In Monty Python's Life of Brian
(1979) Brian is captured during the daring raid on Pilate's palace
and thrown into a Roman dungeon. His new cellmate is less than
reassuring. "Proper little gaoler's pet, aren't we?"
he says contemptuously from his position chained to the wall,
and proceeds to give his fondest wish. "My idea of heaven
is to be allowed to be put in manacles . . . just for a few hours.
They must think the sun shines out o' your arse, sonny."
Later on, when Brian is among the members of the day's crucifixion
party, he curses them, "Lucky bastards! Lucky, jammy bastards!"
You'll recall that in Harry Potter
and the Philosopher's Stone (1997), Harry lives in a windowless
room under the stairs of his aunt's and uncle's house; he is
ignored and slighted in favor of their son Dudley. Four years
previously, a book was published whose protagonist could say
to Harry, "Proper little jailer's pet, aren't we? They must
think the sun shines out of your ass."
Tony was born in 1977, three years before
Harry Potter's given birthdate. His parents were very friendly
-- except, perhaps, to him. He was denied a proper bed, clothes,
even a toothbrush. At age five he got a letter from Santa saying
that he had been a bad boy and wouldn't be getting any presents.
Two years later his mother offered him
a way to earn presents. She introduced him to her friend Jake
who in turn introduced the boy to the joys of pederastic sodomy.
Tony's parents were, it seemed, associated with a ring of homosexual
boy-lovers and Tony was just fresh meat. Often needing to be
tenderized, it seemed.
One day after a particularly harsh beating,
Tony decided to escape irrevocably. Before he committed suicide,
he did call a hot line, and got directed to go to child welfare.
There, he met a friendly counselor, who adopted him and persuaded
him to stay alive. Which was hard, since he had syphilis and
fifty-four broken bones. His health deteriorated after that,
beginning with a stroke, drug-resistant tuberculosis, bouts of
pneumonia, medical complications that required the amputation
of one leg and removal of a testicle and his spleen, shingles,
neuropathy, and then, just when you'd think it couldn't get worse,
he came down with AIDS in 1991.
Tony had applied himself, managing to earn
a high-school diploma by the age of thirteen. In spite of this
final blow, or perhaps because of its nature, he began to reach
out, and began a correspondence with AIDS activist, writer, and
fellow-sufferer Paul Monette, author of Love Alone (1988)
and Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (1988).
He had a gift, an inspiration, and a stimulus,
and under this loving tutelage Tony began to write. The result
was a memoir of his horrible life, A Rock and a Hard Place
(1993). The book became a bestseller. Tony got many more friends,
from the humble to the famous. Fred Rogers, the host of the children's
show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" became his endorser,
comforter, and after-word writer, for example. The Make-A-Wish
Foundation couldn't help him fast enough; they gave him a computer.
In all this paradise there was but one
serpent. Nobody saw Tony.
His adoptive mother, that kind counselor
Vicki Johnson, had plenty of reasons. Tony was so dreadfully
dreadfully sick, he was a hazard to others and others were a
hazard to him. Beyond that, there was the gang. Tony's father
had been killed in prison, after a trial where the judge had
been so horrified at the evidence that he had permitted Tony
not to have to testify, but there were other friends of Tony's
parents out there. Rogue cops, who would kill to silence this
So, all the facts in Tony's story were
. . . fuzzed. And more to the point, he would not dare let anyone
see him, lest they work for . . . them. Yet for someone who needed
to lay low, he had a remarkably wide circle of contacts; he would
reach out and touch them on a daily basis. One of his other counselors,
for example, would "tuck him into bed" every night
by telephone. Tony even took his name, after a fashion; he was
named Jack Godby and Tony became "Anthony Godby Johnson".
Yet Jack never met Tony in person either.
The first investigation was by Michele
Ingrassia, for Newsweek, in their May 31, 1993. She
reported all the problems with Tony, all the people who knew
him but had never met him. Tony wrote in and answered her concerns.
He felt rather put out that he had to prove that he existed.
And so it sat for eight years. In 2001,
New Yorker writer Tad Friend picked up where Ingrassia
had left off, in an article published in their November 26 issue.
Tracing Tony's past and present led him into a wilderness of
mirrors. Crucial people in his life either did not exist or were
not what they said they were. His beloved stepmother, Vicki Johnson,
had married and handed Tony over to another stepmother.
Technology had advanced in the past few
years, and Tony had a website and a strong e-mail presence. He
even sent e-mails to Friend. Yet he was still so crucially ill
that he could not see anyone, still in mortal danger from his
parents' friends, still annoyed that he had to prove himself
Ingrassia and Friend raised a number of
points in their articles. Ingrassia had argued that his health
was not so utterly endangered that he could not be seen -- and
indeed, he was "seen" by not only a more positive writer
but by a camera crew, filming him for the Oprah show. Friend
described his health problems to a doctor, bit by bit, ending
with the doctor saying somewhat cautiously, "This is one
unique individual." But people with improbable health problems
can survive: I recall Blanche Taylor Moore's last fiancé,
who ingested several toxic doses of arsenic and lived.
Ingrassia commented on Tony's writing style
and, particularly, references being far more mature than should
have been the case for the teenaged writer of A Rock and
a Hard Place. I would not want to say that someone who earned
a high-school equivalency diploma at age thirteen, after long
neglect as well, was necessarily limited in intellectual background.
Again, Friend made a personal investigation
of the neighborhood where Tony supposedly lived. No one remembered
anything of the sort. But then, if he were so threatened, it
would be prudent to fictionalize the details of his life.
Improbabilities have been known to occur.
One of the methods of crime investigation is the convergence
of evidence; no one item can be conclusive, but the convergence
of many items of evidence leads to a conclusion. If the convergence
is on improbabilities, each unlikely, and their combination even
more so, the conclusion is as obvious.
Tracing this, getting confirmations, is
also a problem. So many of the key people of Tony's life are
dead or unavailable. Friend kept on running into dead ends; doctors
with no licenses anywhere, Vietnam prisoners of war not on prisoner
of war lists (this looks like a job for Jug Burkett: see Stolen
Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and
Its History by B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley (1998)),
and so on. Note that no one who had dealt with Tony during his
many hospital stays, for example, wrote in to describe how moved
she (or he) was by the example of this so gallant, so battered
boy and his perseverance under this cruel burden, his fortitude
in the face of a so hideous death.
One comment that Friend makes is more revealing
than he says, or even may know: "I began to hear from a
number of people in Tony's inner circle whom I had tried to reach
earlier; many of them sent me E-mails that were copied to Tony's
agent, Wendy Weil. Often, a question I had asked one person was
addressed or dismissed in an E-mail from another person."
This comes across as suspiciously like "sock-puppeting"
-- creating e-mail correspondents who just happen to support
you in a Net debate. And careless sock-puppeting, at that.
Neither Ingrassia nor Friend touches overmuch
on the most credibility-straining part of the story. They both
made a brief pass at the New York City prosecutor's office, which
denied ever having prosecuted any case as Tony had described.
That assumes that the case was in New York City; if Tony had
blurred his background, it probably would not have been.
However, the trial supposedly took place
at the end of the nineteen-eighties. That is to say, at the height
of the child-molestation controversy; the McMartin Preschool
case in California was dragging on (after a grueling string of
trials, the defendants would be acquitted), the Wee Care case
in New Jersey had just ended with defendant Kelly Michaels being
convicted on 115 counts of abuse and sentenced to 47 years in
prison (overturned on appeal), and not long before that, the
Fells Acres case in Massachusetts had come to a verdict (but
is still, even today, not settled) and Grant Snowden had been
sent away by a devoted District Attorney in Florida (who had
to see her case thrown out on appeal, in 1998).
That wasn't the era of CNN, Fox, and all
that 24/7 news-hungry cable. However, all the cases listed above
had ample and even overwhelming coverage in the press and media
then. It seems highly implausible that such a lurid case -- parents
prostituting their son to a ring of gay cops and even more important
people -- could not escape notice. Particularly with the long
string of appeals that would follow when, as Tony reported, the
judge was so disturbed by his parents' behavior that he excused
Tony from testifying. "Confronting one's accuser" and
all that -- which has caused reversals in other such trials.
So much of the reported behavior ascribed
to Tony seems to be convenient. He was too sick to see anyone
who has questions, but friendly people get access. He was in
hiding from this secret, powerful gang, yet he called and e-mailed
Recent literary hoaxes have given this
story a revival. Gritty novelist J.T. LeRoy, chronicler of his
own life as a prostitute and drug addict, turned out to be a
middle-aged woman named Laura Albert. Here was a mysterious,
hidden figure who appeared in public. But then, he only had AIDS.
(Which seemed to have cleared up after a while, particularly
the Kaposi's sarcoma lesions. Now here's a newsworthy item!)
Another Oprah confidante, James Frey, turned out to be a hoaxer
himself. And so on.
It all seems to come back to Vicki Johnson
- or, as Friend found out, her real name is Joanne Vicki Fraginals.
Friend recounts how in 1997 she left Tony, moved to Chicago,
and married a child psychologist in Illinois named Marc Zackheim.
Friend went out there to interview them. Dr. Zackheim answered
the door, told him to wait -- and then the police came to take
Friend away. (They didn't, but one wonders what grounds they
had for coming.)
In 2004 Dr. Zackheim was indicted for abusing
child patients at a treatment center for troubled children in
Indiana. Vicki Fraginals Johnson Zackheim was not said to have
Tony's website, "Tony's World",
has been "under construction", apparently ever since
the Tad Friend article came out. A Rock and a Hard Place
is still in print, though, and people are still praising it on,
for example, Amazon.com.
Child abuse of any kind strikes at a particularly
sensitive point in human nature. The organization of society
is intended to protect the helpless; the young in particular.
Tony's case seems designed to combine a number of the most hideous
and disturbing forms of abuse, to produce an ultimately doomed,
ultimately helpless, ultimately sensitive victim. The reader
will be rightly and even righteously revulsed over such unspeakable,
abominable actions, and be heartened by the bravery of the victim.
In the fifties, child-abuse stories were
unthinkable, but war hero-abuse stories were acceptable. The
famous writer Quentin Reynolds came upon one, the story of Canadian
secret agent George du Pré, who had been sent into France
as a spy. His cover had been that of a village idiot; he hadn't
cracked under Gestapo torture, but it took him two years under
psychiatric treatment to recover. Reynolds thought that was just
crackerjack and wrote up his story, The Man Who Wouldn't
Talk (1953). With almost embarrassing speed, du Pré
was shown up as a hoaxer. For the bad timing of all this, see
My Life In Court by Louis Nizer (1962), which contains
the story of the libel case Reynolds v. Pegler, which
was coming to trial just about then. For the details of du Pré's
career, see Counterfeit Spies by "Nigel West"
[Rupert Allason] (1998).
Reynolds promptly brought The Man Who
Wouldn't Talk out again -- as a novel. It was a cracklingly
good story about triumphing over adversity. A Rock and a
Hard Place is, or so it seems, a very moving story about
triumphing over adversity. But is it a novel?
Author's note: I am grateful to Kenneth
Irvin for providing me with a copy of Newsweek with
the Ingrassia article, and to Martin Morse Wooster for providing
me with a copy of the Tad Friend article in the New Yorker.