Thursday, August 03, 2006
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.
Frances McDormand & Cynthia Nixon read Tales Of The City!
"Tours of the Tales" Walking Tour
Aimee Mann - Charmer
My Tales of the City
Armistead Maupin Store