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Psychoanalytic tradition considers the nature of the imposter by referring to the work of Karl Abraham originally; during the 1950s, to the work of Helene Deutsch; and later to Phyllis Greenacre.

Their work contained descriptions of clinical cases as well as a comparison of famous imposters throughout history, like James MacPherson. The imposter is someone who pretends to be someone they are not. It is the falsification of identity that creates the imposture, the borrowed identity being that of someone else or that of an imaginary person with a different name or a different profession. The success of the imposture may depend on the complicity of others in the lie.

In truth none of the descriptions given in the literature goes much further than these relatively superficial findings. The attempt to create a composite picture of the imposter has failed because of the inaccuracy of the term itself, which is not conceptual, and the diverse personalities included under this term.

However, several characteristics have been advanced as being specific to the imposter. These include the compulsion to enact the family romance, disorders in the sense of identity (which are paradoxically relieved by the borrowed identity), and a malformed superego. Considered as a form of psychopathology, imposture has been classified among the perversions. Imposters are described as having usurped the role of the oedipal father and as identifying with the maternal phallus at an early age.