Laura Albert’s “avatar” JT LeRoy, with Winona Ryder

The Honey Trap

When a sexy, transgendered bad-boy teen prodigy popular with the literati turns out to be a grumpy, frumpy middle-aged woman, the only question left is… are the books still any good?

“You might like this,” an editor at the LA Weekly said on a late afternoon in 2002, handing me a book of short stories, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Its 21 year-old author, JT LeRoy, had been raised in truck stops by a mother who was a prostitute and had himself been turning tricks from a very young age. Many in the literary world were convinced JT was a wunderkind. “The writing is supposed to be amazing,” my editor added.

I read the book over the weekend. I thought the stories passably good, by turns funny and harrowing. I also found myself trying to pick out the strands of the author’s biography in the narrative. JT was transgendered, a drug addict, currently homeless in San Francisco, and sick with HIV. The protagonist, Jeremiah, was some of these, too.

JT had a lot of supporters: writers and agents and editors and fans who had helped the reclusive young man via email and telephone and fax. While JT spent thousands of hours on the phone, he claimed to be cripplingly shy and often sick, so much so that he could neither meet in person nor appear at his own readings, where his work was instead read by sympathetic and celebrated admirers, Mary Karr and Sharon Olds, Lou Reed and Courtney Love.

“You know there might not be a JT,” another Weekly editor told me. More literary buzz: JT’s life story was so like the characters written by Dennis Cooper–young, sexually and dangerously abused by older men–that many felt it was a nom de plume for Cooper, or perhaps Mary Gaitskill, each of whom had early on taken calls from and given advice to JT.

But by 2002, JT had come out of his cocoon and was himself a celebrity, his photo (in wig and sunglasses) in Vanity Fair, in the New York Times, the books (for the most part) well-reviewed and accompanied always by the tragic biography.

In 2005, author Stephen Beachy published an article in New York Magazine, Who is the Real JT LeRoy?, revealing that there was no JT. A 40 year-old woman named Laura Albert had for a decade been the invisible impresario behind The JT Leroy Show: writing the books, dressing up her boyfriend’s sister to publicly appear as JT; being the person on the other end of the phone that listeners felt they intimately knew, the funny, flattering, sometimes smack-talking, sometimes suicidal kid with the honeyed voice and the awful past.

People who’d embraced JT backed away from Laura. They refused to take her calls. They took her to court. They had legal legs to stand on. The doors that had opened for JT closed on Laura.

When I spent time with Laura in 2007, for a feature I wrote about the decade-long deception, she claimed this reaction showed their misunderstanding of why she had not written under her own name.

“JT was my respirator; I needed him to live,” she said, claiming that she “contains all of JT’s pain, plus my own.” That she was not a teenage, HIV+, homeless male prostitute she saw as beside the point. She was hoping, in the wake of the reveal, that people would continue feeling generous.

This did not happen.

With my tape recorder running, Laura Albert attacked JT’s former allies, calling them misogynists, or hypocrites, or perverts, or jealous, or, in the case of Dennis Cooper, things so vile my editor would not go to press with them.

During our visits Laura proved to be a dissembler of unusual capacities, building larger and larger mazes for the listener to become lost in. The elaboration and obfuscation and attempts to dazzle were so exhaustive, I began to see this as her real talent (such as it was), and the books as byproducts created to keep the performance going.

The confusion she’d fomented—between character and author, work and personality, grace and aggression, fiction and nonfiction—was strategic and personalized. Laura knew how to find your soft spot, your vanity; yours fears, to take stickpins to your empathy to see how much you were willing to bleed.

I was fascinated at the scale of what Laura had pulled off, but she denied it was intentional; she had not set out to trick anyone; it was, for her, a matter of survival. And besides, she said, the books stood on their own merits; they were fiction. JT had never claimed otherwise.

This last is disingenuous. The JT machine worked hard to make sure the biography and the books were sucked through the same straw. But Laura is right about a book needing to stand on its own merits, and that it should not matter who wrote it, how it was conceived, how it was delivered. If you bring forth a brilliant book from behind a veil, it’s still a brilliant book.

Unfortunately for Laura and her work, when the scrim dropped, the work no longer looked the same. People who had seen genius realized they’d drunk deep from the biography. Dennis Cooper, who helped JT perhaps more than anyone, wrote on his blog:

“The fact that his books had serious weaknesses—rampant sentimentality, clichéd characters and storylines, uneven writing, etc.—was forgiven due to ‘his’ youth … ‘his’ emotional problems, ‘his’ precarious health… The books were always in some inspirational way souvenirs of this boy’s awful life.”

Dave Eggers, who had edited JT’s last book, the slim (and frankly awful) novella Harold’s End, told me that the compensations we make for authors are inevitable. “I teach writing to high school students, and every year, I have a kid whose writing is great, and I ask myself, is it really great, or do I think it’s great because a 15-year-old wrote it? You can never separate it.”

My time with Laura coincided with her losing a lawsuit and having to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars. JT’s books were no longer selling well.

That was nearly six years ago, and Laura has yet to write another book. At a recent event in Portland, Oregon, she hauled the specter of JT onstage (she now refers to him as “my avatar”), but the audience of fewer than 50 people seemed variously confused by the cursing woman in the floppy hat, hostile, and bored to the point of walking out. I don’t think Laura noticed. She talked and talked but engaged with no one. She name-dropped and bad-mouthed, then signed copies of JT’s books in the lobby for the dwindling few.

Nancy Rommelmann is the author of Transportation, a story collection, The Bad Mother, a novel, and The Queens of Montague Street, a memoir of growing up in Brooklyn Heights. Rommelmann is an editor at Dymaxicon, most recently of the novel Part of Your World by Gabrielle Chavela.