Silverdocs: 'The Imposter' And The Mystery Of The Nervous Laughter : Monkey See The documentary The Imposter asks a very perplexing question about family and memory.
NPR logo Silverdocs: 'The Imposter' And The Mystery Of The Nervous Laughter

Silverdocs: 'The Imposter' And The Mystery Of The Nervous Laughter

This is not Nicholas Barclay. Silverdocs hide caption

toggle caption

This is not Nicholas Barclay.


They really give it away in the title, don't they?

In 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappeared in Texas. In 1997, a man showed up in Spain and claimed to be the 16-year-old Nicholas. He wasn't – he was a 23-year-old con man – but he managed to get himself brought to the United States with a passport in Nicholas' name. He moved in with Nicholas' family. They accepted him as Nicholas.

Now, because the film The Imposter does tell you from the very beginning, right from the title, that this is not Nicholas, the question here is never "Is it him?" That's not the mystery. The real mystery that I heard people talking about for the rest of the day was, "How in the world did they ever believe this was him?"

Imagine that your fair-skinned, blond, blue-eyed 13-year-old comes back three years later, only he's got brown eyes, olive skin, thick dark eyebrows, a dark beard shadow, fairly obviously bleached blond hair, a completely different jawline, and — oh, right — a fairly thick French accent. He doesn't remember any of his life with you, which he says is because he's suffered terrible trauma after being kidnapped into a sex ring and tortured for three years.

Would you not know your own son? In fact, would you not know your own brother? Friend? Would you not know an acquaintance enough to know this could not possibly be the same person? I mean, we're not talking about someone who left at three years old and came back at 30. We're talking about a seventh-grader coming back as an alleged tenth-grader, utterly unrecognizable, and yet persuading the family to take him in.

Director Bart Layton uses a lot of imaginative techniques to tell this story, since there's little tape, other than some low-quality home video, that was taken at the time. He uses reenactments more than most documentaries do, but he creatively blends them with interviews and what little archival footage exists. He manages to create suspense – when will he get caught? – in a situation that doesn't really deserve any, since it's pretty obvious that this is a short-term plan that can't work for very long. Eventually, he will see a dentist or a doctor who will know he's not 16, eventually somebody will look at him and say, "I'm not sure why you're calling him Nicholas, since he is obviously, clearly, completely, not in any way the same person, what are you talking about?"

The suggestion in the film, I think, or at least through most of the film, is that the mind can be so eager to believe something – in this case, that a lost relative has returned – that it overlooks evidence to the contrary. Under this theory, the family embraced "Nicholas" because they wanted him to be Nicholas, and once that happened, everyone else felt unqualified to contradict the family if they said yes, this was him. Even the FBI.

But honestly, even so – even understanding that the mind plays tricks on us, even understanding that people sometimes ignore contrary evidence, even trying to account for all the social factors that press people not to challenge other people's conclusions – I walked out thinking, "I don't get it. I just really do not get it." And I don't think anyone else did, either. There was a fair amount of nervous laughter during this film, as the con man explained the con and laughed at his own exploits. Of course, those exploits are utterly horrifying, since they led the family of a missing child to believe he was alive, so why were people laughing? It's been my observation that nervous laughter at documentaries is often the first line of defense against really, really uncomfortable ideas — here, the idea that we are all far more gullible than we imagine. But I still didn't get it. Did not get it at all.

And then, just to see what would happen, I walked into NPR and pretended to be Nina Totenberg. (Not really.)