Believing in Tony's Existence

Not Believing in "Tony"

"I've not met Tony Johnson, because there is no Tony Johnson to meet," said Terry Anderson, who was Armistead Maupin's business partner. Anderson suggested a shocking possibility: the voice they'd all been speaking with sounded oddly feminine because, maybe, Tony's mother was playing both roles.

"For six years, my brain was divided down the middle," Maupin said. "There were days when I would talk to Tony and think, 'this is clearly a boy, why would I ever doubt this?' and other days when I would think, it's her [Vicki]."

But in those six years, Maupin says he never asked the crucial question: are you a fake?

"How do you do that? Do you say, 'excuse me, are you fake, are you really a 40-year-old woman?'", asked Maupin. He says if he had questioned Tony over the phone, he would have been doing the one thing that he says you're never supposed to do: doubt the story of an abused child.

Maupin turned his agonizing personal debate about the suffering boy into a novel, "The Night Listener."

One day, out of the blue, Bernstein says he got "The Night Listener" in the mail. "I read it because Armistead is a client. I was so stunned. I called Armistead and I said, 'are you sitting? I was the agent for that kid. I sold his book to HBO. I cannot believe you had the same experience that I did.'" Bernstein said he and Maupin talked for an hour, both aghast.

Bernstein admits he never questioned if anybody was lying. "I was talking to two voices, Tony and Vicki." But Bernstein says he began to have his own doubts when a lucrative deal, to turn Tony's book into an HBO movie, collapsed because Vicki said Tony was too sick to let anyone from HBO meet him.

As time went on, Bernstein took note that a boy on the brink of death kept hanging on for years with a bushel of ailments.

Maupin agrees that he found the number of ailments a bit unbelievable, too. "It did get more and more melodramatic, and as it did, my doubts grew."

Doubts Arising

Four years ago, when "20/20" first began looking into this story, we hired expert voice analyst Tom Owen.

He was asked to compare tapes of Vicki's and Tony's voices.

"You're hearing rhythm, you're hearing cadence, you're hearing pitch, you're hearing mannerisms. So, if the same individualistic traits exist in Tony's voice and in Vicki's voice, it's my opinion that it's the same voice," Owen explained.

But if Tony doesn't exist, who wrote "A Rock and a Hard Place"? Either the mastermind behind a huge hoax, or the embattled guardian of a sick boy's privacy -- depending on whom you believe -- graduated from a Union City high school in 1975. Her real name was Joanne Victoria Fraginals.

Years after Tony's book was published, she moved to Illinois and married child psychologist Marc Zackheim.

The Zackheims, who live at the end of a private road, declined to speak with "20/20." But faxes sent by Dr. Zackheim insisted that Tony's story was true and has already been proven. He accused Maupin of spreading lies for commercial gain.

ABC received other letters in support of Tony, some from people claiming to have met him. One letter said, "Tony exists" and "is a beautiful and deep soul."

Bernstein's response to the people who still believe in Tony? "There are still people that believe in the tooth fairy." What's most interesting, Bernstein says, is not that Vicki may or may not have been Tony, but that people wanted to believe that Tony exists.

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