This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

January 8, 2003 - Literary Hoaxes

The story will break your heart.

Told in his own words, the tale of Tony Godby Johnson is appalling. He was beaten and starved by his parents. When he was very young, his parents loaned him to a gay adult who "had his way with him sexually."

By the age of 11, Tony was at the end of his rope. He called a suicide prevention hotline.

Then, his luck finally turned. The hotline referred him to a counselor. She checked him into a hospital. There the woman counselor fell in love with the hotline counselor, who came to visit. The two counselors married, then adopted Tony. Meanwhile, his real parents were brought up on child abuse charges -- and jailed.

Just when the warm family life Tony had always wanted was at last coming together, he suffered another blow. He had AIDS.

The book about all this, written when Tony was 14, was published in 1993. It's called, "A Rock and a Hard Place." The story so moved people that it even featured a glowing foreword by author Paul Monette, and an afterword by Mr. Fred Rogers of TV fame. All praised Tony's astonishing
optimism and courage.

HBO showed interested in doing a special on his life. ABC mentioned him in a documentary sponsored by Oprah Winfrey. Tony's website flourished -- where there were many testaments to him by famous people.

But here's the kicker. There was no Tony.

The whole thing was a fraud, the elaborate hoax, according to writer Terry Anderson, of one Vicki Fraginals Zackheim, the "Vicki Johnson" who supposedly adopted Tony.

Things started to unravel when Newsweek (in 1993), and the New Yorker (in 2001) started checking up on the facts. For one thing, nobody had ever seen Tony. He was just a voice on a phone, an email. And his voice, according to one audio expert, was identical to "Vicki's."

There is no record of such a child abuse case hitting the courts. Criminal records of this type are not sealed.

Most recently, Armisted Maupin -- who also had an intimate telephone relationship with "Tony" -- came out with his own fictionalized version of the story, called "The Night Listener." You'll find it at the library.

You'll also find "A Rock and a Hard Place." But we cataloged it the way it came to us -- the non-fiction biography of Anthony Godby Johnson. Who doesn’t exist.

This isn't the first time such things have happened. We also have "The Education of Little Tree," the acclaimed story of a Native American boy, hailed as so true, so authentic, it has been used as a text in university cultural anthropology classes. Until it, too, was exposed as
a hoax.

You have to wonder why people go to the trouble. You can make quite as much money from an outright lie as from the truth. You just call it a novel.

On the other hand, there's a weird psychology to all this. Many of have known at least one person who took us in. Told us stories about their often bizarre troubles. Relied on us for friendship. Lived for the terrible drama of the moment. And along the way, seemed to have lost track of the dividing line between what was real, and what was made up.
I remember a most compelling woman back in college who faked a heart attack in the middle of a literature class. I believed her. And it did liven up the lecture.

Vicki still maintains that Tony is real, by the way. And still alive, despite tuberculosis, an amputated leg, and a perpetual fever, not to mention the AIDS diagnosed 10 years ago. Vicki is still the only one who has seen him.

At any rate, if you were wondering what the library does when we’re confronted with strong evidence that our books are wholly imaginary, here’s the skinny: we’ll be recataloging "Rock and A Hard Place" under "fiction." It's quite a story.

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