To the many shocking rvelations that bring tabloid celebrity and a cash-cow memoir, the overnight fame factory has, with increasing frequency, added another: Not only was I a drunk, a felon and a plagiarist, not only did I survive childhood sexual abuse, but I also have AIDS! Of course, most of these tell-alls are brave and sincere and have helped both storyteller and audience heal. But there are others—too many, it seems lately—whose stories are just as perversely untrue. As Oprah and her book club were sweeping away the last of A Million Little Pieces of James Frey’s fraud (a memoir that falsely recounted a life of crime), an HIV-fraud triple feature rocked theaters and headlines nationwide.
First, in January, it was revealed that HIV positive male writer JT Leroy was actually HIV negative actress Savannah Knoop. Next, in July, Pennsylvania resident Cassey Weierbach made CNN after her arrest for allegedly defrauding the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare of $66,000 in HIV-related benefits that she secured by forging a positive diagnosis, according to court documents. Then, on August 4, the Robin Williams thriller The Night Listener opened. Based on Armistead Maupin’s novel of the same name, it traces Maupin’s association with an HIV positive teenager named Anthony Godby Johnson, who, it turns out, may or may not exist.
Weierbach, 27, allegedly also got money from AIDS organizations and charities, saying she’d survived childhood rape and HIV. Though she’s supposedly confined to a wheelchair, witnesses told POZ—and were quoted in other media accounts saying—that one night after a few shots of Jack Daniels, she suddenly stood up and started dancing. An investigation and her arrest ensued. Weierbach has maintained that she indeed has HIV, and at press time her trial was scheduled for late summer. Her last known address was a motel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; POZ could not reach her for comment. Johnson’s 1993 memoir about his HIV infection from sexual abuse, A Rock and a Hard Place, prompted many renowned writers and performers to offer the teen support. Maupin developed an intense, phone-only friendship with Johnson, who claimed to have lost his left leg, spleen and a testicle while sick with AIDS and syphilis. The scarcity of evidence supporting his story sparked doubt. It is now widely believed after an investi-gation by the New Yorker that Vicki Johnson, his alleged foster mother, posed as Anthony and that she or someone close to her wrote the memoir. In Night Listener, she is depicted as an eerie blind woman hungry for love and attention.
JT Leroy wrote three thinly veiled autobiographical novels, the first in 2000, after punk rocker and writer Laura Albert and her partner, musician Geoffrey Knoop, adopted him off the streets. Leroy became a hipster icon with rock- and film-star friends. Famously reclusive, he always appeared in public in a hat, face-covering glasses and a platinum wig. After his half-sister was revealed, in January, to be the person posing as Leroy, Knoop admitted that Albert had written the novels and that the couple had constructed the ruse to get a wider, cooler audience for their own work. A film staring Wynona Ryder and singer Marilyn Manson based on Leroy’s novel The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things debuted in the U.S. last spring, just in time to capitalize on the scandal.
AIDS fakers have been with us since the epidemic began. From those merely seeking the companionship of an HIV/AIDS support group to panhandlers shouting their false positive status across a crowded subway car, using a disease to win sympathy or cash is nothing new. To those who live daily with AIDS’ stigma and debilitating challenges, both physical and emotional, the motivations of these positive poseurs may seem inexplicable and inexcusable. Who in their right mind would pretend to have AIDS? (Perhaps, as in these cases, anyone who could deflect AIDS stigma by blaming their infection on, say, sexual abuse.)
Meanwhile, is the recent upsurge a twisted sign of progress? If people are willing to claim (albeit falsely) that they are HIV positive, is the disease becoming more socially acceptable? Either way, we wonder why the more than one million true stories of HIV in America aren’t getting the same level of attention.