Behind JT LeRoy's literary spell
Originally published in Bitch, Summer 2006
In 2000, shortly after I moved to the gay resort mecca of Provincetown (what was I thinking?), a friend loaned me a copy of JT LeRoy’s autobiographical novel, Sarah, published when the author was 20. I read the book in a few hours.
Sarah’s bleak vision of a boygirl dressing in his abusive mother’s hooking clothes and hustling at truck stops was a welcome respite from Provincetown’s steroid-pumped muscle queens. The book portrayed a desperately over-the-top West Virginia world with gleeful dialogue and bitter humor; amid impossible plot twists and insulting cultural appropriation, there was a core of sadness and longing that bit me. When I moved to San Francisco, I found myself anxiously awaiting JT’s second coming, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, published in 2001 but allegedly written before Sarah, and exploring JT’s abusive childhood in more depth. As an incest survivor myself, with my own history of gender defiance and hustling, I was looking for catharsis. When I finally read The Heart Is Deceitful, it felt strangely disembodied and voyeuristic, even grotesque: It was as if the acts of abuse it depicted were laid out in clinical detail for the shock and awe of the uninitiated.
By 2001, JT had developed into a brand name, a Bedazzled badge of realness for celebrities on the down low. JT rarely appeared in public, afraid to leave the house because s/he was allegedly so damaged from childhood abuse, living on the streets, drug addiction, and hiv. (On rare public appearances, JT’s face was obscured by a ratty blond wig and dark sunglasses.) Yet somehow the elusive JT motivated an arsenal of celebrities to read his work at events and bookstores, and speak to the press on his behalf. JT was introduced to the masses by fringe-lit luminaries Dennis Cooper and Bruce Benderson, his career nurtured by celebrated authors Sharon Olds and Dave Eggers. The House of JT ranged from sensitive musicians like Billy Corgan and Rufus Wainwright to one-namers like Winona, Madonna, and Bono. Anyone who’s ever hosted or participated in a literary event knows that it’s hard enough to get your best friend to show up, but JT managed to coax A-list and Z-list celebrities out of limousines to read in his stead. While supposedly incapacitated by trauma, JT managed to choreograph a traffic jam for every event, without even showing up.
Soon after the publication of Sarah, rumors abounded that JT was merely a creation of a more famous writer. Dennis Cooper was the featured suspect; “Natoma Street,” the final story in The Heart Is Deceitful, in which a strung-out teen hustler pays a leatherman to beat him bloody, certainly shares a great deal with Cooper’s oeuvre. Many who’d spoken to JT over the phone speculated that he was really “a middle-aged woman,” but the important issue for me was not whether JT truly existed, but the fact that whoever he was, he seemed awfully eager to confirm stereotypes of incest survivors as utterly destroyed by the world. In fact, JT rose to prominence by conning the wealthy into believing he was the noble savage tamed and cultivated by their compassion. This would have been quite a hilarious prank if JT didn’t wield tremendous cultural power by claiming to represent the damaged queer in all of us. His very existence on the pages of Vanity Fair or the New York Times seemed like proof that anyone, no matter how deviant or oppressed or fucked-over, could ultimately rise to such a level of triumph, when the truth is that JT’s success occurred only with serious help from the literati and the glitterati.
I first noticed JT’s monthly column in 7x7, a glossy San Francisco city magazine filled with ads for high-end condos and designer boutiques, in 2001. Each installment featured the now-familiar narrative: My mother raped me, I lived on the streets, I was homeless and hungry and heartbroken…but now I hang out with the coolest celebrities, buy the most exclusive products, and hobnob with the likes of Carrie Fisher. JT, the former street hustler with gender-identity issues and a paralyzing fear of the public, confidently plugged the trendiest, poshest fashion labels and designers, using his street cred to rationalize the grossest consumerist habits of rich women.
In his April 2005 column, titled “The Ties That Bind,” JT writes about sitting in an upscale French restaurant in San Francisco with director Gus Van Sant and actor Michael Pitt. It is JT’s birthday, and Gus hands him a gift. JT, child of the street, assumes it is nothing more than a cd, but when he opens the box he gasps: It’s an Hermès scarf, the ultimate ruling-class signifier. Flashback to JT’s mother, living in motels while turning tricks for a not-quite-living, taping Hermès ads “over the peeling paint of our rundown hotel room and saying, ‘When I got my own beauty shop, this is all I am gonna own!’” But, alas, JT tells us that Sarah died of a drug overdose. “She never got the scarf.” Next, JT describes working Cannes for the premiere of the upcoming movie version of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things: “I put on my scarf before I walk the red carpet. It is my magic protection, lending me worth when my self-esteem insists there is none. I hold my head as high as I can as the paparazzi flash away.”
In August 2005’s column, “If the Shoe Fits,” we return to preparations for the Cannes premiere of the movie. JT begs the designer for Italian fashion label Costume National to make him a pair of slingbacks just like the ones Asia Argento, director of The Heart Is Deceitful, has. Behold: a teary-eyed flashback to JT’s childhood trips to Goodwill with his mother. JT reveals, “I thought all kids’ sneakers were designed to be worn with crumpled newsprint jammed up into the toes.” Fast-forward to the triumphant, slingback-clad JT: “I looked down only a few times to admire how dang scintillatingly sexy my feet are in these shoes.... I look better in them than my mother Sarah ever did in her heels, even the ones that she kept wrapped in tissue paper because they were real leather.”
And then there’s the particularly memorable May 2005 column, “Shedding My Skin.” In it, JT recommends plastic surgery—he has, after all, passed his 24th birthday! He writes, “My mom exposed me to a lot of what would be considered bad behaviors. And I reckon it is ironic, but I never felt the level of rage at her for exposing me to child prostitution that I did for her exposing me to the sun without protection. Working with Doctor Schnoll, I realized, was way more than just doing aesthetic procedures. I felt like, with the lasers, we were burning away past external injuries that therapy couldn’t touch.” A reader could hardly fail to notice the nearby full-page ad for Dr. Schnoll’s Aneu Spa.
JT’s areas of expertise, it seemed, had moved seamlessly from the seedy realm of street life to the bright, mirrored halls of American consumerism. In September 2005, JT published his first article in the New York Times Magazine, on the hot topic of Euro Disney. A few weeks later, in an October 2005 issue of New York magazine, San Francisco writer Stephen Beachy blew the whistle, revealing JT LeRoy as a scam masterminded by the middle-class, 39-year-old Laura Albert, who along with her partner, Geoffrey Knoop, had supposedly rescued JT from the streets of San Francisco a decade earlier. Beachy’s impeccably researched article contained a surprising treasure near the end, where Dennis Cooper states, “What makes me angry is they used this, played the whole abuse thing. Kids who really are abused, how shocked they’ll be.”
Now, if anyone has “played the whole abuse thing,” it’s Dennis Cooper, whose novels feature an endless array of fucked-up teenage boys who want nothing more than to find an older man to beat them, sever their limbs, and— if everything works out—put them out of their misery, preferably on camera. It was Cooper whom “JT” first contacted, and who subsequently connected him with the literary movers and shakers. Certainly, Laura Albert owes more to Dennis Cooper than simply the character of JT.
Just as the LeRoy phenomenon worked celebrities into manic devotion, the Beachy exposé unleashed a frenzy of articles seeking the heart of Albert’s deception. These articles preferred to circle around Albert rather than to implicate the larger forces that created a media phenomenon to begin with. An embarrassed Times “investigated” the Euro Disney story to find that no person matching the description of JT LeRoy went on the trip, and that the public face of LeRoy was Knoop’s half-sister, Savannah. (The article gave the impression, however that the paper was ashamed not of publishing a glowing portrayal of Euro Disney, but of assigning the article to an imposter.) The Times followed up with a confirmation from Knoop that Albert was, in fact, the writer behind the LeRoy game, though she still has yet to confess.
Albert is currently hiding out, but will almost certainly return to the big time—someone who masters the rules of engagement in the upper echelons of celebrity culture does not disappear for long. We can only hope that when she reemerges, she doesn’t just fawn over ruling-class standards of beauty and authenticity, but instead figures out how to tear them to shreds: the culture vultures, the celebrity-industrial complex…and yes, maybe even Carrie Fisher.