The 'greatest literary hoax of all time' remains stranger than fiction
Twenty years after she crafted what some observers have called 'the greatest literary hoax of all time', Laura Albert - the woman behind the JT LeRoy persona - told Donal Lynch how childhood abuse and gender confusion underpinned all her work
'To censure an artist for a forgery," Oscar Wilde once wrote "is to confuse an aesthetic with an ethical problem." All art, Wilde insisted, is "to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one's own personality".
Wilde was defending Thomas Chatterton (the teenage poet and forger beloved of Romantic poets), but Oscar's words seem even more apt for the strange tale of Laura Albert - a woman who created what has been described as the greatest literary hoax of our time.
It centred around JT LeRoy, who at the turn of the century was the biggest publishing superstar in America. He looked like a sort of androgynous Andy Warhol and was, as far as anyone knew, a formerly homeless, gender-fluid boy prostitute who had worked with his mother - also a prostitute - at desolate truck stops across Virginia. The story went that he had gotten the book deal which lead to Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, by faxing his transcripts from a hostel.
The books, with their laconic wit, gorgeous prose and themes of debauchery and abuse, touched a cultural nerve, and LeRoy was hailed as the genius misfit of American literature, a William Burroughs for a new era.
His success was burnished by his legion of celebrity fans, among whom were Bono, Madonna, Debbie Harry and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, who apparently had long late-night phone calls with LeRoy.
At literary festivals celebrities would shepherd this tremulous, fragile youth whose blatant disguise was explained by his chronic shyness. A question would be asked by a fan (maybe wearing a raccoon penis bone around their neck - a motif from the books). JT would whisper into the ear of the superstar to his left and they would speak for him: "JT says…"
In 2004 The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things was adapted for the screen by Asia Argento, who directed and starred, and seemed to be having a relationship with JT; they were spotted canoodling at film festivals. Gus van Sant, then the biggest indie film-maker in the world, optioned Sarah, and LeRoy was involved in developing the director's film Elephant, which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes Film Festival. LeRoy was credited as a producer. By then, sitting atop the bestseller charts and having won the biggest film prize in Europe, he was both a cult icon and a celebrity muse.
And yet lots of people could not believe that it was all for real. Nagging questions wouldn't go away. Was he a boyish girl or a girly boy? Was he really the author? There were rumours that Dennis Cooper or maybe Mary Gaitskill - both early supporters - had written the books.
Laura Albert at the Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah in 2016. Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.
The truth turned out to be stranger than fiction. In late 2005 and early 2006, New York magazine, followed by the New York Times, did major investigations into JT LeRoy. They revealed that the androgynous waif who appeared in public and in the gossip columns was actually a young woman, Savannah Knoop. The author of all JT LeRoy's works, the person who answered his phone in a honeyed Southern drawl and the puppet-master behind 'JT LeRoy' was, in fact, Knoop's sister-in-law, Laura Albert: a New Yorker, 15 years older than LeRoy purported to be.
"When that happened I thought 'if I kill myself now I'll still be an author under 40'," Albert says now, welling up at the memory. "I can see the narcissism in that thought, but it went through my head."
Harvey Weinstein took out an option on the original New York Times exposé and this was curiously fitting. "I was the Harvey Weinstein of 2005," Albert tells me. "I just forgot to rape anyone."
As media swarmed outside her house, Courtney Love contacted her and advised to do a tell-all on Oprah Winfrey's show. "She wanted me to ask for redemption and I said no," Albert explains. "She said to me, 'you're not really in a position to not accept advice from A-list celebrities' but I didn't want to do a celebrity tell-all. That was bullshit to me.
"What she didn't understand was that JT is a cordoned-off section within me. He represents something painful that happened to me."
Albert grew up in a Brooklyn that was, she says, as far away from the hipster paradise of the present as it is possible to get. "My family were like hillbillies - I didn't even know how to use the proper cutlery." As a child she was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend and a close family friend. Eventually she was made a ward of court and sent to a group home.
"I went through that growing up and there was a lot of silence and shame around it. I felt I was the most shameful, most disgusting person. Growing up in the 1970s the topic of sexual abuse was beginning to be raised but in the media it always came from a blond, blue-eyed marketable little boy or a pretty girl, like Brooke Shields or Jodie Foster. I didn't see any tall, fat Jewish kids; they were the butt of the jokes. I got the message that I was invisible."
As a child Albert had come up with lurid backstories for her Barbies. As a teenager obsessed with bands like the Sex Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers and Generation X, she would dress her thinner, younger sister up like a punk Barbie and send her out to shows with strict instructions about how to act and how to speak.
She herself had pronounced gender dysphoria, she says. "I badly wanted to be a boy; I would bind my breasts. My finest hour was when I was 11 and went to England. My mother won a competition and we stayed with host teachers. I had a short haircut and everyone called me 'lad', which thrilled me. There was no language for that. Even homosexuality was considered a psychiatric illness. I was sleeping with girls and in relationships with girls but you could never call yourself a lesbian. It was still a huge taboo."
The publishing world had become obsessed with author backstories, the more abusive and lurid the better, and the public treated memoirs as a kind of therapeutic pain porn.
Her way of coping was to invent stories, always told in a male voice. She had gotten the message that this would be taken more seriously than her real self. "It was always a male protagonist. I won a competition writing in a male voice. My mother wrote in a male voice too, but when publishers found out she wasn't a man and wasn't fuck-able, that was it. What I did wasn't new."
In her twenties she moved to San Francisco and worked as a phone sex operator. The survival tactic of inventing personae for herself continued. Sometimes these bled from the page into real life, and the amorphous identities and ready descriptions of degradation came easily. In 1993, when she was 28, she rang a teen suicide hotline and the call was answered by a Dr Terrence Owens.
Owens encouraged her to call back, again and again, to the point where her life began to revolve around the calls. Albert described her character's (fictional) experiences in those phone calls, and Owens urged her to write. Albert sent him her writings and Owens was impressed. And Albert used the persona to reach out to established writers whom she admired.
She says this wasn't all wholesome mentoring. "Some of the people who screamed the loudest after it all came out were having phone sex with me! JT was their ideal boy. We talked about autoerotic asphyxiation, everything. Afterward people were saying I took advantage of them. Please. Think about it. There were so many people who came into the whole thing because it made their dick hard."
When she started to write she had to keep the character in hiding (she could hardly impersonate a teenage boy in real life), and so she eventually came up with the pseudonym of JT LeRoy - and she presented herself as his British friend and go-between, calling herself Speedie.
The moment was ripe for a JT LeRoy-type character. The publishing world had become obsessed with author backstories, the more abusive and lurid the better, and the public treated memoirs as a kind of therapeutic pain porn. Media from all over the world clamoured for a piece of the beautiful boy prince. Albert realised that the need for public appearances by JT could no longer be put on the long finger. And so she 'cast' her partner Geoff Knoop's half-sister Savannah (who had been a waitress beforehand) for the role; Albert (as Speedie, complete with dodgy cockney accent) and Geoff (as JT's boyfriend, named Astor) were the entourage. After this happened Albert noticed that the new celebrity admirers tended to treat her as a kind of tiresome hanger-on. Madonna was "a cunt" to her.
Exceptions to this were Bono and the Edge. "When I met them they were chill with me. I was this non-thin, non-fabulous woman hovering in the background and Bono put up with me being there. But he never really met me, because Speedie was a character too. It was like someone meeting Daniel Day-Lewis while he is in character; they've never really met him."
Bono and the Edge were the only two celebs who did not treat her as a 'tiresome hanger on'
While Laura got "fatter and fatter", JT was her avatar. "I could put him out in the world where it was made safe for me, through him, to say things."
"I found different host bodies until he finally settled into one, like locating that rare impossible blood-donor match," she later wrote. "I finally had a human Barbie doll to connect the story in varying dimensions."
People attempted to get close to LeRoy in all sorts of ways - "you wouldn't believe the amount of people who offered him drugs," Albert recalls - and, after a while, Savannah began to almost believe the story they had concocted.
"She fell in love with Asia Argento and she thought Asia was in love with something very special about her. Savannah was on the red carpet at Cannes in front of Angelina Jolie and she started to believe it was all about her. She was later interviewed and she had nothing to say about JT.
"They asked her 'why did they believe you?' and she said 'because I said it' - but it wasn't thought through.
"She thought it was about wigs and sunglasses, but none of it makes sense without the work."
As JT became a bigger and bigger star, Laura herself slowly became more glamorous. She was a writer on the HBO series Deadwood and she began to play in a band, Thistle, which would perform at JT readings. She says that emotionally surviving the uncovering of her identity was only made bearable because she had lost a lot of weight, the result of gastric band surgery.
"The outing had to happen when it did," she says. "If it had happened when I was fat and hideous I wouldn't have been able to survive the shame."
Albert was steadfast in her refusal to cash in on the big reveal. When Steven Shainberg, who had been lined up to direct the film version of Sarah, learned of Albert's identity, an inspiration came to him to make a 'meta-film', a triple-layered movie that would blend the novel with the lives of its real and purported authors in a project he took to calling 'Sarah Plus'. It was reported that this new project required the rights to Albert's story, rights that she in no uncertain terms refused to grant.
In June 2007 the film company behind Sarah sued Albert for fraud, claiming that a contract she signed in LeRoy's name to make a feature film of Sarah was null and void. A jury found against Albert to the sum of $116,500, holding that the use of the pseudonym to sign the film rights contract was fraudulent. By then most of her celebrity friends had deserted her. With a few exceptions - she remains in touch with Shirley Manson of Garbage - she was, she says, persona non grata.
And yet with the benefit of hindsight it's hard to disagree with her when she says: "As a writer, I should be able to write in any voice I like."
The books stand the test of time, and in some ways seem more modern than ever.
"They were the first books to deal with these issues. Nobody had really written about trans issues or identities until then," Albert says. "A lot of kids, if you give them the movies and the books… they understand it, they understand the idea of an avatar. They understand curating other identities; they grew up playing video games where they were a different gender."
She says part of the outrage stemmed from the idea that the ruse was all there was.
"People are convinced they're going to write a bestseller that will puncture the crème brûlée of popular consciousness, and it's kind of amazing that they have that belief. People wouldn't go to a ballet and say 'I could do that' or go to a restaurant and eat a beautiful soufflé and think 'I could make that' - but they think it with writing. So there was this idea that anyone could have done what I did."
Today Laura lives in LA. She still makes her living from writing and is working on a memoir. She remains friends with Geoff Knoop, with whom she has a college-aged son, but she and Savannah are no longer in touch. "She is on her path," Albert says. "She needs to let go of JT LeRoy."
Is that possible for Laura?
Perhaps, like Wilde himself, scandal has now become part of her own lore and helped her transmute personal pain. The books and the outing formed a kind of catharsis, she says. They helped her cope with the long shadows cast by childhood abuse and the body image issues she dealt with as an adult. She continues to maintain that the persona she created was, in fact, a facet of her.
"There are people who want the books to be buried, but the truth was there in the stories," she adds. "When a child is abused they become manipulative and seductive. They learn to tell stories. And some of those stories might be really good."
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