J.T Leroy is My Daddy

Shannon Barber
Dec 13, 2017 · 7 min read

I remember writing that in a journal when I was a young secret writer. I wrote poems that copied the cadence and tenor of the beats, I wrote the proto-essays that spoke of my worst secrets. I read City of Night by John Rechy, I read Lydia Lunch, Henry Rollins, Dennis Cooper, Jerry Stahl, and a host of other work that wasn’t bullshit to me, I read writers who had things to say in ways that weren’t pretty or gentle.

And then I read one of JT Leroy’s pieces somewhere, I don’t remember where or how but I remember it scarred me. JT’s work cuts me and laid me out just like it did everyone else and I fell into the kind of awed love that made me feel hopeful and like I had a chance at something while, I burned with jealousy because I couldn’t write like that and so many of the writers I loved, who loved JT would never know my name.

I did what I’d taught myself to do. I read every word JT wrote that I could get my hands on. I studied it, I read about it, I remember writing in a journal why I liked it, how I liked it. And then I wrote my very first personal essay. It was, of course a hot mess, scrawled in a red glitter Wizard of Oz diary. It was a gory blow by blow about a terrible relationship-ish situation I’d found myself in.

I wrote it with gusto and terror. I wrote about how, as terrible as being abused was, I was happy to be wanted sometimes. My language was simplistic, I relied heavily on using vulgarity and explicit sex to hide my real emotions. It took me several weeks to write and I was so proud of myself when it was done. I typed it up on a computer at the library and printed it out, I read it in secret late at night alone and hid it deep inside my mountain of things.

Later, I bought a battered copy of Sarah from a used book store and read it in bed. It was so good, it burned and I read it every night for a month straight. This was pre-internet for me and as I dug up everything I could on JT, I was so in love and so jealous and in awe, I had no idea what to do with myself.

I did what was sensible. I wrote JT Leroy love letters that I burned after writing. I told my secrets. I confessed that, my only real desire was to be in the same room with them and listen to them speak. Things got weird. I was weird. I felt too much and had no idea how to express it to anyone who might be close to me, I told them about my gender feels and how much I wanted to run away with a beautiful madam from Montreal I’d met.

At the same time, I was expanding my reading. I was learning about the dark, bloody edges of literature and I got hooked. Profane works, obscene works, women that talked about fucking and getting high without shame and with lusty hunger that made me feel less alone in the world. One of the books that unlocked that place in me was a collection of essays called, Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage, and Desire. I had to search all over for a used copy to reread for this piece and the effect was the same.

I devoured these works. I felt like a little baby vampire sucking everybody I could get hold of dry. At that age, I was able to skim over the whiteness of what I was reading. Having grown up near Seattle, I was well acclimated to Whiteness and navigating inside of it without harming myself too much. It was on my mind that, I wanted to see this level of brutal vulnerability from other Black people. I wanted to see how it was done by people who looked like me.

In that age of pre-internet for me, I did what I could. I found things in the library, I listened to a lot of hip hop closely, I learned that the real beat of the Golden Age of West Coast Gangster rap, wasn’t just violence for no reason. It was the voices of people in pain and rage and Ice Cube is my Daddy too. I wrote in absolute secret. Proto-essays full of confused potato post-teenaged angst, terrible short stories that were the embryos of the work I do now. I told no one. I showed no one and I kept doing it.

The writer I am was being born. JT Leroy was my literary Daddy/Lover still. JT Leroy was with me this luminous figure who started out faxing famous writers and being shy and bold. The audacity of that brave person and the response gave me a hope. This was hope beyond anything else I’d been told or writing textbooks I’d read.

The hope that kept me writing in secret was that, if JT Leroy could be loved and accepted maybe I could too. The gender confusion, queerness, displacement, the bloody youth in JT’s work and their rising celebrity was the kind of representation I needed. I couldn’t have told anyone that at the time, I didn’t know how to express the longing but that is what it was. That hope sent me to open mic poetry nights in Seattle. It got me to save my lunch money or change I scrounged for stamps and paper to mail submissions.

Fast forward to me not being entirely aware of the rumors about JT Leroy. When I found out JT was Laura was who? I was devastated. I was still young and I felt like my best friend, my Daddy, my Mama and my boyfriend died. My entire plan for the writer, I wanted to be, exploded. I found myself feeling abandoned for no real concrete reason, my heart was broken and was adrift. As I recall, my little journals were full of despair and mourning and a deep angst I couldn’t name.

At one point, after having a story bought and printed I put those feelings away. I couldn’t touch them, I couldn’t read those stories. I gave those books away and continued learning how to write. When documentaries started coming out about JT, I watched some of them and cried. I mourned again and started to track my literary heritage.

What in my youth I thought of only in terms of angst and edginess and the raw, bloody margins of society, I’ve come to realize was the feeling of community and connectedness. What I wanted from JT and Stahl, Selby, Rechy and Rollins weren’t just their darkness and alienation from a society that threw them away or turned its back. I wanted to have a vision of myself and my place in the literary world. I collected them and their words in order to create a space for myself.

What I sought in them was representation. I was starving for a vision of a place for a queer, gender confused scribbler. I believed if JT could be great, I could be great. I could have a seat at the table. Looking back, I understand what hurt me so badly.

My envy of JT Leroy being such a literary superstar wasn’t only rooted in my desire to be a successful author. It was rooted in the idea that I would and could find a community, people who cared about what I was writing and how I was writing it. I wanted to have intimate conversations about the craft with writers I admired, I wanted to be seen and valued. I wanted to be loved by my community. The outing of Laura Albert in my heart shattered a vision I had of what community and representation could look like.

Ultimately, my post teen love/lust/angst was not only about the idea of fame, but the idea of someday being all the way out about who I am as a person, including my genderqueerness, my queerness, my Blackness and depression, etc. At the age I began finding Rollins, Lunch, LeRoy, Stahl, Selby, I wasn’t ready yet to be open about myself as a whole person. I wasn’t ready to show the world my dark view of humanity and myself, I wasn’t ready to be naked in the light of creating the raw and bloody literature I loved so much.

My longing for community and belonging, has often led me down the wrong path. I’ve grown into a purple lipstick wearing loudmouth. I don’t deal with microagressions from people and I’m not quiet about it. I’ve made enemies in the poetry world. I’ve been doxxed. I’ve been fired from writing jobs. I have rage quit publications. I’ve screwed up. I’ve also found myself a community of creators who see me and value me.

I am blessed in that I didn’t have to create a persona who could write. I have learned and grown into living in my truth out and loud and proud. I am a sweaty little weirdo at events I get invited to, I am not a best seller, you probably don’t even know who the hell I am. I am all that and I am happy. I am loved. I have a community I value and that values me in return.

Most of my writing life is what baby me needed. The little family of writers and other creative people I have gathered into my little world provide me with the type of intimacy, belief in my work, and reciprocity I was craving and saw in JT Leroy’s fame. Am I a beloved superstar of the literary scene? No. My writing life is not what I imagined all those years ago. And it’s all right.

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