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 might have 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. This man, Mr. Johnson (a pseudonym), immediately dispatched a social worker named Vicki to rescue Tony. Finally freed from the pedophile ring in 1989, Tony 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 resilience, 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, He was a lot like 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. Johnson 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, a 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 AIDS, 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 his “Pops” (Johnson was “Dad”). Tony collected several such “moms” and “dads” in his teen years, as though overcompensating for the absence of his biological 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 that he swapped 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 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 entered into correspondence with most of these men, 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. 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 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 attempting to visit. She explained that 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 their late-night calls. Gradually, Tony’s friends began to wonder why no one had met face-to-face with Tony. Not even his editors at Crown Publishers in New York nor his agent, Ron Bernstein, had ever met with the young man. 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, felt certain that Tony and Vicki Johnson were the same person. He pointed out to Maupin that their voices were nearly identical over the phone (Tony, embarrassed by his high voice, told callers he hadn’t gone through all the changes of puberty due to his illnesses). After his aborted visit to the Johnson household, Maupin began to have his suspicions, too.
They were not alone in their doubts. Gay author John Preston openly declared A Rock and a Hard Place a hoax. 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 person, causing the deal to collapse. This incident stirred the first serious doubts in Bernstein’s mind.
It was Keith Olbermann who first did some detective work. He had been so moved by A Rock and a Hard Place that he contacted Tony, and quickly become a supporter and “brother” to the boy. They were collaborating on a book about baseball when Olbermann’s doubts surfaced. He had been having 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 noises on the line – no other voices, no rummaging sounds, no indication that Tony was in a busy household or a hospital.
The private investigator Olbermann hired to check into Vicki and Tony found that Vicki used the surname Fraginals. She did not live in the Midwest. She lived in her hometown of Union City, New Jersey, with two adult women presumed to be her daughters (it is now known she didn’t have daughters). There was no sign of Mr. Johnson or Tony, and the second-story apartment the three women shared was not suitable for a sick boy. It was not even wheelchair-accessible.
Olbermann had given a thousand dollars to Vicki to help her pay for “black market” medication she claimed Tony desperately needed, and according to Maupin, Vicki had solicited donations from other supporters, too.
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. She found nothing. Her May 30, 1993 story on Tony was titled “The Author Nobody’s Met.”
The article should have ended there, since Ingrassia hadn’t been able to suss out any concrete information about Tony or his family, but Ingrassia then waded into borderline libelous speculation by hinting that Paul Monette had invented Tony and penned his memoir, perhaps 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 stated that while he had acted as Tony’s writing mentor over the phone, he had no part in the writing of A Rock and a Hard Place. He had never actually met Tony. Up to his death in 1995, Monette was uncertain whether Tony was a real person or not.
No one fitting the description of the man known as Earnist Johnson was ever located, though his service as an Air Force sergeant should have made him traceable. He had never appeared in public. Vicki Johnson was the sole spokesperson for Tony. As suspicions mounted, she became even more aggressive in her defense of him. She 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, at just 16 years old, he penned a regular column for a Hawaiian AIDS publication. He also maintained a Geocities website to update fans on his health and share articles about child abuse. It was through his online posting that people learned his father had been murdered by vengeful pedophiles in prison.
In 1997, his story was told in the ABC documentary About Us: The Dignity of Children, hosted by Oprah Winfrey (Winfrey, as you probably know, has been at the centre of a great many literary hoaxes over the years). 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” during this time. In phone calls, emails and letters Ms. Karsten confirmed that she was now the primary caregiver for Tony. He was an adult by this time, but still required constant care.
Karsten also announced that she was marrying a longtime Johnson family friend, Jerry DiNicola. In online postings, Karsten and Tony expressed fears of being attacked by the pedophiles who had abused Tony and killed his father, and seemed grateful that DiNicola was a tough guy who could protect them. He had fought in VIetnam and was even a POW.
Vicki and Earnist faded into the background. According to Tony, they had divorced and Vicki had moved to Illinois with her new husband.
Interest in Tony waned after this point. The questions surrounding his existence, A Rock and a Hard Place, and the mysterious Ms. Karsten were left unresolved.
Then, in 2000, at the end of a painful period of reflection and investigation, Maupin published his 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. In 1997 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 was released, however, Maupin received an angry call from Vicki. She was incensed that he had “trashed” Tony, and broke off all contact with him.
The novel 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.
Friend revealed that “Vicki Johnson” was most likely Joanne Victoria Fraginals, a single woman in her forties then residing 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.
LESLEY AND JERRY
Since A Rock and a Hard Place was released in 1993, several 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. Then a group of suspicious Metafilter friends looked into Kaycee’s 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. 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 a 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 his memoirs 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.”
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. She was remembered 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, a 26-year-old traffic engineer, was completely unaware of the Tony controversy and Vicki’s use of his photos. He recalled her as one of the “nicest” grammar-school teachers he had, but his family felt Mrs. Zackheim owed 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.