The Bizarre True Story Behind the Plot of ‘The Night Listener’

The notion that truth is stranger than fiction can sometimes sound clichéd, but when you hear the real-life tale that inspired author Armistead Maupin’s bestselling novel The Night Listener, now a compelling psychological thriller starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette, it’s the only way to sum up how much more bizarre the actions of genuine people can be.

The plot of The Night Listener hinges on a key revelation that comes about a third of the way into the film, and at the risk of delving into one of the most compelling film backstories we’ve heard in a while, is hesitant to unleash spoilers. So fair warning: unless you’ve already enjoyed the original novel or had the twist spoiled by some less considerate media source, you might not want to proceed until you’ve had a chance to see the film’s surprises unfurl—bookmark this story, then come back to learn the equally shocking inspiration behind it.

The Set Up
“Life has a way of handing me these things,” said Maupin, the acclaimed writer whose groundbreaking newspaper essays about gay life in San Francisco became the basis of his book Tales of the City, which in turn became a much-heralded—and controversial—PBS TV series. “The Night Listener was just something that happened to me up to a point. But the basic setup just fell into my lap 13 years ago, and I knew instantly that I would have to write about it.”

Maupin was already enjoying the success of his earlier works when he found himself drawn into a drama he could have never suspected, due to his high profile. “In San Francisco he’s like the mayor, the second mayor,” said Robin Williams, his longtime friend and fellow San Franciscan who would ultimately play a fictionalized version of the author in The Night Listener. “We have our regular mayor and then we have Armistead. I’ve known him and [his then-companion] Terry Armstrong for years. They’re like friends and family to me.”

As a typical result of his writing success, in 1993 Maupin “was sent the galleys of a book by a publisher in New York written by a 14-year-old boy who was dying of AIDS, who had suffered abuse at the hands of his parents who had been in sort of a pedophiliac ring, and he had been rescued by a social worker. I was asked to write a blurb—At the beginning of the film there’s that line that says, ‘Don’t worry. You won’t have to write a blurb.’”

That book was Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story, the poignant, sometime horrific and supposedly true memoir of Anthony Godby Johnson. The book came with a forward from Los Angeles author Paul Monette, another renowned essayist on gay relationships and a friend of Maupin’s who was dying of AIDS. Monette had been contacted by Johnson—who himself was expected to die of AIDS within six months—and coaxed into providing the forward, as had another even more famous personality. “Mr. Rogers, of all people, had written the afterward,” said Maupin, “So it came with pretty impeccable credentials.”

As a result both Monette and Fred Rogers had established warm, long-distance relationships with the terminally ill but life-loving boy, who lived with an adoptive guardian in Union City, New Jersey in a highly secretive arrangement for fear that his abusive parents or their sick sexual circle might hunt him down. Maupin was thunderstruck by Tony Johnson’s story, and immediately provided a cover blurb, but found himself wanting to do more.

“I was so moved by the book and frankly a little envious of Paul that he had had this amazing friendship with this kid on the phone, this little saintly kid, that I said, ‘May I call him and tell him how much I like it?’ So he spoke to the adopted mother and they said, ‘Oh, he’s a fan of Tales of the City. He would love to talk to you.’ So before I knew it, this kid with this surprisingly undeveloped voice was talking to me on the phone, and I found him to be feisty and charming and bright and not at all depressing considering all of the things that he had been through. And very gay-friendly, although he himself was heterosexually identified.”

With Tony’s adoptive mother Vicki Johnson (real name Vicki Fraginals) serving as the go-between, Maupin and the boy developed a deep connection through their frequent phone conversations over the ensuing months, though Tony was always too sick for a one-on-one meeting to be arranged. Maupin was blissfully ignorant that there might be something entirely more outlandish going on until one fateful telephone call.

“My partner at the time, Terry Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay listened to the mother for the first time,” he recalled. “He had heard the boy before. He talked to her for about ten minutes and hung up and turned to me and said, ‘I can’t believe you’ve never noticed it.’ I said, ‘Noticed what?’ He said ‘It sounds like the same voice to me.’”

It was if the tumblers from some psychological padlock had clicked into place and opened a locked wall in Maupin’s mind: Tony was, in fact, Vicki Fraginals. “I could see it immediately.” In the book and the film, Robin Williams’ character Gabriel, the fictionalized version of Maupin, is first in denial and then intensely obsessed with exposing the elaborate deception, having taken the non-existent boy deep into his own wounded heart, but Maupin actually decided to continue to play along. “I was mostly just excited as a writer because I thought, ‘My God, what if this is true? Why would anyone do this?’ because he was talking to the world. He was talking to Jermaine Jackson and Tom Robins, the writer. Keith Oberman had a very strong relationship with him. So I lived for six years splitting my brain right down the middle: He’s real. He’s not real. Either thing could be true, and some days I would hear her very clearly in his voice, and then other days I would be certain that I was merely hoping that this would be true, because it was such a good story.”

Living in Fiction
During the six year period—in which “Tony” never succumbed to his illness, though AIDS purportedly claimed his testicles, conveniently keeping his voice from ever deepening—Maupin tried to arrange meetings, always unsuccessfully. “I tried many times and was invited many times, and the invitation was invariably retracted at the last minute for a number of reasons. ‘Oh, he’s come down with something. He’s not feeling well now.’” Once, the author set up a test that seemed too tempting, when he was invited to make a speech on AIDS at Yankee Stadium to 50,000 people at the Gay Games. “I thought, ‘This is perfect,”” said Maupin, knowing the “boy” was an avowed Yankees fan. “We called him up and said, ‘Look, we’re going to send an ambulance, a limo, whatever you want to take Tony and put him in the dugout at Yankee Stadium so I can make the speech. I’ll include him in the speech.’ She was having none of it.”

Although Maupin’s attempts to uncover the truth were often playful and others—like a hard-hitting examination by Newsweek magazine—he was aware that it was also painful for the many people “Tony” had drawn into his fictional world. “It was hard because all of the people around him, his editor and his agent were still saying, ‘Trust us. He exists. We haven’t seen him, but we’re sure that he exists.’” The publishers have still yet to renounce the memoir’s authenticity.

“He was anything that you needed him to be,” explains Maupin. “With me he was sort of a wise-cracking secular humanist who was very pro-gay and who would talk to me about the homophobia and the AIDS wards. The best thing that he ever did for me was a great laugh. I was on the phone with him one day – notice how I still say he?—and he said, ‘Hang on, I’ve got a call I have to take.’ He came back two minutes later and said, ‘That was Fred,’ meaning Fred Rogers—Mr. Rogers. This was at a time when Tales of the City had just been under attack by the religious right and PBS had dropped the sequel because of it…He said, ‘Fred has a message for you: “Tell PBS to go f*ck itself.”’ I said ‘Mr. Rogers does not talk like that.’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t know how he talks.’”

Later, Maupin said, The New Yorker magazine’s investigative reporter actually called up the producers Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and repeated the alleged quote to them. “When they finally stopped laughing they said, ‘He’s a Presbyterian minister.’ But he knew that I would think that was the coolest little insight.”

“It was a very odd thing to live in this mystery for such a long time,” confessed Maupin. “I didn’t really believe it until I saw a voice analysis and I really, fully said, ‘All right, there it is. There’s the truth.’”

Maupin finally met Vicki Fraginals in person when “Tony” participated—in voice only—in an Oprah Winfrey-produced TV documentary on abused children and the two found themselves together in the New York studio where it was produced. “She was very pleasant, pretty blonde—a very large woman. I saw her and my first instinct was to hug her. Part of me still wasn’t sure.”

“I spoke to Tony afterwards and he said, ‘How was it meeting Mom?’ I thought, ‘Boy, I better answer this one carefully.’ He had always said, up to that point ‘Mom is a real babe.’ Well, she was a lovely woman, but she wasn’t a babe. I said, ‘Well, she was great. She was very sweet to me.’ And he said, ‘Well, Mom said that she looked at you and knew that you were going to hug her.’ I said, ‘Well, I felt like doing it.’ He said, ‘Were you surprised by how she looked?’ I said, ‘Well, a little bit. She was a little bit bigger than I thought she would be.’ He said, ‘You know she put on all that weight after she adopted me.’ That’s so interesting to me psychologically.”
[PAGEBREAK]The Why of the Lie
Through it all, Maupin never directly accused either “Tony” or Fraginals of perpetuating the elaborate charade. “I’m a very non-confrontational person,” laughs the author, who only came out to his parents passively in his Tales From the City essays. “There was something very strange to sort of say this person that I had talked to for a long time on the phone, ‘I don’t think that you’re real.’ So I did it through the novel. I actually told him that I was about to write a novel about the two of us, someone very like the two of us and what happened when doubt was cast on the existence on the boy the way that it had been done by Newsweek. He said to me, ‘I’m a big boy. I know what fiction is.’ That’s really interesting phrase right there: It’s got a lie and then the truth in the same sentence. ‘Go ahead. I would love to see the manuscript when you’re done. And may I name the character?’ So my imaginary boy named the imaginary boy in the novel, supposedly after an imaginary friend of his.”

Fraginals, though she has never been formally diagnosed, appears to suffer from factitious disorder, a psychological compulsion to craft compelling, elaborate but entirely fabricated scenarios as a means of gaining attention, and going to any length necessary to maintain the fiction. After reading The Night Listener, director Patrick Stettner saw the inherent dramatic possibilities and immediately thought it would make for a psychologically complex film.

“If you look at the cases of fictitious disorder, that people who usually do this are people who are incredibly overweight or completely ignored,” says Stettner. “They’re often people just ignored by society in some kind of way and this is their way to kind of reach out and get love and get affection and kind of prove some kind of self-worth by the profound emotions that the person is reacting to. Suddenly that gives you a sense of significance.”

“I’ve helped a lot of Make-A-Wish kids, but I’ve never one call from the Bahamas going, ‘I’m 30. Thanks for the money for the dialysis machine. I’m riding it!’ joked Robin Williams who in his position as a famous personality had occasionally heard of similar cases. “I’ve never been duped like that, but I have met other people who have been. There was also a woman going around here who was with a lot of comics who claimed that she had a son who was severely handicapped or suffering from something and engaged them I think for money and for companionship. They were going with it and had never met the kid, or maybe at one point she did bring the kid, but it turned out later that it wasn’t even her kid. She borrowed some kid…Sometimes it’s against celebrities, and other times it’s against regular people. There was a thing in the paper the other day about a guy who scammed $7,000 from his friends by claiming that he had pancreatic cancer.”

“What she did here is Munchausen’s by ventriloquism–create a persona,” Williams continued. “People engage in that and think [sympathetically] ‘Oh, this child.’ People have a desire to help. It’s the child factor, or the puppy factor.”

When The Truth Is Out
Maupin said his relationship with Anthony Godby Johnson and Vicki Fraginals began and ended with book galleys. “She called me when the galleys on my book were out and she said, ‘Someone told me you wrote a book trashing Tony.’ That’s the way she put it. I said, ‘No, Vicki. I didn’t trash him at all. I think it’s a very loving portrait of this friendship.’ She said, ‘Well, good. I just want to make sure we didn’t have to hire a lawyer.’ She was really sort of getting tough with me, and that was the last time [we spoke].”

The publication of The Night Listener in 2000, though never touted as anything but a fictional thriller, shed even more light on the story, “The fiction flushed out the truth. At the time the book came out I wasn’t talking about any real-life inspiration because I was afraid that he still existed and that I would be sitting there talking about this hoax, and then suddenly this one-lunged, one-legged, one-testicled boy was going to walk in. People would come up to me at these signings and say to me quietly, ‘Anthony Godby Johnson.’ And I would say to them, ‘Give me your phone number.’ Then we’d talk. I talked to an ex-nun who had arranged to bring her a Rabbi from Israel because he said that he wanted to convert to Judaism.”

Talk show icon Rosie O’Donnell even called Maupin after reading his book to reveal she’d been a subject of a similar phony telephone relationship by alleged 13-year-old girl who’d been purportedly raped and was putting her child up for adoption at O’Donnell’s agency, and it was O’Donnell’s partner Kelli Carpenter who recognized the uncanny similarity between the girl’s voice and her mother’s.

And when The Night Listener was set to become a film, another voice was heard from yet again: Vicki Fraginal sent a letter to Toni Collette, according to Williams. “I only know that it was kind of like, ‘I hope you do this part well, because it’d be great if you did it great.’” said the comic. “It was well-written and much more articulate than that. She wasn’t on medication. But Armistead noticed where it came from—the handwriting he recognized. I mean, I think that after six years I think that he started to know the handwriting. It was disturbing, but it was also like they thought that it would happen at some point.”

For her part, Collette resisting attempting direct contact with the woman her character was based on. “I had Armistead and I have Terry who both had a lot of contact and their lives were completely changed dealing with this actual person,” she said. “I had the source, basically, and the information about her and the interactions with her. How they were affected by it, and I think it’s interesting to hear that because then you realize what her intentions really are. She can read people. She can figure out how to address them.”

Playacting and Storytelling 
Williams said he found it fascinating to examine the real motivations for the deceptions, and does not find it surprising given the current state of the culture. “I think that it’s a desire to live other people’s lives, to observe other people’s lives,” he said. “When you look at most of these magazines they’re all about looking at other people living. And now with reality series, you’re literally watching other people watching other people. And it’s also the idea that their life is better than yours: ‘Screw them,’ or ‘I want to live that life.’ Or ‘I can somehow hook onto your life.’ So there is a culture built around that and it’s growing.”

“I think that it’s chiefly to bring attention to yourself,” agreed Maupin. “I think that it’s a feeling that you yourself are not worthy of sympathy or love so you have to create someone who is.” Somehow, though he was disturbed and disappointed to discover he’d been the victim of such a cleverly orchestrated hoax, Maupin did not become embittered, as Night Listener’s Gabriel does in the film/ “Maybe I was grown up enough—I didn’t feel like I lost my best friend, but some people did feel that way. I had to talk some people, mostly straight men, down from a very bad place, who had actually assumed a sort of paternal relationship with him. Some of these guys aren’t even willing to talk now, they’re so embarrassed by it. I don’t feel that I ever had anything to be embarrassed about, and I don’t know why other people feel that they do.”

“In a way she’s like an actor herself,” said Collette. “It was interesting to play with different levels of what’s real and what’s not “ The actress even admits that her own penchant for playacting allowed her to relate to the character—but had she ever used her own talents to truly deceive anyone? “Yeah I have,” she revealed somewhat sheepishly. “I pretended to have appendicitis when I was younger and it went a little too far, and it was taken out. Yeah. When we were doing The Night Listener I sometimes wondered if Patrick the director knew that story, and that’s why he wanted me to play it. I was 11.I was a little attention-seeking weirdo.”

Williams also confessed he’s had his own share of fun using his legendary skills as a mimic to play harmless tricks on people. “I’ve called up as different people,” he said. “Kevin Spacey will always call as Marlon Brando—hard to do now. Sometimes I’ll call people and do that, or I’ll answer the phone if it’s someone that I don’t want to talk to with a Chinese accent. In San Francisco if you answer the phone with a Chinese accent solicitors go, ‘Sorry to bother you.’ I can do Jack [Nicholson]. On the phone it’s fun if you call girls and go [as Nicholson] ‘Hey, is Mommy home?’ That always gets you an interesting response.”

Maupin’s experiences have for him cast a brighter light on his own role as a teller of tales, and the line between truth and fiction. “I have to admit that I can tell anecdotes for so long about my life and refine them to a certain degree,” he explained, recalling a tale that appeared in the novel The Night Listener, that couldn’t be shoehorned into the film.

“There was a story that I had told to Terry many times over, a wonderful story,” said the author, “about a guy who had gone to the Peace Corps and married an Indian girl, and his family back in North Carolina was horrified because she was dark-skinned and so they wouldn’t go to the wedding. She turns out to be of the highest caste in India and they have this huge lavish wedding, and they’re married on a jeweled elephant and they’re photographed internationally, and the parents missed out on the chicest event of the year because of the prejudice. and the guy came to town and one of the first thing that Terry says to him, ‘Oh, I heard that you were married on a jeweled elephant.’ He said, ‘We were married in a Presbyterian church.’”

Maupin chuckled at his elaborate misinterpretation of the facts. “I had taken the leap somehow from a rich, high-caste Indian to a jeweled elephant. Don’t ask me how I did it. So I do tell stories and then I think, ‘Is this the way it happened in the book, or is this the way that it actually happened to me?’ I have to remember that now.”