So, I saw Author: The JT Leroy Story, and I’m still thinking about it.
“No, I will never tell you what I know. Now, it is my misery; then, it would be yours.” Tiresias, Oedipus Rex
I remember when JT Leroy became a literary giant in the early 2000’s. Soon thereafter, he became a friend to many a celebrity, who praised his stories, and engaged with him as one of their own. The young author — who wrote stories about the son of a truck stop prostitute who was himself dragged into that world of “lot lizards” — had a similar backstory of survival. He was something beyond gay and transgender, profoundly abused, and recovering from the aftermath of his storied mission to either please or outdo his mother.
It started with free calls to a crisis line, where he began a long relationship with a psychiatrist who encouraged him to write. The rest was success; his was a new voice. The world of publishing and literature was hungry for it, and so were his readers, among them Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan, Courtney Love, to name a few. JT, shy, reclusive, psychologically fragile and damaged from his harsh life, quickly reached the level of success where you can’t remain unseen. You’ve got to promote books, and yourself as an author. So he donned a wig and sunglasses, and stayed close to his friends Speedie and Astor, a couple who had taken him in, and bravely faced the world as necessary.
Things are not always what they seem.
It wouldn’t be long before the rumors of JT’s real identity were researched, and no lesser a publication than The New York Times investigated and exposed the truth. The person portraying JT Leroy in public was a girl, the sister of Laura Albert’s partner. Laura Albert, a woman from Brooklyn, was the British friend/manager Speedie. JT Leroy was voiced by Laura Albert on the phone calls he would make (and record) — and most importantly, Laura Albert was the talented writer who wrote the acclaimed books.
Author: The JT Leroy Story is a documentary about the JT Leroy “scandal” that is decidedly from Laura Albert’s point of view. She, in front of the camera, explains most of the story as it unfolds. Her position, since the truth emerged, is that she wasn’t setting out to create a “hoax”. Instead, JT Leroy began as “Terminator,” the young, damaged boy who spoke with the psychiatrist over the phone who encouraged him to write as a form of therapeutic release. The complexity of why she would choose to impersonate this “avatar”, as she calls it, would require it’s own 1,000 pages to even begin to dissect. But the film leaves a sense that she understands that, as well as how it all “looks” — she laments that the people invested in and engaged with “JT Leroy” would feel embarrassed at best, made fools of at worst. Indeed, the fallout included a lot of aggressive hostility towards her for perpetuating the myth of the author who, it should be noted, only ever wrote clearly labeled fiction.
The outrage was that the fiction manifested itself in the real world, with JT Leroy and other characters in his life stepping out from behind phone calls and off of the author’s biography into the real world. It all went so smoothly until it didn’t; those fictitious entities possessed real bodies, and walked out among us, as uncomfortable with it all as they would be were they real.
The documentary will not satisfy those who want to hear Laura say it: “I fooled you.” In fact, in the midst of it all, many of the people embracing JT and helping him, must have known or suspected something was not quite of reality. Asia Argento, who produced and starred in the movie of the book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, was so close and enamored with JT, embodied in Savannah Knoop, that it is hard to believe at some point she wouldn’t have questioned the hips, or casually brushed a breast, or heard in his voice the biology of a woman. In his brilliant review, Godfrey Cheshire, who knew “JT” early on, writes that upon seeing him for the first time, he “decided that this person was actually a female (the hips were the giveaway).”
The film, and the story of JT outside of the stories written under his name, calls into question what fiction is for. It raises questions that Laura Albert is not necessarily responsible for answering. These questions are about the nature of “hoax” versus fiction, the psycho-social need to create a mask from great pain, the torment of seeing your work living in the body of someone else who is sought after by people who love the stories but are unaware that that body is not the person or even the author. It is further a commentary on the coming to terms with a public revelation of the Truth, of becoming a secondary character in your own story, of the foresight to record phone calls and of why there was a compulsion to do so. It is about the the mileage one can get out of simply asking someone powerful or popular or famous to simply take a look at your work, about the complexity that arises out of having to keep something going. It’s about that something going so far so fast that you can’t find the way to back out. It’s about getting sucked out of the mind of a writer into the world we share where the “celebrity” is more important than the act of art that put you on the map.
In the middle of this story that grew from a simple donning of a mask to ask for help, into the literary “scandal” of my generation, while the Author is out among the world with Speedie and Astor and everyone else at his side, cameras flashing and attention on every move, Laura Albert’s stated position on the end of the affair becomes clear: the books are the books. Those stories exist like any great work of fiction exists, and the rest of it just materialized outside of the pages, inside of people who had to put it physically into the world because the world demanded it to be so.
One of the things JT asks someone on the phone in the movie is why people are so obsessed with “memoir” as a genre. A moment, perhaps, not of his awareness, but of Laura’s. JT’s voice concludes that it’s because people feel more emotionally connected.
One time I witnessed an armed robbery at a gas station. I hung around and told the police what the getaway car looked like. The police told me that they had three other descriptions of that car, and all about cases where something had happened and witnesses “saw” things that others did not see; some saw things that didn’t happen, some saw things that didn’t match or make sense with what others saw. I think this is a metaphor for memoir. Anybody can write their memoir — their experiences, their life as they remember it happening — and still have a hundred million people tell them they are lying.
JT Leroy’s works aren’t memoir, though; but like all fiction, the Author is in there, herself, living and breathing. I hope that Laura Albert can now continue to write, as she has been, under her own name, free of the “scandal”, continuing to share the unique and personal voice she began crafting as Terminator. And I hope she writes her own memoir, not JT’s. I know JT Leroy would be a big part of it, yet it would be about so much more. I wish her the best of luck in these endeavors.