A Boy Wonder
Tony Johnson was a dreamchild: A kid who excelled effortlessly in school, never accepted handouts, and was determined to better himself, despite having a childhood that would’ve made Dickens blanch. What follows is Anthony Godby Johnson’s story as he told it in his 1993 memoir, A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story, and as experienced by some of the literary luminaries he befriended.
By his twelfth birthday, Tony had already been to hell and back. Born to outwardly average parents in New York City sometime in 1978, he was brutally beaten and pimped out to his policeman father’s friends on a routine basis from the age of four. He was deliberately deprived of food, a proper bed, and even minimal affection. By rights, Tony should have suffered psychological damage that would make Harry Harlow’s monkeys look as calm as monks, but Tony had the fortune to be an infinitely old soul with a blazing intellect. He mothered himself with episodes of Mr. Rogers and aspirin, and took such solace in study that he was transferred to a Brooklyn school for gifted children. Even a spell of suicidal depression at age 11 couldn’t keep him down, for he found unexpected salvation in the form of a suicide-hotline worker. The man, Johnson (a pseudonym), immediately dispatched a social worker named Vicki to rescue Tony. Finally freed from the pedophile ring in 1989, the boy was diagnosed with several serious ailments, including untreated syphilis that had reached such an advanced stage it caused permanent damage to his lungs. He would spend most of his teen years in and out of hospital, always on the verge of death.
Tony was not destined to become the sum of his setbacks, but a magnetic force. People of all ages were drawn to his humor, his resiliency, his astonishing strength of character. In many ways he was a typical teenager, swearing like a sea captain and talking baseball and girls, yet he radiated the inner peace of a lama… or perhaps of his heroes, Mr. Rogers and Kermit the Frog. The miraculous touched every corner of his life and spread to those around him. The man who talked him out of committing suicide, Mr. Johnson, was so taken with Tony that he called him his son, and traveled to New York to meet him. The man instantly fell in love with Tony and his new mom, Vicki. Vicki and Johnson married and adopted Tony, relocating to a town in the Midwest where the New York pedophiles couldn’t find them.
Tony flourished. Despite continual bouts of pneumonia that required lung-draining, an inexplicable stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed, and a coma, Tony graduated from high school at fourteen with the help of private tutors. Good colleges courted him. Then he tested positive for the AIDS virus, sending his new family into a tailspin.
The Make-a-Wish Foundation supplied 14-year-old Tony with a computer so he could begin writing his life story. This would not be the story of his near-destruction at the hands of his parents and their buddies, but the story of his salvation, and the blooming of love and compassion that followed. Vicki, Johnson, and a coterie of new friends relentlessly encouraged Tony to fulfill his destiny. To do that, he would need some mentors. One of them was AIDS counselor Jack L. Godby, a gay black man from Arkansas who got to know Tony through correspondence and phone conversations. Godby formed such a close bond with Tony that Godby became “Pops” (Johnson was “Dad”). Tony collected several such “moms” and “dads” in his teen years, as though overcompensating for the loss of his own family.
Tony was drawn to the stories of other survivors, writers like Paul Monette and Armistead Maupin, both of whom had both been touched by AIDS. (Maupin had lost friends and lovers to AIDS, and Monette had been diagnosed in 1991). At thirteen, Tony was such a devoted fan of Monette, he traded sports magazines for copies of his novels Love Alone and Borrowed Time during one of his many hospital stays. He raptly listened to radio installments of Maupin’s Tales of the City, the bittersweet sexual adventures of a group of gays and lesbians in ’70s and ’80s San Francisco. Though he was a typically girl-crazy teenager, Tony was extremely sympathetic to the persecution suffered by gays and lesbians.
Vicki encouraged her son to write to some of his heroes, and he did. He penned fan letters to Mr. Rogers, Monette and Maupin, Mickey Mantle, Tom Robbins, Bob Paris, Jermaine Jackson, and Keith Olbermann, among others. He cultivated correspondence with most of these heroes, but others developed an even stronger bond with the boy through marathon phone conversations. These worldly older men were invariably charmed and awed by Tony’s disarming combination of childlike simplicity (he still loved coloring books), wisdom, and grit.
Monette, Maupin, and Mr. Rogers all provided blurbs for A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story. Maupin wrote, “I want to be like this young man when I grow up.” Monette and Jack Godby provided introductions for the book, Fred Rogers the afterword. Crown Publishers released the book in 1993, when Tony was just fifteen years old. He wasn’t expected to live long.
Armistead Maupin became more closely involved with Tony than any of the boy’s other mentors soon after his editor, David Groff of Crown Publishers, sent him a copy of Tony’s manuscript for perusal. A warm but unfawning phone call from Tony reinforced his impression that this boy had a unique voice. Maupin became one of the many adults to phone Tony at his new home in the Midwest to offer him ongoing support and encouragement. Like the others, he discovered that Tony, laid up in bed most the time and too weak to do anything that other 14-year-olds do, gave far more than he took. He could relate to adults on an entirely mature level, and he radiated humor and strength. In a string of late-night phone conversations that were often interrupted by Tony’s violent fits of coughing, the celebrated gay author and the tough-talking, scrappy teenager formed such a tight bond that Maupin tentatively began referring to Tony as his son. Tony called him Dad.
In his fourteenth and fifteenth years, Tony lost a leg and a testicle to AIDS and contracted TB. Death seemed so imminent that his loved ones lived in fear of it, but Tony focused only on living. By all accounts, he rarely (if ever) slid into depression or self-pity. Everyone connected to him took courage from this precocious strength, and when it was published, A Rock and a Hard Place deeply affected readers across the U.S., from clinical social workers to grade-school teachers. Vicki set up a Geocities website, Tony’s World, through which her son could update fans on his condition and post articles on child abuse issues. His story was a wake-up call to all adults: Horrific child happens right around the corner from where you live. But love can bring trampled children to their feet.
Vicki Johnson was Tony’s primary caregiver while Mr. Johnson worked, and she protected him fiercely. The family’s real identity was concealed to prevent his former abusers from locating him, since most of them had not even been investigated for molestation. Everyone who knew Tony through phone conversations, including Maupin and Monette, were eager to meet Tony. He was open to the idea, and so was Vicki, but due to his health and safety concerns, face-to-face meetings never took place. Maupin once made it all the way to the Midwest only to be told that Tony was too sick to receive visitors (he later told ABC News the same thing happened to a rabbi who traveled all the way from Israel to see Tony). Finally, Vicki Johnson politely insisted that phone friends refrain from stopping by. Tony was lurching from one medical crisis to the next, always on the precipice of death, and any excitement could undo him. Vicki even began to change her phone number frequently, presumably to prevent Tony’s fans from interrupting his recovery with continuous calls. Gradually, Tony’s friends began to wonder why no one had personally met with Tony, not even his editors at Crown Publishers in New York nor his agent, Ron Bernstein. Anthony Godby Johnson was the Invisible Boy, always a phone call away but forever out of reach.
Before the end of 1993, suspicions were cropping up in the literary world. Armistaud Maupin’s partner, Terry Anderson, was positive Tony and Vicki Johnson were the same person, pointing out that their voices were nearly identical over the phone (Tony, embarrassed by his feminine voice, explained he hadn’t gone through all the changes of puberty due to his illnesses). After his aborted visit to the Johnson household, Maupin had his suspicions, too.
Keith Olbermann had been so moved by A Rock and a Hard Place that he contacted Tony, and quickly become supporter and “brother” to the boy. They were collaborating on a book about baseball when Olbermann’s doubts surfaced. He also had phone chats with Vicki and one of Tony’s doctors, and gradually noticed that all three voices sounded extremely similar. Also, there were never any background conversations or noises when the three people were supposedly in the same room. The private investigator he hired to check into Vicki and Tony’s story found that Vicki lived with two adult women presumed to be her daughters (it is now known she didn’t have daughters). Olbermann had given a thousand dollars to Vicki to help her pay for “black market” medication Tony desperately needed, and according to Maupin, Vicki had solicited donations from other supporters, too.
One reader discovered that none of the schools in Brooklyn matched the description of the gifted students’ school that Tony attended.
Ron Bernstein, Tony’s agent, had almost struck a deal with HBO to make a film about Tony when Vicki declared that no one from HBO would be allowed to see Tony in his person, causing the deal to collapse. This incident stirred the first serious doubts in Bernstein’s mind.
Gay author John Preston openly declared A Rock and a Hard Place a hoax.
Newsweek reporter Michele Ingrassia was the first person to investigate Tony’s background thoroughly. She interviewed his editor at Crown, his publicist, some of his penpals, the Make-a-Wish worker who arranged for Tony to receive his computer, and the head of an HIV/AIDS group who was in contact with Tony and Vicki. None of these people had ever laid eyes on Tony. Ingrassia next tried to find any record of a NYC policeman and his wife being convicted of the sexual abuse of their son in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and found nothing. Her story on Tony was titled “The Author Nobody’s Seen”.
The article should have ended there, but Ingrassia waded into very slanderous speculation by hinting that Paul Monette had invented Tony in a misguided effort to raise AIDS awareness. This idea was picked up by other media outlets, then quietly dropped when supporting evidence failed to surface. Monette didn’t enter the fray, but it was clear he still believed in the truth of Tony and his story.
No one fitting the description of the man known as Johnson was ever located. Vicki Johnson was quick to verbally attack anyone who questioned her adopted son’s motives, much less his existence.
To everyone’s astonishment, Tony continued to survive and thrive. In 1994, just sixteen years old, he penned a regular column for a Hawaiian AIDS publication and maintained his Geocities website. In 1997, his story was told in the ABC documentary About Us: The Dignity of Children, hosted by Oprah Winfrey. An actor portrayed the younger Tony, and his voice and identity were disguised. Strangely, reports surfaced that Tony was living with the documentary’s producer, Lesley Karsten, as her “son”.
At the end of a painful period of reflection and investigation, Maupin wrote a thinly fictionalized account of his experience with the Invisible Boy, The Night Listener. He had been talking to Tony for over six years at this point, and though he had never confronted Tony or Vicki about his suspicions for fear he could be wrong, the time had come to deal with his nagging inner voice. Maupin told Tony and Vicki that he was writing the novel. Amazingly, Tony accepted this with quiet grace. “I’m a big boy,” he told his friend. “I know the difference between fact and fiction.” Maupin even asked Vicki to name the boy character in the book, and she chose “Pete”. Vicki became “Donna”.
After the novel came out, however, Maupin received an angry call from Vicki. She was incensed that he had “trashed” Tony, and never spoke to him again.
The novel’s publication in 2000 sparked fresh interest in the mystery of the Invisible Boy, leading journalist Tad Friend to investigate. His story, “Virtual Love”, appeared in the November 22, 2001 issue of The New Yorker. Like Ingrassia, Friend concluded that no one but Vicki Johnson was willing to admit seeing Tony Johnson with her own eyes, though Maupin and perhaps other friends had received snapshots of an adorable preteen boy with light-brown hair, big brown (or green) eyes, and a radiant smile. This boy remained unidentified for many years.
Tad Friend dug deeper still. He revealed that “Vicki Johnson” was most likely Joanne Victoria Fraginals, a single woman in her forties who then resided in Union City, New Jersey. A former schoolteacher, she may have worked as a social worker, but there was no sign of a husband or ex-husband who fit the description of Johnson. Earlier, Michele Ingrassia had visited the pharmacy below Vicki’s apartment and learned that no one there knew of Tony.
Where is Vicki now?
Marc Zackheim now acts as the family spokesman whenever someone inquires about Tony. He has accused Maupin of inventing the hoax scenario to exploit Tony’s story for his own profit. This still wouldn’t explain why so many people “close” to Tony also doubt that he ever existed, nor why the same voice analysis expert who identified Osama bin Laden’s voice on tape, Tom Owen, determined that the recorded voices of Vicki and “Tony” issued from the same person. Nor why “Tony” and the Zackheims still hide his identity from the world, when the threat from the pedophiles is long past (surely they have realized by now that Tony is not going to expose them). Since Vicki and Mark apparently met after Tony came of age, it’s possible Dr. Zackheim actually believes his wife’s stories of having raised an AIDS-afflicted teenager. But that’s unlikely. Dr. Z has threatened legal action against people attempting to investigate Tony’s background, a threat so empty one has to wonder why he feels desperate enough to utter it. Perhaps he knows exactly how unstable his wife is, and is only trying to protect her from further humiliation.
A slim possibility remains that Tony was/is real, and his story was dramatically altered to protect his identity. He was ill as a teen, but never as close to death from AIDS as his friends were led to believe. This still leaves burning questions. Why did Tony and Vicki invent a husband/father named Johnson? Why were trusted friends denied even the briefest visits? How did an expert mistake Tony’s voice for Vicki’s? And why has Tony stopped being a voice in the AIDS community?Very few of Tony’s former friends cling to this hope. Many of them, like Keith Olbermann, don’t speak publicy of him anymore (no one is ever eager to admit they’ve helped further a hoax, even unwittingly). Jack L. Godby, the AIDS counselor who wrote an introduction for A Rock and a Hard Place, is a notable exception; he still receives phone calls and letters from Tony on occasion, and seems to believe his “son” is real.To this day, Vicki Zackheim claims Anthony Godby Johnson (now 28) is alive. If so, he truly is a miracle. He contracted AIDS no later than 1989, long before any of today’s AIDS drugs were introduced, yet somehow survived bouts of pneumonia; TB; a stroke; a coma; and the losses of his leg, spleen, and one testicle. Medical researchers would be knocking down his door, if they knew where to find it. Sadly, this medical and emotional miracle has gone silent. He didn’t even surface long enough to rebut The Night Listener or Tad Friend‘s “Virtual Love”. The Invisible Boy is now the Invisible Man, lost in the shadow of Vicki Zackheim, the Invisible Woman.
Note: Marc Zackheim passed away in 2009.
Since A Rock and a Hard Place, a few eerily similar (and equally mysterious) hoaxes have been perpetrated. In the late ‘90s, an online community rallied around 19-year-old Kansan Kaycee Nicole Swenson, a cancer patient. Her supporters were devastated when she died of a brain aneurysm in 2001, until a group of suspicious Metafilter friends looked into her story and discovered that Kaycee was the invention of a middle-aged mother named Debbie Swenson, who did not have cancer. Swenson feebly explained that she created Kaycee to tell the stories of real cancer patients she had known.
Then there’s the case of “J.T. LeRoy”, an HIV-positive cross-dresser who wrote darkly comic fiction about his life as a boy prostitute. Earlier this year, San Francisco musician Geoffrey Knoop finally confessed – under pressure from suspicious reporters – that J.T. was the invention of his 40-year-old girlfriend, Laura Albert. He/she was played in public by Albert or by Knoop’s younger sister, Savannah, sporting dark sunglasses and blonde wigs.
Scarcely a week after the James Frey and J.T. LeRoy scandals erupted, Navajo author Nasdijj was unmasked as well. Nasdijj had written three acclaimed memoirs. In The Blood Flows Like a River Through My Dreams (2000), he described the life and death of his adopted son, “Tommy Nothing Fancy”, who suffered severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Geronimo’s Bones (2004) was about his own childhood on the reservation and in migrant-worker camps. The Dog and the Boy are Sleeping (2003) was about the life and death of his second adopted son, an AIDS-afflicted 12-year-old boy named Awee, and the difficulties of obtaining adequate AIDS care on the reservation. Other Navajos had their doubts about Nasdiij, but that didn’t stop the New York Times and other prestigious publications from giving him rave reviews. Then reporter Matthew Fleischer of the LA Times revealed that Nasdijj was really Tim Barrus, a middle-class white man from New Jersey whose first career – as an author of gay erotica – had failed. Barrus isn’t Native, wasn’t raised by migrant workers, and never adopted children. [Correction: Barrus and his wife, who divorced sometime in the ’70s, adopted and briefly cared for a boy reportedly suffering from autism. He survived to adulthood.]
Commenting on the James Frey/J.T. LeRoy scandals, Armistead Maupin told ABC News, “I assumed the publishing industry would be embarrassed. But the problem is that the publishing industry salivates a little too hard over the Jerry Springeresque stories.”
Update (2007): The Boy in the Photos Has Been Identified
Thanks to ABC’s 20/20, which aired a story on the questions surrounding “Tony” around the time the film The Night Listener was released, the little boy in the photos sent to Maupin and others has been identified. A New Jersey woman named Cary Riecken, watching the program, recognized him as Steve Tarabokija, a grade-school classmate of her son at Sacred Heart Grade School in North Bergen, New Jersey (two other viewers recognized him, as well). Cary Riecken and the Tarabokija family appeared on a 20/20 update on January 12, 2007.
Vicki Fraginals had been Steve’s fourth-grade teacher at Sacred Heart, rememberd as a very involved teacher who threw herself into activities like school plays and frequently took photos of her students. Cary Riecken characterized her as a woman who craved attention and pity.
Steve, now a 26-year-old traffic engineer, was completely unaware of the Tony controversy and Vicki’s use of his photos. He recalls her as one of the “nicest” grammer-school teachers he had, but his family feels Mrs. Zackheim owes him an apology.
In lieu of an explanation, the Zackheims’ lawyer sent a 140-page document to 20/20, with sworn statements from the Zackheims and three other people who claim to have met Tony in person. The document didn’t address the photos at all.
The blurry image of “Tony” on the front cover of A Rock and a Hard Place was also a photo of Steve Tarabokija.