The True Story of J.T. LeRoy, the Literary Hoax That Inspired the New Movie
This week, the film J.T. LeRoy will be released. After premiering to mixed reviews at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (where I saw the film), it kind of faded from the scene, overshadowed by another indie movie about a literary hoaxer. Still, the story of Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy is one that deserves a second look. Twenty years after their debut novel became a cultural tour de force and fourteen years after the author was revealed to be the elaborate performance of a woman and her family who got in in way over their heads, it’s easy to forget just how bonkers this story was. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of the movie is that it downplays how utterly barmy this entire charade was, and how ridiculous in hindsight it is that they got away with it for so long. It was called the greatest literary hoax of all time, although the real J.T. insists it was never a hoax, if you can believe that.
In 1999, J.T. LeRoy’s Sarah hit bookshelves and almost immediately became a critical darling. This came two years after the author published his first piece of writing in an anthology called Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage, and Desire. That story, about a young boy who dresses like a woman to seduce his drug addled sex worker mother’s boyfriend, was pitched as autobiographical, a glimpse into the hellish childhood the adolescent LeRoy had experienced before being saved by a kindly social worker. He was the son of a lot lizard - a truck stop hooker - who had his first sexual experience as a child. He was a recovering heroin addict, a former sex worker himself, one who dressed as a woman and experienced the most brutal acts at the hands of violent johns. for years, J.T. had been calling helplines and spilling his heart out to caring therapists. After someone suggested that he start writing his experiences down, J.T. began reaching out to established writers who acted as mentors to this lost soul. His work was beloved by these figures, heralded as the arrival of a vital new voice unlike anything else in publishing at that time. By the time 20 year old J.T. published Sarah, he was already an icon.
It’s a great story, and clearly Laura Albert knew that. Laura Albert was, and I suppose still is, J.T. LeRoy. According to Albert, LeRoy was her avatar, a voice inside her she used to exorcise herself of her own demons. Having worked for years as a phone sex operator and dealing with her own mental struggles, she began calling suicide hotlines as a teen but felt more comfortable using the persona of a boy to explain the abuse she had suffered. At one point, she reached out to Terrence Owens, a psychologist with the McAuley Adolescent Psychiatric Program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, using the name Terminator. It is Owens who she credits with encouraging Albert/LeRoy to write. As LeRoy took on a life of his own in the publishing world, Albert kept up the persona through phone calls and faxes, all of which Albert held onto and which form the backbone of the documentary Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story.
Everyone wanted to know LeRoy. Winona Ryder was a fan, and so was Lou Reed. Courtney Love called him, doing massive lines of coke in the process. Madonna allegedly sent him some books on Kabbalah. He snogged Michael Pitt and sort of dated Asia Argento. Bono offered him business advice. LeRoy started writing for all the best magazines and most prestigious publications. The New York Times sent him to Disneyland Paris. He wrote for the TV series Deadwood and collaborated on a screenplay with Gus Van Sant. One of his books was adapted into a film by Argento (a legacy made all the more complicated by the romantic relationship they shared and the accusations of sexual assault that film’s star levelled at the director). But one can only be a literary recluse for so long when your persona is built on such coolness, so J.T. had to walk among the people. Enter Savannah Knoop.
Savannah Knoop was a new arrival to San Francisco, barely out of their teens, who moved in with their half-brother Geoffrey and his girlfriend Laura. Described by Vanity Fair as being ‘attractive in a boyish way, vaguely resembling Jean Seberg in Breathless’, Savannah was perfect for J.T. in Albert’s eyes. She had already used other people as her public avatar for J.T. before (a kid they picked up from the street called Richard for a couple of one-off meetings, including one with legendary author Mary Gaitskill), but they were long out of the picture. Taking one of many televised interview requests, this one from a German channel, Albert primed Savannah with a few details of J.T.’s life and told them to just be awkward and skittish for a bit. It worked perfectly and nobody seemed suspicious of Savannah and their cheap wig. Wasn’t that just how all troubled reclusive authors acted?
Soon, J.T. was making more public appearances. Knoop would play the lead role, usually under a ratty blonde wig and big sunglasses, while Albert would tag along as Speedie, the chirpy social worker who took LeRoy in and spoke like a cross between Mrs. Lovett and Jason Statham. LeRoy went to all the best parties and associated with all the best people. It was a true badge of pride to be one with J.T. LeRoy, the voice of his generation, the ultimate survivor-poet. Sarah and its follow-up The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things were the books you had to be seen reading in public. Everyone was wearing raccoon penis bone necklaces in solidarity (I swear I am not making this up). If anybody suspected anything, they didn’t say so out loud or to the press, at least not at the time. Authors are weird anyway, and LeRoy had had a tough life, so who could blame him for curious public appearances and erratic behaviour and having his weird British assistant do all the talking?
Journalists started to cast doubt on LeRoy’s identity in the mid-2000s. In October 2005, Stephen Beachy of New York magazine published the truth, then the New York Times followed suit in January 2006. Things fell apart after that. Former LeRoy friends and hangers-on started distancing themselves. A planned movie deal was shelved and Albert was sued for fraud after the option was signed in LeRoy’s name and not her own. Knoop published a memoir in 2008 detailing their experiences as LeRoy and being Albert’s puppet. There have been two documentaries on the subject, including one where Albert talks for herself. Both are fascinating and clearly incomplete. How can a story like this be told in its entirety when it’s built on such fraud and fantasy?
Authors have used pseudonyms before. It’s a proud part of literature’s lineage. Some authors like the Brontë sisters published their work under men’s names to overcome societal misogyny. Others simplified their names to look snappier on book covers. It’s not unheard of for writers to send someone else in their place for public events, be it to secure their privacy or just to f*ck with the public. When French author Romain Gary published the novel The Life Before Us under the pseudonym Emile Ajar, he had a distant family member pose as an author, even when the book won the top literary prize in France. Being a reclusive author is almost as good a marketing gimmick as being a major public face, especially in the our current age where we are ceaselessly online. It worked wonders for J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, the latter of whom turned his reclusive reputation into a cracking guest appearance on The Simpsons. Looking back now, there’s something kind of cool about Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop essentially trolling the pretensions of publishing. What better way to expose the star-obsessed hypocrisies of an industry that likes to claim it’s above such things (this was something covered with a sharp wit in Can You Ever Forgive Me?) Exploitation sells and plenty of people were lining up to cash in on this persona of an abusive victim and former teen prostitute heroin addict whose own mother was jealous of their sexual wiles. Check out the book section of any British supermarket and you’ll find shelves full of true life tales about childhood abuse with covers featuring crying toddlers and titles intended to tug at the heart-strings. Leroy’s work was just better written.
But the LeRoy problem was never just one of a little white lie about identity. This was a creation of pure tragedy, one with books sold on the premise of their closeness to truth. J.T. told people about his hard life and they believed him because that’s how good faith works. There’s a lot to be said about how the public consume human pain for entertainment purposes but Albert still created that pain, sold it as real life, then let it become a consumable product. People felt sorry for J.T. and Albert wielded that into free gifts, good contacts, and public goodwill that endured as much as genuine appreciation of the work. Albert gladly took advantage of people’s kindness Whether Albert intended this persona - or her phantom limb as she refers to J.T. - to go as far as it did matters little in the context of how famous she got from it and how the image she crafted was held up by this dizzying ruse. It was never a social experiment or attempt to expose anything: This was supposed to be real. You were supposed to stare in awe and confusion at J.T. LeRoy, a victim and artist who played around with gender and appealed to our most morbid curiosities about the human experience.
All of this makes reading J.T. LeRoy’s books today a curious exercise in that age-old practice of separating art from artist. Albert can write. Sarah is a bastardized fairy-tale that blends garish camp with agonizing social realism. A lot of it is very funny, deliberately so, and a lot of it is equally affecting as an emotional whirlwind. If you weren’t aware of the LeRoy persona or the ‘true life’ narrative being spun around it, you’d swear there was something almost parodic in how these characters suffer beyond anything else experienced in fiction, as if the book is making fun of misery porn like A Child Called It (another book that faced cries of fraud). However, knowing what we do know about Sarah and J.T. and Laura Albert, what could be sly commentary simply feels fetishistic.
Laura Albert is more public nowadays about J.T. and writes under her own name. She has promised a memoir but nothing has materialized. You can still buy raccoon penis bones from her website. Savannah Knoop is now a performance artist and co-wrote the screenplay for the film. They are played by Kristen Stewart while Albert is played by Laura Dern. Both pieces of casting are kind of perfect. You can still buy LeRoy’s books. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you make that choice, but I have to recommend reading them if only to understand the full picture, or as much of it as we’ll ever get. The J.T. LeRoy story is so much a creation of its time, that strange period in the early-2000s where Generation X started to get earnest and wanted to elevate its most vibrant voices to the forefront. I wonder if it would have mattered to all those starstruck fans back then if they’d known the work was the fictional creation of a San Francisco housewife. According to Vanity Fair in 2006, ‘sales of J.T.’s books have apparently been unaffected by his “outing.”’ You can’t beat a good story.
J.T. LeRoy will be released on April 26.
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