Truth & Consequences: One Journalist's Real-Life Relationship with the Fabulist at the Heart of 'The Imposter'

The following piece was written by the Sundance Institute‘s Christine Spines, a longtime entertainment journalist for Premiere, Glamour, EW and others, that ran Friday on the Random House books-to-movies blog Word & Film.

If Comic-Con’s eye-candy bonanza didn’t send those among us with a lower tolerance for such spectacular confections into a state of cinematic glucose-shock, this weekend represents a high-risk zone, with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the summer’s culminating comic book extravaganza. Writer-director Christopher Nolan has imbued the comic kingdom’s brooding crusader with a gravitas and psychological depth more befitting the shadowy protagonists of Russian literature’s nineteenth-century golden age; a certain amount of burnout is inevitable.

Fortunately, there is a tonic on hand to counteract blockbuster bloat and any action allergies that have flared up over the summer. This week, “The Imposter,” the critically adored stranger-than-fiction documentary about a French drifter who impersonates missing children, will expand its release to major cities nationwide. The film, which debuted to multiple standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival, boasted the single biggest per-screen average of any film in release last weekend (never mind that it was only playing in one theater) and comes equipped with a central character as gasp-inducingly complex, cunning, and charismatic as any comic book villain and hero combined. Oh yeah, and his story’s all true.

The Impostor in question is Frederic Bourdin, a wily street urchin who had devised a system that allowed him to travel all over Europe living in various orphanages and shelters for wayward children by convincing authorities that he was a recently abandoned minor. In fact, he had spent the better part of two decades playing on the sympathies of social workers and cops in order to score free room and board. His career living off the fat of the European child and family social welfare system didn’t end until he was over thirty years old.

How did Bourdin pull it off? He was a world-class liar whose rare gift for untruth enabled him to not only convince anyone of anything but also to enlist the listener to corroborate his tall tales, even if he/she had a vested interest in exposing Bourdin’s fabrication. Bourdin eked out a life fueled on fictions he justified to himself as his way of satisfying the unquenchable thirst for love and affection he’d been harboring since his family abandoned him as a young child. He also figured, what’s the harm as long as he’s not hurting anyone?

And then he did.

The deception that lead to Bourdin’s downfall began like the others and then metastasized, in the way lies often do, into something much more poisonous. The short version is that Bourdin upped the ante and rather than pass himself off as an anonymous drifter, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, an actual missing kid who had vanished from his San Antonio home at the age of fourteen. Not only did he manage to convince European authorities he was one of the kids who appeared on American milk cartons; he also persuaded Barclay’s family that he was their long lost Nicholas.

So powerful were his powers of deception, Bourdin accounted for his French accent and radically dissimilar appearance with an outlandish story about having been abducted and tortured by a diabolical international child prostitution ring that had changed his eye color to avoid detection. Incredibly enough, the Barclay clan bought the whole story and flew Bourdin back to their rag-tag Texas home and embraced him as their long-lost son. And that’s only the film’s set up.

It may be tempting to blame the Barclay’s credulousness on a state of temporary insanity or the blinding power of wishful delusion. But that would discount Bourdin’s singular skills as a master manipulator. This is not conjecture but based on my own firsthand experiences as a journalist who encountered Bourdin back in 1998, soon after he was placed in a Texas jail when authorities pieced together his true identity. Our interactions began with a recorded message announcing that I was receiving a call at my Premiere magazine office from a Texas inmate who stated his name with a very thick accent. How could I not accept?

Crafty creature that he was, Bourdin was convinced that he could weasel out of the very serious charges of which he was accused by eliciting the sympathies of the American public. So he began working the jailhouse phone cold calling journalists and seducing them with the promise of exclusive access to his sensational story. So after hearing Bourdin’s hand-crafted sob story about how he had been abandoned by his parents and spent his life in search of a surrogate family who would fill his love deficit, I bit down hard and swallowed the bait.

Bourdin kept us all on the hook by continually raising the stakes of the inflammatory nature of the story around which he had assembled his own mini press corps. Bourdin kept the various journalists vaguely aware that he was feeding information to various outlets — I knew, for instance, that he had spoken to “20/20″′s Connie Chung about the story — while insisting that he had kept the others in the dark about the real bombshell: his promise to lead one of us to the location of the international child prostitution ring, which he claimed had abducted him, while admitting that he had never met Nicholas Barclay there.

Why would any self-respecting journalist believe such a story? Because he was THAT good. He has already convinced a mother he was her missing teenage son, along with international child protection authorities and the FBI. Concocting a credible story about a a cabal of kidnapping perverts was a remedial assignment for an honors-level liar like Bourdin.

For the better part of a year, Bourdin collect called me regularly on his cell-block phone to discuss new developments in his case and to regale me with horror stories about being held captive by a bunch of sick sadists in a city of lost children. I was a single mom at the time and he often warned me in grave tones to never let my son out of my sight, whether we were at the park or in our own back yard.

I had secured a contract to write the piece for Rolling Stone and was planning my trip to Spain when I got a call from a 20/20 producer who called me and asked if I had seen the story by an enterprising journalist in a small Irish newspaper. The piece painted a portrait of Bourdin as a calculating criminal who was wanted by Interpol for impersonating a slew of missing children. Oh, and he had never been abducted by pedophiles or anyone else.

Despite Bourdin’s history of mendacity, I still somehow bought the fantastic fabrication he was selling at the moment. What’s worse, like a sucker, I still felt the sting of betrayal when I discovered I was just his latest mark. When confronted, Bourdin immediately came clean and apologized like a drunk recovering from his latest binge: Lying is something he’s constitutionally compelled to do and sometimes he just can’t help himself. He kept calling but gave up after a few weeks when I stopped picking up the phone.

Over the next decade, I thought often of my daily phone calls with the lonely French convict driven to lie in the name of love. Then, during the summer of 2008, I received a voice mail from Bourdin on my extension at “Entertainment Weekly,” where I then worked. He said he had been following me through my stories and wanted to catch up.

I decided to return the call as much to fact check the reality of that strange episode in my life, which, at times, had felt like something out of an anxiety dream. Bourdin caught me up on the headlines (literally) from his life: After doing hard time in Texas, he was deported to Europe where he resumed his impersonation business, until he was collared and finally decided it was time to retire. He was now married and living in a small city in Brittany. Oh, and David Grann from the New Yorker had been interviewing him for a profile he was writing about Bourdin. The contents of that conversation all turned out to be true.

Even as someone who heard most every incredible beat of Bourdin’s story firsthand, I was still thrilled and amazed as each jaw-dropping twist and turn was revealed to the crowd gathered for the “The Imposter”s Sundance premiere last January. It was especially chilling to watch the footage filmmaker Bart Layton had gathered of Bourdin working the jailhouse pay phone to win the public’s support via the media.

After the filmmakers fielded questions for nearly an hour after the screening, I took some comfort in the realization that I was now permanently woven into the baroque tapestry Bourdin had been weaving all his life, along with anyone else he had duped. In a backhanded way, Bourdin’s lies had become the connective tissue creating strained and emotionally charged links to anyone on the receiving end of one of his fictions.

So, in a sense, I had unwittingly become a member of Bourdin’s de-facto extended family, which, if Bourdin is to believed (and, of course, he’s not) was the original impetus behind his lying spree. Contrived or not, I felt as though I had finally found a satisfying ending to this slippery saga.

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