LiteratEye #5: A Case of Cooked Books?

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the fifth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #5: A Case of Cooked Books?
By W.J. Elvin III
March 13, 2009

A Rock and a Hard PlaceScanning the big picture – a controversial book plus all the investigations and commentary over the years – well, looks to me like more red flags than at a Stalin-era May Day parade in Moscow. The book in question is the excellently written tragic autobiography of Anthony Godby Johnson, age, at the time he wrote it, 14.

“Tony” suffered from AIDS, TB, syphilis, loss of a leg, loss of a testicle, fifty or so broken bones that healed badly, and a host of other serious traumas such as forced prostitution to a celebrity sex ring. He is now reported by his adoptive father to be a happy and healthy young man in his 30s, or maybe late 20s. His story inspired a novel, TV specials and a film – mostly, it should added, from a somewhat doubting perspective.

A big problem was, and is, only one reporter of the many who have questioned the truth of the book actually saw Tony, and even that one reporter now has doubts about the glimpse she got. On the other hand, several people have signed affidavits swearing they know Tony, and still others have made the claim informally.

The book, A Rock and a Hard Place came out about fifteen years ago but has re-appeared in recent news stories due to problems faced by psychologist Marc Zackheim, the adoptive father who recently cited his experience raising Tony as a credential in applying to run a home for troubled boys on the island of Guam. He was awarded the contract, but then a government auditor on the island raised questions resulting in cancellation.

The questions come easy, the answers are another story. Reporters attempting to verify the truth of the book tend to slam into stone walls. Facts produced by Tony’s defenders – and there are many defenders, or seem to be – shift like desert sands. Voice analysis showed that the person talking as “Tony” in telephone interviews was his adoptive mother, Joanne Victoria Fraginals Zackheim, known to some simply as Vicki Johnson.

When photos of “Tony” were shown on television, the pictured kid proved to have no part in, or knowledge of, the story. He was a perfectly healthy young fellow who had been a student of Vicki’s as a fourth grader. Court cases referred to in the book cannot be documented. There’s no official (or unofficial) record of a gang of rogue cops who targeted Tony for annihilation. And on and on it goes.

What happened with the Guam contract? Reporters for the Pacific Daily News began digging and discovered that earlier this month (March, 2009), psychologist Zackheim acknowledged his guilt in healthcare fraud in Indiana, a situation which could draw a $500,000 fine for his company, ten years in jail for him, or a $250,000 personal fine. The investigation also revealed troubling but unsubstantiated charges in the past. See Accused Indiana Doctor Loses Bid To Practice On Guam, from PNC, March 10, 2009.

In the current case, Zackheim admitted to making Medicaid claims for treatment of persons who were not patients, making up diagnoses, advance billing and a few other infractions.

Most of the time it’s fun and games chasing possible literary deception. And then sometimes you run into a story like this one. It’s hard to raise questions about stories involving excruciating pain and horrific suffering. Defenders ask how anyone can be so heartless as to inflict further pain by challenging the credibility of those who lived the tale. That’s a point worth considering, but who put the tale into the public forum in the first place? Several reporters have tackled the case; among the best overviews is that by Tad Friend, who broke new ground and also summarizes the work of others. See The ghost writer, from The Independent, March 24, 2002.

How is it that so many false memoirs have gone undetected? What does it cost a publisher to fact-check a book? Back in the day, I knew reporters who would have fact-checked it frontward and backward for twenty bucks and a bottle of Scotch. Sure, they’ve all probably drunk themselves to death by now, but no doubt it could still be done fairly cheap.

There’s one more thing. Among authors I’ve never read, my favorite modern is Stephen R. Pastore. I’m sure he’s written some good stuff because I’ve read a number of favorable reviews and comments. Plus, he has a world-class collection of literary forgeries. I spent months tracking down a catalog of his collection from a university showing.

And now I see where it could be he wrote those favorable reviews and comments all by himself, and even made up awards he’s won. I can’t believe it. Do you think maybe he forged his collection of forgeries? Anyone with the inside track on all this is welcome to email me at Fionamagazine @ gmail.com. Maybe I should have a secret code so I’ll know it’s you and not Pastore using a false identity. Well, I’ll just have to chance it. Meanwhile I’ll be trying to figure out the Pastore puzzle found at this Wikipedia site.


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