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Monday, August 14, 2006
Author Armistead Maupin's works have been reaching a new national audience lately. The film version of his novel The Night Listener hit theaters nationwide last week, and the miniseries based on his Tales of the City novels is currently enjoying a successful rerun on Logo.
“I'm thrilled that Tales is reaching a new generation of gay people,” Maupin tells AfterElton.com. “The work manages to transcend the decades.”
Maupin's literary works are often autobiographical in nature, inspired by true-life events and real people he has known. “I mine my emotions for my novels,” he says. “It's not that I have a deeply confessional nature. I actually enjoy keeping part of my life private. But I do know that the closer you get to your own heart, the more believable your work is.”
A San Francisco resident since the early 1970s, Maupin's philosophy of gay life is decidedly more West Coast than East Coast. “People here are far more concerned with their insides than their outsides,” he says. “There's a lot more spiritual exploration, and the pursuit of happiness is not seen as something that involves brand names or hot bodies.”
As with many gay men, Maupin's early years were uniquely influenced by a close relationship with a special, older woman figure. In his case it was his maternal grandmother, Marguerite Smith Barton.
“She was my Anna Madrigal,” Maupin recalls, referring to the character from his Tales of the City novels. “Much of Anna's spirit came from my grandmother. Marguerite was a theosophist [a religious philosophy seeking universal brotherhood], and one of the leading women's suffragettes in England back around 1917. She read poems. She practiced vegetarianism before anyone else thought of it. She was a free spirit. My relationship with her was lovely.”
Maupin recalls an anecdote that reveals the Anna Madrigal in Marguerite: “When I was about 14, my grandmother and I were walking to a garden party. There was a woman in front of us in serious Joey Heatherton drag — lots of pink and ruffles, perfume, spike heels. My grandmother turned to me and said, ‘Any woman who is all woman, or any man who is all man, is a complete monster — unfit for human company.' That was quite a radical thing to say back in the 1950s.”
Maupin's gift for colorful storytelling was often inspired by the movies, especially those from director Alfred Hitchcock, gay dramatist John Van Druten, and gay novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood.
“Vertigo was my number one influence,” Maupin says. “I jumped at the chance to write Night Listener because I felt it was closer to a Hitchcockian exercise than anything I'd ever done.”
Maupin notes that Tales of the City also has Hitchcockian influences, and compares parts of it to Rear Window. “You have someone looking at someone through binoculars across the way. Of course, in Tales they were both masturbating,” he says with a laugh, “but it's roughly the same thing.”
Maupin says he was also influenced by Bell, Book and Candle, a film based on John Van Druten's play of the same name. “After seeing the film,” Maupin recalls, “I asked Chris Isherwood if the gay subtext of Bell, Book and Candle was intentional, and he said, ‘Oh, absolutely!'”
He elaborates: “Bell, Book and Candle is about witches living in New York City. They have special ‘witch bars,' and they are always worrying about being outed. It's one long gay parable. I screened the film as part of my Guilty Pleasures film program down in L.A. some years back, and pointed out all the gay subtext in it.”
Van Druten also adapted Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories for the play I Am a Camera, which became the film Cabaret. And Cabaret was key in helping Maupin concoct both the premise for Tales of the City and its central character, Anna Madrigal.
“Cabaret helped formulate the idea of the apartment house in my head,” Maupin says. “Chris Isherwood was basically writing about an omnisexual group of people with an eccentric landlady in his The Berlin Stories.”
Maupin adds that he was also influenced by Breakfast at Tiffany's. “I've since come to appreciate the novella far more than the film,” he says. “But the movie did suggest that apartment houses held the secret to the universe.”
Maupin's literary works have lent themselves to all kinds of artistic treatments. As a librettist, he collaborated with composer Jake Heggie on Anna Madrigal Remembers, a musical work based on Tales of the City. Perhaps the only choral chamber piece ever written for a transsexual character, the composition received its world premiere in 1999 in San Francisco.
“It's surprising,” Maupin admits. “Frankly, when I write a novel I'm not thinking about it appearing in any other form, so I'm always a little bit stunned when it happens. Jake simply said, ‘Give me two or three pages and I'll set it to music,' so that's what I did.”
In addition, Maupin's novel The Night Listener was made into a BBC radio play, and he says that “there've been offers on it from every direction,” including an offer from composer Steven Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked) to adapt the novel into a musical. “Ultimately [Schwartz] found it was something he couldn't get a handle on,” Maupin says.
One of Maupin's current projects is adapting Babycakes, the fourth book in the Tales series, for film. “The screenplay is finished and I am very happy with it,” he says. “It is written as a stand-alone film. We are still looking for an outlet.”
As a novelist who has repeatedly had to edit down his books for film, Maupin expresses a special wish for a possible future project. “I would love to write an original screenplay,” he explains, “and not have the agony of having to reduce — as John Le Carré put it — ‘an ox into a bouillon cube.' It's very difficult adapting a novel for the screen. It's two different creatures entirely. Whole subplots have to be lost along the way. It would be fun to have the film as my starting point.”
Works like Tales of the City and Night Listener, which are so infused with Maupin's own life experiences, have a natural appeal for gays of his baby-boomer age group. His popular literary voice helped reveal this entire generation's gay life to the world.
“All of my work has been done in real time,” he says. “I always try to capture my emotions of the moment. If the clock says I've aged, well, so has my material. I'm not deliberately speaking to my generation; I'm speaking to my own experience . That, in turn, reaches people like me who were the first generation of openly gay men and women who chose to live their lives openly.”
Maupin is now at work on a new novel, Michael Tolliver Lives, that will no doubt reflect his own current stage in life; it is due to be published next summer. “It involves the central character, Michael 'Mouse' of Tales of the City, today,” explains Maupin. “He is now a 55-year-old gardener. Like a lot of gay men he thought he was going to be dead 20 years ago. And now he's lived to face the issues of AIDS.”
He continues: “Much like me, he has a partner who is considerably younger than he is. I've been partnered with a guy named Chris Turner for the past two years. So I'm able to draw off it — from the joy and the comedy of that experience.”
As a gay man entering his senior years, the subject of aging now takes center stage for Maupin. “I think it's the central issue of our generation,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who are trying to figure out how to be good old gay people — how to do it well, how to be the best you can for your age. In my case that has to do with trying to be the best version of 62 I can imagine. Not to try and recreate something I felt I had 30 years ago.”
Maupin says, “Interestingly enough, my partner, Christopher, runs a personals website for men over 40.” Maupin laughs. “I actually met him on the site. I saw this handsome 34-year-old there that made my heart beat faster. I bumped into him in the street a few months later and asked him for a date.”
Maupin has no problem openly sharing his thoughts and feelings on his love relationship. “It's something we both talk about,” he says of he and his partner. “I'm interested in it from the perspective of someone who's actually ‘old.' He's interested in it from the position of someone who likes ‘older guys.'”
He concludes: “I don't feel either one of us has anything to be ashamed of. I'm happy to share because I'm so damned happy. If someone had told me life would be this great at 62, I'd be a lot more cheerful along the way. I'm having the love affair of my life, and it feels wonderful.”
Monday, August 7, 2006
WARNING: In the course of this article, several key twists in The Night Listener are revealed. Full-bore spoiler warnings are in effect.
Armistead Maupin is the best-selling author of Tales of the City and, more recently, The Night Listener, the motion-picture adaptation of which has just been released. The book is based on the real-life case of Anthony Godby Johnson, a young boy supposedly dying of AIDS who penned a memoir entitled A Rock and a Hard Place. In the 13 years since its publication, it has been uncovered as a likely hoax and Johnson appears to have been a fabrication of his "guardian," despite maintaining long-distance friendships with a number of prominent people. One of those people was Maupin, who talked about the experience, and its eventual development into The Night Listener, at a recent press conference. A rotund, jovial man with a handlebar mustache and a friendly twinkle in his eye, Maupin possesses a natural flair for the dramatic; it's not hard to see why Robin Williams was cast as his alter ego in the film. A transcript of his Q&A session follows.
Question: Do you like to write?
Armistead Maupin: No. I like having written. (Laughter.) I love the benefits; I love what it brings me, I love the way it connects me with people, but I find the actual process solitary and depressing sometimes. I've always compared it -- in my case anyway -- to laying mosaic: putting down each little piece very slowly. You don't get to see the product until you can actually step back and look at it, and you have to keep the faith.
Q: How do you keep the faith?
AM: A mortgage. (Laughter.) I'm about halfway through a novel right now -- don't tell my editors that -- and I have to remember that I've been there before. That you always go, "OK, this is the point where you say you're not worth anything," and you know to work through it. The thing that always gets me, I think, is that everything I've ever written is fiction. I think, "I'm making this up. They're gonna figure out that I'm making this up." And then you have to tell yourself, "Well, that's what you do: you make it up."
Q: To those who aren't familiar with your body of work, do all of your stories deal with the sort of twist or question that this one (The Night Listener) does?
AM: Tales of the City, which is six volumes, is essentially a comedic work. It has serious moments, but it's essentially comedic. Yet it has sort of Hitchockian twists, especially in the first one: people are never what they seem to be... it's obviously fascinated me my whole life. And it probably has something to do with being gay. Gay people tend to go through life [that way]. You learn, even as a child, to see the difference between the way things appear to be and the way they really are.
Q: But doesn't that set you up, then? I mean your audience grows to expect some sort of twist and you have to top it or outdo it in some way...
AM: Well, life has a way of handing me these things. The Night Listener was just something that happened to me -- up to a point. The basic setup just fell into my lap 13 years ago, and I knew instantly that I would have to write about it. I was sent the [draft] of a book by a publisher in New York, written by a 14-year-old boy who was dying of AIDS, who had suffered abuse at the hands of his parents -- [it had] a sort of pederast-y ring to it -- and who had been rescued by a social worker. The book came with a forward by my friend Paul Monette, who was a wonderful writer living here in L.A. He died 10 years ago of AIDS. He was very sick at the time, but he had been contacted by the boy who had actually coaxed him into writing it. So Paul had written the forward to the book and Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers, the legendary children's show host) of all people had written the afterward. So it came with pretty impeccable credentials.
Q: What was your part going to be in all of this?
AM: I was asked to write a blurb. And I was so moved by the book -- and frankly a little envious of Paul, who had this amazing friendship with this almost saintly kid on the phone -- that I said, "Can I call him and tell him how much I like it?" So he spoke to the adoptive mother, and they said, "Oh he's a fan of Tales of the City, so he'd love to talk to you." And before I knew it, this kid with this surprisingly undeveloped voice was talking to me on the phone. I found him to be feisty and charming and bright, and not at all depressing considering all the things he had been through. And very gay-friendly, although he himself was heterosexually identified. He wasn't precious around me; he was just who he was. In those days, he was amazed that I didn't know who Cal Ripken was. We changed that to Derek Jeter [in the movie] to update it, but the interplay was the same.
Q: And you were in New York, and he was where?
AM: I was in San Francisco, and he was in Union City, New Jersey, just across the river from New York. Then about six months into this friendship, my partner at the time, Terry Anderson (who co-wrote the screenplay), listened to the mother for the first time. He had heard the boy before, and he talked to her for about 10 minutes, and hung up, and turned to me and said, "I can't believe you never noticed. It sounds like the same voice to me." That scene is in the movie, and it happened in real life. Terry actually didn't leave me until 1996, so the breakup was not concurrent with the mystery the way it is in the film. But as a writer, I felt I had to take the two pieces of really good shit that I had been given and combine them.
I could see it immediately, unlike Gabriel (Noone, Maupin's surrogate in the book), I wasn't obsessive about it. I made [Noone] obsessive because it was more interesting. I was mostly just excited as a writer. I thought, "My God, what if this is true? Why would anybody do this?" He was talking to the world. He was talking to Jermaine Jackson and Tom Robbins the writer, and Keith Olbermann had a very strong relationship with him. So I lived for six years, splitting my brain right down the middle: he's real/he's not real. Either thing could be true. And some days I would hear her very clearly in his voice, and other days I'd be certain that I was merely hoping that it was a ruse because it was such a good story.
Q: Did you ever confront him? I mean, in six years you weren't in New York once to just say, "Hey?"
AM: Oh absolutely. I tried many times, and I was invited many times, and the invitation was invariably retracted at the last minute for a number of reasons. "Oh, he's come down with something." "He's not feeling well now." Terry was HIV positive, and she'd say, "Terry might get something." We actually put it to the test in a big way because Tony -- that was the boy's name -- was a huge Yankees fan, and I was asked to make a speech at Yankee Stadium during the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. These were the Gay Games. I was to make a speech from the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium to 50,000 people -- about AIDS -- and I thought, "This is perfect." So we called him up and said, "Look, we're gonna send an ambulance, a limo, whatever you want, and take Tony, and put him in the dugout at Yankee Stadium so I can make this speech. I'll include him in the speech." And she was having none of it.
Poor Paul Monette. Towards the end of his life, Newsweek was suggesting that he had written the book. He was desperately trying to hang on to his reputation before he died, and he and his partner tried several times to meet [Tony]. And it was hard, because all the people around him -- his editor and his agent -- were still saying, "Trust us. He exists. We haven't seen him, but we're sure he exists."
Q: Were there photos?
AM: Yes. The first thing I got was a photograph. And this fascinates me because that's somebody. And that somebody is probably about 30 years old now. Tony would be 28, but who knows when the picture was taken? So somebody's out there who looks like that.
Q: Did the publishers begin to get cold feet? Was the book ever published?
AM: It was published and they've never renounced it. I actually called the editor of the current house that's publishing it and asked about it. Shortly before, Tad Friend had done a long article -- a long investigation -- in The New Yorker about five years ago. And they still haven't publicly acknowledged that it's a fake.
Q: And you don't feel angry that it's possible someone has used AIDS as a way of getting attention?
AM: I feel very angry about that part. I'm sure in her head, she's drawing sympathy and attention to the subject, but in fact a lot of people with AIDS -- including Paul, who was very weak -- had the life drained out of them by trying to be generous to this kid. And Paul eventually just cut off his connection with him: in part I think because he was wearing him out, and in part because he worried about whether [Tony] even existed. Tony called me shortly thereafter, and said, "Paul isn't talking to me anymore." This kid sobbing on the phone to me. "What do I make of this?" What could I make of it? It was a very odd thing, to live in this mystery for such a long time, and it wasn't until I saw a voice analysis that I really fully said, "There it is. There's the truth."
Q: You never confronted him?
AM: No, I'm a very non-confrontational person. I came out as a gay man to my parents in Tales of the City. I had Michael (the character in the book) come out to his parents, and my parents recognized very clearly what was being said. I don't tend to do that, and there was something very strange about having to say to this person I had talked to for a long time on the phone, "I don't think you're real." So I did it through the novel. I actually told him that I was about to write a novel about the two of us -- someone very like us -- and what happens when doubt was cast on the existence of the boy, the way it had been done by Newsweek. He said to me, "I'm a big boy. I know what fiction is." (Interesting phrase there, the lie alongside the truth.) "Go ahead. I'd love to see the manuscript; may I name the character?" So my imaginary boy named the imaginary boy in the novel -- supposedly after an imaginary friend of his.
Q: Did you ever meet the mother?
AM: Oh yes. When Oprah was doing her documentary on abused children and Tony took part in it -- only as a voice, mind you; they hired an actor to play the kid because Tony was too sick or too afraid of having his identity exposed. When that happened, we were invited to New York to meet Vicky (the mother) and the producer from ABC, who was doing the documentary, and I met her for the first time. She was a very pleasant, pretty, blonde, very large woman. I saw her and my first instinct was to hug her because I still wasn't sure. The woman had invited us to her apartment, and had huge blowup pictures of the kid up on the wall. I spoke to Tony afterwards, and he said. "How it was meeting Mom?" And I thought boy, I'd better answer this one carefully. Up until that point, he had always said, "Mom's a real babe." Well she was a lovely woman, but she wasn't a babe. So I said, "She's great. She was very sweet to me." And he said, "Were you surprised by how she looked?" I said, "A little bit; she was a little bit bigger than I thought she'd be." And he said, "Well, she put on all that weight when she adopted me." That's so interesting to me psychologically.
Q: When was the last time you spoke to either the mother or the son?
AM: She called me when the [draft of my book] was out. It began and ended with [drafts]. She said, "Somebody told me that you wrote a book trashing Tony." I said, "No, Vicky, I didn't trash him at all. I think it's a very loving portrait of his friendship." She said, "Oh good, I just want to make sure we didn't have to hire a lawyer." She was really sort of getting tough with me. And that was the last I heard from her.
Q: Has anyone else spoken to her of it?
AM: Well, she has a life in Lake Bluff, Illinois. She married a child psychologist. (Shocked laughter.) The editors -- David Roth, the guy that edited the original book told Terry recently in L.A. that I had done a terrible thing by stealing his story. And I approached his agent and said, "I'm just curious, in light of the recent revelations about JT LeRoy (another writer whose existence is likely a hoax) and the extraordinary parallel between the two things, if you've altered your opinions about Anthony Godby Johnson." And there was no response.
I think that a lot of people close to the story are extremely embarrassed, and I don't think they have any reason to be. All they were caught at was being compassionate.
Q: Do you think the JT LeRoy situation is more embarrassing? I mean, they had this person who was going to public events...
AM: I think it's more embarrassing because, you know, the New York Times photographer who did a spread on JT LeRoy said afterwards that it was perfectly obvious that "he" was a woman. That wasn't an effeminate boy or anything else, that was a woman. But you know, it's funny. They build such a bubble, such a mythology around the character. "Don't talk to him, he's very shy," and so forth. And we all walk very carefully around the subject of child abuse.
Q: Do you think people are too gullible?
AM: I think it's easier to be gullible now, especially with the Internet. I mean, everybody's got a horror story now. It's a shame. I think it's a widespread syndrome. Do you remember Kaycee (Nicole), the girl in the Midwest who was supposedly dying of leukemia? She had Internet buddies everywhere, and some clever bloggers got a picture of her and blew it up, and got a logo (on her clothing), and found out what high school she was from. The "mother" finally confessed that she had been doing it supposedly to bring attention to leukemia. I think it's chiefly about bringing attention to yourself. I think it's a feeling that you yourself are not worthy of sympathy or love, so you have to create someone who is.
Q: Do you think that this backstory that they create is something that really happened to them, or is it something they just make up?
AM: I don't know. That, of course, is the question that's raised in the film. That's a sympathetic way of looking at it.
Q: Given the very personal nature of this material, how difficult was it to hand it over to somebody else for the movie?
AM: I was so excited when they told me Patrick Stettner had agreed to take on the film, because I had seen The Business of Strangers, and it's just one long... how do you say mindfuck politely? I loved it, because it's just so creepy. It's about where your mind [goes], and I felt that was a perfect parallel to what's going on in The Night Listener. The notion that there aren't any villains here, but rather where our minds go and what we do with it.
Q: Now that the story has entered the world of fiction, do new aspects of the story come to you?
AM: The fiction fleshed out the truth. People came up to me at book signings, and at the time the book came out, I wasn't talking about any real-life inspiration. I was afraid that [Tony] still existed, and that I would be sitting there talking about this hoax when this one-lunged, one-legged, one-testicled boy would walk in. (She cut off the testicle, by the way, to explain why his voice wasn't changing. It lasted for so long that he was moving well into adolescence, and still sounding 13.)
In any case, people would come up to me at signings, lean very close, and whisper, "Anthony Godby Johnson." They'd just say his name to me. And I'd say, "Give me your phone number." And then we'd talk. I talked to an ex-nun, who'd arranged to bring a rabbi from Israel to convert him to Judaism because he said he wanted to convert. He was anything you needed him to be. To me, he was sort of a wisecracking secular humanist, very pro-gay, who would talk to me about homophobia and the AIDS wards. He was anything you needed him to be.
The best thing he ever did for me, and it was a great laugh, was when I was on the phone with him. He said, "Hang on, I've got another call I need to take." He came back two minutes later and said, "That was Fred," meaning Fred Rogers. And this was a time when Tales of the City had been under attack by the religious right, and PBS had dropped the sequel because of it. We had been condemned by three Southern legislatures -- one of the proudest moments of my life -- and he said, "Fred has a message for you: tell PBS to go fuck itself." I said, "Mr. Rogers does not say that!" and he said, "Oh you don't know how he talks!" [Mr. Rogers] is a Presbyterian minister, but [Tony] knew that I would think that that was just the coolest little insight.
Q: Do you ever think that this was maybe a split personality: something that she wasn't aware of?
AM: Well, she did a third voice one time, and that really freaked me out. [Tony] had always talked about a doctor that lived there, who helped to take care of him, and that way they could explain why he wasn't in a hospital. When I was told about the doctor, he was always this motorcycle-riding, tough-talking bisexual from Brooklyn. [Tony] would always tell these stories about what a great character he was. One time he said, "Jerry's here, you want to talk to him?" And Jerry came on the phone and it was a bad impersonation. It sounded like a third version of the same voice. It was very creepy.
Q: What effect to you think the experience had on you as a person? Did it make you bitter?
AM: Maybe I was grown-up enough, I don't know. I didn't feel like I'd lost my best friend, but some people did. I had to really talk some people -- mostly straight men -- down from a very bad place. They had assumed a sort of paternal relationship with him. Some of these guys aren't even willing to talk now, they're so embarrassed by it. I'm a gay man, I've lived with embarrassment. I don't feel I ever had anything to be embarrassed about. I don't understand why other people do. All I ever did was act on what I saw before me and what I thought needed to be done.
Q: Do you think this made you a less trusting person?
AM: I will be careful about who I open my life to again over the phone.
Q: How about as a professional creator of fiction, with the blur between someone who tells stories and someone who lies?
AM: That, of course, is the theme of the movie. Who's got factitious disorder here? Is it Gabriel or is it her? I know the difference, though I have to admit that I can tell anecdotes about my life, and can... refine them to a certain degree. But I do tell stories, and sometimes I think: is this the way it happened in the book, or is this the way it actually happened to me? I have to remember now.
Article published 08.07.2006.
Thursday, August 3, 2006
by Sura Wood
The world has indeed changed since Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City appeared in the 1970s as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle. Later, the columns were compiled into books, and there have been persistent rumors that Maupin has been working on yet another installment.
Fans will be glad to hear that another chapter will be out in the summer of 2007, though the author stresses that it won't be a continuation of Tales of the City, per se. "It's a novel told from the viewpoint of Michael Tolliver, the central gay character of Tales," explained Maupin in a recent interview. "He's 55 and a gardener living in San Francisco. He's HIV-positive, surviving with the help of Compevir, Lipitor, Welbutrin and Viagra."
Impeccably groomed and robust, Maupin took a brief respite from writing to talk about The Night Listener, a film adaptation of his novel of the same name. The story was inspired by Maupin's six-year phone relationship with Tony, a young boy dying of AIDS, a boy who turned out not to exist. Con artist Vicky Fraginales, pretending to be his mother, impersonated the boy. "She could be whatever you needed her to be," says Maupin.
An equal opportunity exploiter, Fraginales scammed many bright, accomplished people, including Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers), the author Tom Robbins, broadcaster Keith Olbermann and the gay writer Paul Monette, who, ravaged by AIDS, was close to the end of his life. "He was glad to talk to the child, whom he saw as a fellow moonwalker, as he put it, someone who could share his experience. What a violation he must have felt," says Maupin, who shares the wry wit and gentleness of the lead character in the film, played by his longtime friend Robin Williams. Unlike that character, however, he didn't have difficulty entertaining the possibility that he was being conned.
"I was excited because I felt this extraordinary story had fallen in my lap," he recalls. "At the same time, I didn't have any proof that the kid did not exist. So I was left in a kind of limbo." Any doubts he may have had were laid to rest after premier voice analyst Tom Owen, a man who identified a tape from Osama bin Laden, concluded that the two voices were from the same person.
Though San Francisco has been his home since 1972, Maupin retains a playful Southern charm from his years growing up in North Carolina, where, yes, in the late 1960s, he worked as a reporter at a television station owned by Jesse Helms, who broadcast firebrand editorials nightly. "It's the only dark secret I have, and it's hardly a secret," he says. "Jesse saw me as his protege. I can barely imagine it now myself. It might help to know that at the same time I was a Goldwater conservative and a naval officer, so was Harvey Milk. Just goes to show how much San Francisco changed my life, how much it opened up my heart and allowed me not only to see my own oppression, but the oppression of other people who were denied the American dream."
Over the last few decades, Maupin has witnessed revolutionary changes in the gay community. "I do feel sorry for gay people who have not had the experience of feeling that their personal lives were part of a major revolution. That's what those of us who came of age in the 1970s could feel. The sense that even a one-night-stand had political content in those days, because it meant that you were living your life freely and in defiance of the greater culture."
He has also seen and written about how AIDS, the specter of death that came with it, and the army of drugs available to treat or halt the progress of the disease have had a profound effect on relationships and sexual politics. Credited with coming up with the phrase "the cosmic joke of protease inhibitors," he prefers a term he coined in The Night Listener that refers to cocktail divorces, people whose lives were suddenly changed because of the possibility of surviving. "It worked in both directions," he says. "It wasn't just HIV-positive people leaving because they knew they had a fuller life ahead. It could be the negative partner leaving because he realized he wouldn't be leaving a dying person. It took the guilt out of leaving."
Maupin still finds his adopted city endlessly stimulating, the most "physically magical place" he's ever been. "There's something surprising me all the time. I love the rebellious, free-spiritedness nature of the population. The advances in human rights, the new frontiers of the LGBT community are fascinating to me. I have a transman in the new Tales. San Francisco never stops pushing the boundaries and trying to extend human freedom, American freedom to everyone who has yet to receive it."
Tad Friend dug deeper still. He revealed that “Vicki Johnson” was most likely Joanne Victoria Fraginals, an overweight single woman in her forties who then resided in Union City, New Jersey. 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.
Fraginals insisted that her “son” was very real, alive, and unwell, still guarding his identity to protect him from the rogue New York cops that were out to get him. Tony's website remained online, though it became inactive shortly after Friend’s article appeared and was never updated again.
Where is Vicki now?
Sometime in the late '90s, as Friend was conducting his investigation of the Invisible Boy, Vicki Fraginals married Dr. Marc Zackheim, a psychotherapist who worked with Indiana group homes for toubled teen boys and also maintained a private practice in Illinois. If there was a "Mr. Johnson", he had divorced Vicki without ever living together, because no one Ingrassia and Friend questioned had any knowledge of him, and the P.I. hired by Olbermann described Vicki as a single mother. The Zackheims settled in Illinois. In 1999 they adopted four brothers, ages 1-6. In 2004, Dr. Zackheim was accused of sexually fondling boys in the group home where he works. He was acquitted.
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'd have realized by now that Tony's 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 recieves phone calls and letters from Tony on occasion, and he 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.
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. For more information from and about Mr. Barrus, read the comments at the end of this post.]
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: 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 namd 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.
Vickie Fraginals was Steve's 4th-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 Vickie'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.
Anthony Godby Johnson, The Invisible Boy
Part I: A Boy Wonder
Tony Johnson was a Republican’s 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 disturbance that would make Harry Harlow’s monkeys look as calm as Buddhist 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 huge quantities of aspirin, and took such solace in study that he was enrolled in 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 had reached such an advanced stage it had 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, even spreading 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 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; not 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. Vickie, 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", 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, who 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 had 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 seventies/eighties San Francisco. Though he was a typically girl-crazy teenager, Tony was extremely sympathetic to the persecution suffered by gays and lesbians.
Vickie 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, and 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 secretly 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 fom 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. Vickie set up a 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 abuse does happen, and it happens right around the corner from where you live. But love can help ease the hurt, bring trampled children to their feet.
Vickie 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 the 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, and Maupin told ABC News the same thing happened to a rabbi who traveled 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 Bernstien. 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: Tony was embarrassed by his feminine voice, explaining he hadn’t gone through all the changes of puberty due to his illness. 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 her two overweight daughters... but no son. (Maupin recently appeared on Olbermann's show to discuss Tony: video here). Olbermann had given a thousand dollars to Vicki to help her pay for "black market" medication Tony desperately needed, and according to Maupin she solicitated 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.
Keith Olbermann was working on a book about baseball with Tony when his doubts surfaced. He reportedly hired a private investigator to look into the matter, and the evidence he provided convinced Olbermann that Tony was a figment of someone's imagination.
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 Vickie. 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 in 1989 or the early '90s of the sexual abuse of their son, 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.
No one fitting the description of the man known as Johnson was ever located, and Vicki Johnson was quick to verbally attack anyone who questioned her adopted son’s motives, much less his existence. Monette didn’t enter the fray, but it was clear he still believed in the truth of Tony and his story.
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 Tony’s World. 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 that 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.