Miller, M. (1999, February 15). A con man goes back to high school—at the age of 31. Newsweek, pp. 34-35.
At first, the fact that Michael Backman lied his way back into high school, as described in this article and in an ABC "20/20" segment, didn’t bother me as much as it did the media commentators, the kids at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon, or the criminal justice authorities. Because I have a high regard for truth and honesty, I wondered why.
Did I sympathize with the offender because we live in an age when president’s and other politicians, leaders in business and athletic worlds, even religious leaders, lie with bold faces? Or is it just because Michael Backman never lied to me? Have I become morally soft and desensitized? Or was I being over-sensitive about his struggle to determine who he was as a black man raised in a white family?
He wasn’t the first or only older person to enter high school under the guise of being a teenager. A baby-faced Rolling Stone editor had gone back to high school in the 1980s and written "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" which was then turned into a movie.
The Newsweek article seemed to highlight two issues: an overt theme of fraud and dishonesty, along with the underlying issue of a young African American’s struggle for identity. Then, I got to read more of the facts and came to see a dangerous pattern in Michael Backman’s life and behavior.
The Backman’s are described as "an idealistic working-class couple (who) chose to live in a racially mixed neighborhood of Portland." They adopted two black children: Michael and later a younger sister. When he was 9, his parents returned his little sister to the foster-care system because "the girl had emotional problems requiring an expert’s care."
Understandably, Michael grew up with a fear he might also be sent back. He didn’t really fit in around black kids, who questioned him about his real parents. To solve this early identity issue, Michael came up with his first lie. He was the son of Diana Ross.
Seeing his inability to fit in, his parents sent him to a performing arts high school. There too, he was laughed out by black students. Finally settling into Grant High, he sang with the school’s exclusive singing group and got grades only good enough to graduate. After a time in the Army, he drifted into a life of crime and deceit.
- Buying cars with forged papers and a small down payment and delivering them to stolen-car rings...often arrested and time in jail;
- Won entrance into West Point with false high-school transcript and basketball record;
- Forged a check, arrested and jailed;
- Drove to Lewis & Clark College Admissions in a stretch limo and identified himself as Adante Deangelo Ross, "this time, Diana’s nephew, 11th in his class and co-captain of Beverly Hills High School..." until the college discovered his deceit;
- Arrested and convicted of six more counts of check fraud.
Coming out of prison, a friend apparently asked him to drop a student off at Michael’s old high school. While there, he was mistaken for a student and ordered back to class by a hall monitor. This gave him the idea of going back to school (his time at Grant had been the best years of his life). Of course he could so only by deceit and establishing a false identity. Back at Ulysses S. Grant High School, Backman
- Created a fake transcript (school seal and all) with a 3.94 GPA;
- Gave a friend an autographed photo of Diana Ross with fake note of appreciation;
- Faked a teenage identity;
- Excelled in academics, voiced admirable values, helped students;
- Joined the a cappella choir;
- Promoted a fabricated story of his family’s slave background (ideas taken from the film, "Mandingo");
- So impressed classmates they elected him to student government.
Some weeks after he sang a Christmas solo ("O Holy Night"), he was confronted with his picture in the 1986 Yearbook during school by Portland police (they had been tipped off by an anonymous caller) and led away from the school in handcuffs.
Michael Backman has pleaded guilty to forgery and theft (for his "fraudulent purchase of a Ford Mustang"). His plea that "forging public documents" in his ruse as a high school student was part of his attempt to turn his life around was not accepted.
The students at Grant have expressed deep anger at being deceived and manipulated by Michael. He says he is really sorry for that and all his dishonesty. Michael claims to have finally learned his lesson. Senior Deputy District Attorney Patrick K Callahan hears that as "another round of the same b.s. he has given us all along." But his father, Bill Backman, told ABC’s Connie Chung that he and the family think and hope Michael has finally adopted a "different attitude." Michael’s confession to Connie seemed sincere.
An article in a Washington, Oregon local paper may add perspective on the story (Bernstein, M. [1999, January 13]. Grant impostor reflects on crime. The Oregonian. [Found on the internet].):
Michael Backman has been telling tall tales most of his life, but he says he learned a lot the second time around in high school.
Adopted when he was 21 months old, Backman attended Trinity Luther Church School, Beauont Middle School and Grant High School. He excelled in classes for the talented and gifted and displayed an extensive imagination. By age 12, he would disguise himself as a telephone operator and try to hook up with famous people, claiming he had collect calls holding for Peter Jennings or attempting to lure a pro golfer off the course to take his call, his parents said.
The practical jokes turned more serious as he grew older. He has been convicted of passing bad checks, opning phony bank accounts with aliases and fraudulently driving flashy cars off dealership lots, only to ditch them across the border in Canada in exchange for quick cash.
According to Backman, a tangle with the law interfered with his college plans. In June 1996, he was convicted of six counts of theft for opening bogus bank accounts at several Portland banks. He served eight months in boot camp and was released February 1997.
Backman praised his boot camp experience, where members of his platoon were directed to ‘return to the base line’ when they fouled up—meaning they were directed to go back to the last thing they did right.
‘In my mind,’ Backman said, ‘the last thing I think I did right was going to school. I thought, if I can go back and get grades I should have the first time around, maybe I could get a (college) scholarship. If it meant doing high school all over again, I was going to do that.’
A later article by the same author (Maxine Bernstein of The Oregonian, 13 February 1999) quotes the words of Judge Nancy W. Campbell who "called him a capable con man who has exhibited a pattern of deception and could even be fooling himself."
At the sentencing Judge Campbell looked down at Backman, standing before her in handcuffs and orange prison uniform, and explained:
It’s scary how you’re able to use your intellect to con people, and that makes you dangerous. It’s too difficult for any of us to tell whether you’re being sincere or not. You’re able to do it with car dealerships and schools. What scares me, whenever you’re out, you’ll do something else.
By now, most will be convinced that Michael Backman should be punished for his crimes against property. But what if his only lie was forging documents to get himself back into school? Is it impossible to separate the two matters in a life that began as pretend and ended in habitual deceit?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- What does this story reveal about lying and truth?
- Who, does it seem, were Michael’s primary role models and formative friendship groups? How did he form his identity and how do you see that identity?
- Do you have much hope for Michael this time around (when he finally gets out of prison)?
- What would you offer Michael? What does Michael need to learn, and how can he learn it?
- Where in your life were you most deceitful or did you come closest to being dishonest?
- Lying can arise out of insecurity, fear, or as a means of getting something we desire and don’t think we can get in acceptable ways.
- The stress of daily schedules and pressures to obtain higher grades, lead many, if not most, students to cheat at one time or another.
- When a society erases or blurs lines between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, it develops a gray area, which those without strong internal values can exploit.
- Without honesty, there can be little trust. And without trust, the foundations of business, personal relationships, and society begin to erode.
- The issue of cheating and lying must be dealt with by more than negative injunctions. Issues of identity and values, truth and rightness, must, not only be discussed, but lived out in the home, school, workplace, and politics.
Dean Borgman cCYS