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August 11, 2006

Is this cry for help real?

Robin Williams encounters an abused child
on late-night radio --maybe

Armistead Maupin has a talent for weaving the real world into fiction. Much of his Tales of the City series was based on real people or events.

However, The Night Listener, now adapted into a film in theaters across the nation, is perhaps his most literal tapestry to date, a roman à clef dealing with a strange, painful episode in his past.

Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, Maupin’s alter ego, a writer who also does a radio show.

The time is well past Noone, however, because he’s got a case of writer’s block, he can barely get on with his show, and his lover (Bobby Cannavale) has just told him that he needs more space.

Gabriel has almost completely given up hope when he is contacted by Pete D. Logand (Rory Culkin), a young man dying of AIDS who has suffered horrible sexual abuse at the hands of his parents.

Pete begins talking to Gabriel on the phone. Over the course of their friendship, however, Gabriel begins to suspect something is amiss: Pete’s adoptive mother Donna (Toni Collette) cancels meetings between the two, and parts of the story just don’t add up.

Audiences today will immediately connect Pete with the recent literary hoax of J.T. LeRoy, who had a similar tale but turned out to most likely be a female singer named Laura Albert. But the real story of The Night Listener predates Albert’s fictional persona.

In the early 1990s, Maupin was contacted by Anthony Godby Johnson, a child who said his parents had locked him in a basement and sexually abused him with their friends, and eventually infected him with HIV.

At the time, Johnson had full-blown AIDS and was expected to live less than six months. He was living with his adoptive mother, Vicki Johnson.

Maupin wrote a blurb for the 14-year-old’s memoir, A Rock and a Hard Place, which was released in 1993. Seminal gay author Paul Monette wrote a foreword for the book, identifying with the young man’s struggles.

Soon, Maupin began to realize something was amiss. He arranged to meet the boy several times but Johnson always canceled at the last minute, claiming Anthony was ill.

No one had ever seen Anthony except Johnson who, similar to the later LeRoy, would contact editors, publicists and “friends” by phone, fax and e-mail.

People could hear outside noises while talking to Anthony on the phone, although Johnson said that he was too sick to leave the house. She also could never be heard in the background while Anthony was speaking.

Eventually, the whole scam fell apart when Keith Olbermann hired a voice analyst who concluded that Vicki and Anthony were, in fact, the same person.

Vicki Johnson, whose real name is Vicki Fraginals, never admitted her deceit. She claimed as recently as 2000 that Anthony was still alive, an amazing feat for someone who was on death’s door seven years before.

The movie based on this incident is being hailed as far less sinister than the events that spurred its creation.

Robin Williams’ performance, especially, is being called a continuation of the breakthrough he made with One Hour Photo, a completely different level of acting than either his low-key performance style (Dead Poets Society) or his manic, more familiar form (Good Morning Vietnam).

A review on RogerEbert.com compares the film to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, both in the location of the original novel--San Francisco--and in the common theme that nothing that is seen can be construed as the “whole picture,” that there is always more going on than can be deduced by a simple glance.

AVClub.com calls it a “Brian DePalma-inspired suspense,” evincing a less refined sense of cinematic history.

One intriguing question must be asked, though: After this hoax and the LeRoy one, is it possible to take any tale of a tragic upbringing at face value?

Must Augusten Burroughs (whose Running With Scissors comes to theaters this fall, adapted from his best-selling autobiography) be strapped to a lie detector? Did B.D. Wong make up his little preemie Foo in Following Foo?

What is the ultimate outcome when the truth that is stranger than fiction turns out to be fiction?

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