Believing in Tony's Existence

Who is Anthony Godby Johnson? The 14-year-old boy wrote a heart-rending story: he was dying of advanced syphilis, AIDs, had his leg amputated, and 54 broken bones.

Over the course of a decade, his story sparked the interest of a publishing company, a movie studio, and this network. But is it a true tale? Even more basic, does the boy even exist? Or, as some believe, was it all a hoax?

The story that may have drawn in hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers across the country began in Union City, New Jersey. Tony lived, the story goes, above a Union City drugstore with Vicki Johnson, a social worker who had adopted him.

She'd saved him from a harrowing life in New York City where he'd been abused and forced into prostitution by his parents. Tony suffered endless ailments and wound up with AIDS.

The story was first told in an inspirational autobiography, "A Rock and a Hard Place," an astonishingly impressive work for a 14-year-old. Published in 1993, the book has had six paperback printings.

When the heartbreaking story attracted the eye of movie makers, agent Ron Bernstein sold Tony's book to HBO.

"I said to HBO, 'don't do your usual cheap deal with me. This kid is dying! You gotta do it for the kid,'" said Bernstein. "[It] made people feel good about themselves. It was, 'I don't care how bad my life is, there's somebody whose life is much worse and they're not beaten down.'"

Bernstein was among those charmed over the phone by the boy. Tony spent hours talking with friends and supporters, including San Francisco writer Armistead Maupin.

"He would call just out of the blue and start talking to me," said Maupin.

Maupin says it didn't strike him as odd that he was developing a friendship over the phone with a 14-year-old boy.

"It struck me as wonderful. He was saying 'I love you' in the way that a kid says it to a parent or an adult that's really close to them," said Maupin. "It's a level of intimacy that was quite extraordinary, maybe even stronger because it was on the phone -- just a voice in the night talking to you who seems to understand you, to respect you, to need you."

Tony Touching People's Lives

According to Maupin, Tony was on the phone, connecting with a lot of people on a regular basis, including an ex-nun and a rabbi. Maupin says the rabbi came from Israel to see Tony and was turned away at the door.

Each time Maupin tried to visit, the apartment in Union City was off limits, with Vicki saying the boy's fragile health prohibited visitors. Maupin, like many other admirers, settled for pictures of the boy, sent out by his adoptive mother.

Bernstein says Vicki told him that Tony was nearing "death's door." "[He] was so fragile that he couldn't see anybody because their germs could kill him."

Tony's increasingly dramatic story was part of a 1997 ABC special on abused children hosted by Oprah Winfrey. In the special, Tony was played by an actor, but, allegedly, his own voice told his story, and it was seen by millions of people across America.

Bernstein describes Tony's voice as "very strangely androgynous."

In a clip from the special Tony says, "I was bought for an hour, sometimes two, or maybe for a whole night."

It was a story that sparked deep feelings and sympathy in people.

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