Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hoaxes

Back in 1993, I read a Newsweek article about Anthony Godby Johnson, a 14-year-old teenager with AIDS who had somehow survived a torrent of childhood physical and sexual abuse as well as a litany of physical illnesses (lung infections, leg amputation, the removal of a testicle), but still managed to write a heart-wrenching memoir, published in 1993 as A Rock and a Hard Place. The Newsweek article pointed out that none of Johnson's editors or many friends, including author Paul Monette, had ever met the boy in person. All communications took place via letter, fax or phone, because the boy's adoptive "mother" was incredibly protective of his safety. The conclusion left by the article was that the "mother" was actually the boy, disguising her voice on the phone.

At the time, I was taking a linguistic anthropology summer class at the University of Florida. The professor was an old school feminist. For our first project, I decided that I'd tackle the story of Johnson, because I was intrigued, and we were supposed to look at an issue involving gender. I thought this story had intriguing angles involving gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability. I turned in my proposal on a Friday. On Monday, the professor announced to the class that "some people" were proposing projects that were inherently sexist, because they involved children or the handicapped. Doing a project like that, she said, was tantamount to saying that all women are children, or all women are handicapped. It was demeaning, and not an appropriate topic for class.

The professor never said a word to me, and for all I know she didn't know who I was. But I burned with an anger that I'd never felt before. Maybe I didn't express myself very clearly in my proposal -- I was a junior in college, it's not like I was the brightest thing ever. But at the very least she could have talked to me about it before making a blanket example out of me for the rest of the class. I dropped the class that week, which meant I had to make it up with a different professor a year later. But it was all for the best, in the end.

At any rate, I was very much reminded of the Anthony Godby Johnson a few year's back, when the Kaycee Nicole blog scandal was exposed. (Short version -- a teen blogger dying of leukemia was exposed as actually being a fake person created by the blogger's "mom".)

Then, in 2000, Armistead Maupin published The Night Listener, his fictional retelling of the Johnson story. Maupin was a friend of Johnson's who slowly began to distrust as he realized that Johnson's "mother" Vicki had a voice that was nearly identical to Johnson's.

I was reminded of all this by two long interesting articles that I read today. The first is Who Is The Real JT LeRoy?, a deep look inside another potential literary hoax, this one longer lasting (LeRoy has published several books to much critical acclaim). Author Stephen Beachy makes a compelling argument for the identity of the "real" LeRoy. Read it for yourself.

Beachy brings up the many similarities to the Johnson case, including a mention of Tad Friend's lengthy New Yorker profile on the topic. This is a job for Blogging The Complete New Yorker! I fired up the search engine, which lead me right to "Virtual Love", from the November 26, 2001, issue.

Both "Who Is The Real JT LeRoy" and "Virtual Love" are strong literary detective stories, but neither answer the fundamental question: why do these women create suffering children? Is it an oddly safe form of Munchausen's by Proxy? Unless one of the perpetrators fesses up, we may never know.

19 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to try to answer your question because I am a middle aged woman who, using a male pseudonym, has written (and self-published) a book about a young gay man who was sexually and physically abused as a child so I think I have some insight here.

Men have a long history of being "turned on" by the idea sexual abuse being perpetrated on women (i.e., rape fantasies, kiddie porno, etc., etc., ad infinitum). Read a popular comic novel like "Candy," wherein the hapless teenaged heroin is continuously "tricked" into disrobing and/or performing sexual favors for leering men as one example that most people would look on as just harmless fiction - all in good fun. And of course we can go much farther here and look at the HUGE market for much darker, more sinister stuff. In addition, society doesn't frown on men's enjoyment of a little "woman-on-woman action." On the other hand, women are made to feel freakish, abnormal or ashamed if they claim to enjoy watching (or reading about) two men having sex, nor are they "supposed" to be entertained by rape fantasies or sexuality in children. These are the province of men alone. To top it off, the gay community seem to hold a particularly dim view of women who have a prurient interest in gay male sexual relations.

All that said, I can tell you...plenty of women are turned on by the idea of men having sex with one another, raping one another, molesting one another, etc. Is it right? Who knows. (frankly, who cares.) I think these women feel they have to hide their true identities in order to make the stuff their writing more palatable to the public.

If someone says, I am a 16 year old boy telling the tragic story of my sexual enslavement from the ages of 10 to 14, the public will have sympathy (and won't feel creepy buying the book). If someone says, I am a 40 year old woman writing a story that depicts the sexual enslavement of boy from the ages of 10 to 14...well, what would YOU think?

So...no offense, but your theory is no good. Don't turn this into a maternal thing (even if the "Mommie" your talking about is "Dearest," so to say) because it's not. It's about sex.

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Graham said...

Fascinating post... and thanks for bringing this up, I've been thinking a lot about it. The JT Leroy article was especially enthralling.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I found your blog while searching for the New Yorker article, which I still can't find. Would you mind linking me?

I'm curious to read it after reading the J.T. LeRoy article.

Thanks,
Ainslie

email: perfekt_saint@Yahoo.ca

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually know someone who met Tony Johnson in person--or, at any rate, a frail ill boy out in New Jersey somewhere. (The journey out to visit him involved all sorts of cut-rate spy movie tactics, like a blindfold.) Nevertheless, my friend--a reporter--_did_ meet a little boy, whose answers and persona appeared to match up incredibly well with the bizarre Tony Johnson story. He may have been part of the hoax, but if so, he was incredibly well-prepared and spoke in the same voice my friend had heard on the telephone. His adoptive mother, in the meantime, was either elsewhere in the room, or out in the different part of the house, during all of this, suggesting that she could not have been playing the part of the little boy. Not completely, anyway.

11:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was this a one-legged "frail ill boy" by any chance?

You know every urban legend that's ever been repeated to me has always involved a "friend" or "acquaintance" of the person telling the story. I'm convinced that the person who tells the story honestly believes it, but this mysterious "friend" to whom they always refer must actually be more than a few degrees of separation from them because, when pressed, they can never provide a name. I'm sure there is no Tony Johnson and there most likely is no "friend" of yours either. Since that's the case, maybe they did meet...in Neverland.

12:37 PM  
Anonymous peter said...

i can't find the tad friend "virtual love" article and i really want to read it. can you link me to it?

petedave@aol.com

7:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm also interested in the Tad Friend article. I believe I read it when it was first published. Reading the artile on JT Leroy on Salon this evening I got this eerie feeling that I had read Leroy was a hoax several years ago. Now, I'm thinking I conflated the Johnson and Leroy stories. A reading of Friend's article would confirm for me.

Also, the poster who claims to have claims to have used a male pseudonym to write of the sexual exploits of a teenage boy is incredibly facinating. But who knew gay men deride woman for enjoying man-on-man action? I'm a gay man, and have several lesbian friends who enjoy male gay pornography. I've never derided, nor am I aware them receiving any derision from anyone else, though I must admit I run in a pretty happily-gender-and-sex-confusing crowd.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous adrianna said...

susie bright has a fascinating take on the origins of jt leroy.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Dear Adrianna,

Thanks so much for that great Susie Bright link. It answers so many questions, and it seems harmonious with the first commenter's remarks. I especially appreciated Bright's remarks here:

"Obviously, most Slash writers are not sociopaths. They’re fans with wonderful imaginations and no pretense. If their fiction was out in the open, it would be a huge relief to reveal the scope of female sexual appetite."

Don't miss Gawker's fantastic coverage of Leroy and Frey . This week, every day was Fake Writer Day.

8:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize that this is an old post, but after watching a recent episode of 20/20 I have become quite interested in the Tony Godby Johnson story. I, too, am unable to find the "Virtual Love" article by Tad Friend, and am hoping that someone can email it to me. Thanks so much! kevinsprettybaby@yahoo.ca

10:16 PM  
Blogger Ethel said...

Readers seem to think you located "Virtual Love" the New Yorker piece by Tad Friend from an internet search engine as opposed to accessing your personal 8 DVD set of archived New Yorker issues. I just wanted to clarify that this article is NOT found in the public domain.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interested readers can find a slightly abbreviated (but still
lengthy) version of the Tad Friend article at -

http://calbears.findarticles.com/
p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20020324/
ai_n12597081/pg_1

Debbie

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

before the johnson (night listener) story, much less the jt leroy story, was another involving a woman who, in an adopted persona, became telephone "friends" with several hollywood types. i remember, when reading the story, that i was struck by how lonely/naive these actors must have been, not to mention wondering how on earth some random person gets their home phone nos. problem is, i can't remember where i read the original article. when i read the tad friend article, i wanted to direct him back to this story, but, lazily, let it droop because i couldn't remember where i read it. anyone remember that story?

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found where someone has uploaded all the text (this link worked as of 02/19/08). Fascinating. I was a big JT LeRoy- still not sure how I feel about the prurience in reading this kind of work. Anyways, enjoy.
http://www.ljfind.com/post/91494829/

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wow poor guy I just read the first parraf because I can't read more, that's to sad for me =( did he die ? or is he alive? he's having a good life ? Omg!
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