True Lies

At the time he was compared to Jean Genet, but to be honest, the books don’t add up to much on their own. J. T. LeRoy wrote three. The first and most ambitious was Sarah, a novel about a gender-fluid child named Cherry Vanilla growing up among truck stop prostitutes in West Virginia. The lot lizards’ world is dangerous and dirt poor, but it is also—seen through the eyes of a boy who likes lipstick and cock—a queer utopia. Cherry Vanilla is instructed in the arts of love and adored for his girlishness by pimps, truckers, and older sex workers like his mother, Sarah. Cherry Vanilla slyly hopes to surpass her at her trade, and so he sets off on a dangerous adventure to a truck stop over a mountain ridge, where he takes on Sarah’s name and gender. Like Dorothy in Oz, Cherry Vanilla finds some of this new world beautiful, and some of it not very nice at all. Finally, he is rescued by cross-dressing lot lizards from his past and discovers there’s no place like home.

Sarah, published in 2000, was a surprise best seller, and LeRoy followed up with a short-story collection, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2001), which handled similar material with a grittier tone. The third book, Harold’s End (2004), was a slight fable about street kids and their pets buttressed by an introduction from Dave Eggers and reams of celebrity acknowledgments—but by this point, LeRoy’s persona had eclipsed his writing altogether, only to be eclipsed in turn by its unraveling.

LeRoy had turned up in San Francisco at the age of thirteen around 1993, abandoned there by his meth-using mother after a cross-country drive. Addicted to heroin and maybe HIV positive—the story changed a lot—LeRoy called a suicide hotline one day and connected with a psychiatrist who encouraged him to write. His talent was as obvious as his need, and he quickly found champions in the tight-knit queer literary scene in and beyond the Bay Area; soon he was calling writers like Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill at all hours, looking for emotional guidance and literary advice. (He spoke to these mentors only by phone and email, explaining that he was too incapacitated by trauma or illness to meet in person.) When Sarah—marketed, like his later books, as autobiographical fiction—became a cult hit, the author moved on to new confidants like Billy Corgan and Winona Ryder. He appeared in public only in a Warholian disguise of a blond wig and sunglasses, saying little and letting an overbearing British woman named Speedie, who claimed to be his assistant, speak for him. At his own packed readings, he would loiter offstage while a coterie of devoted celebrity fans read on his behalf. Then things got weird.

Bono and J. T. LeRoy in Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The J. T. LeRoy Story, 2016.
Bono and J. T. LeRoy in Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The J. T. LeRoy Story, 2016. Jeff Feuerzeig/A&E IndieFilms, RatPac Documentary Films, Vice

From early on, rumors had circulated that LeRoy was not who he said he was. Could he be a front for Cooper, who was completing a cycle of critically acclaimed novels about gay punk boys? In 2005, a journalist named Stephen Beachy cracked most of the case. LeRoy was the invention of Laura Albert, a forty-year-old veteran of the Bay Area punk scene. A gifted mimic who had worked as a phone sex operator, Albert created LeRoy as an alter ego she slipped into when seeking help from hotline workers. It was Albert who spent years on the phone with LeRoy’s mentors, playing both the writer himself and supporting characters like Speedie. (She wasn’t really British.) As LeRoy’s star rose, he grew into a kind of family business: Albert was assisted in the charade by her partner Geoffrey Knoop and, eventually, by Geoffrey’s younger half sibling Savannah Knoop, the figure in the wigs and sunglasses. A few months after Beachy’s bombshell, the New York Times solved the remainder of the mystery: It was Savannah—an adorable, androgynous recent boarding school graduate bumming around San Francisco—who had become a darling of the fashion industry, dominating red carpets without having to say a word, and seduced the glamorous Italian actress and director Asia Argento, who adapted The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things into a film.

Faced with these allegations, LeRoy tried to dig in. He insisted, in a final statement, “As a transgendered human, subject to attacks, I use stand-ins to protect my identity.” But the jig was up. Friends and fans poured out accusations of betrayal. The production company that had optioned the rights to Sarah sued Albert for fraud. The San Francisco Chronicle called the case “the greatest literary hoax in a generation.” And it was. The story of J. T. LeRoy has become a minor but persistent modern myth, a tale we keep retelling. Two documentaries on the scandal have appeared in the past several years. This spring, Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart starred in a feature called J. T. LeRoy; in a wink at the audience, Courtney Love played a Hollywood producer unconvinced that LeRoy is real.

The most compelling scammers of our age are figures like Anna Delvey and Billy McFarland, who acquire capital from literal or figurative investors by faking the extent of the capital they already have. The hoaxers of the 1990s and early 2000s were different. A string of fake memoirists, among whom LeRoy was only the most brilliant example, emerged at a moment when audiences couldn’t get enough trauma. In the wake of sensations like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, publishers churned out devastating true stories sometimes referred to in the press as “misery lit.” Opportunists chimed in with ersatz narratives as upsetting and neatly packaged as baby shoes, never worn. LeRoy’s clearest forerunner was Anthony Godby Johnson, who presented himself in his book A Rock and a Hard Place as a teenage boy living with AIDS after enduring years of sexual abuse by his parents and their sadistic friends. Johnson turned out to be the alias of a middle-aged woman.

Whether authentic or faked, the childhood-trauma memoirs that proliferated in this period promised unvarnished access to the real. Their jacket copy emphasized their authors’ helpless honesty and blunt lack of style. LeRoy, with his folksy diction, agonizing memories, and irrepressible youth, played by some of the same rules. But he was ultimately a one-of-a-kind creation. Like his persona, his work—always classified as fiction, although he presented it as autobiographical—embraced perversity and artifice. The children in his books are assaulted with adult knowledge, but they also seek it out. They are deviants with complex emotional and erotic attachments to their own abuse, sometimes deliberately provoking punishment from caretakers in order to feel loved or aroused. They lie and cheat for the fun of it, as though modeling LeRoy’s own extravagant duplicity. LeRoy camped up his own fictitiousness, sometimes claiming to himself be spreading the rumors that Cooper or Gus Van Sant had written his books. To Gaitskill he confessed, “I feel like this is just another hustle, like maybe I’m hustling the literary world.” But these announcements only amounted to part of the hustle.

LeRoy appeared at a time when queer writers who had survived the AIDS crisis were grappling with the shape their lives would take after the worst of the epidemic had passed. Recent documentaries suggest that, for all the complexities of the case, the community was deeply scarred by an unbearably simple extraliterary discovery: A vulnerable young person they had cared for did not exist. Those once closest to LeRoy talk about him as though they’d known a ghost. In the end, though, the most unsettling chronicler of the LeRoy years is Laura Albert herself. Since being exposed, Albert has consistently maintained that J. T. was not intended as a hoax at all. He was, she claims, an “avatar,” a second self she entered in order to process her own history of trauma. Albert grew up in a middle-class Jewish household in Brooklyn that she describes as physically and sexually abusive. As a teenager, she was sent to live in a group home for girls. She prayed nightly—as she puts it in the film Author: The J. T. LeRoy Story—to “wake up as a cute, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy . . . that a man would love and want to fuck.” Albert found solace calling abuse and suicide hotlines in the guise of such a boy. “It never, ever occurred to me to call as myself,” she remembers. “What reaction would there be besides ‘You’re fat and ugly and disgusting and deserve it’?”

Albert was not the only turn-of-the-twenty-first-century literary impostor to claim that the shattering experience of real trauma forced her to fabricate the imaginary kind. But we can read her in a different way, too. What if Albert, as she tells us over and over, really was channeling the boy she wanted to become? Despite having effectively lived a double life across gender lines, the author was never discussed as a trans figure in her own right at the time of her unmasking. We seem to have assumed that she was too loud and curvy and ornamented and even maternal—Albert gave birth to a son around the time J. T. was born—to be, in effect, a good candidate for something we might recognize as a trans identity. It seems reasonable to conjecture that Albert on some level believed this herself; that the prospect of transition seemed so distant, it was easier to invent a new person from scratch. J. T. LeRoy, the new feature film, takes this once-elusive insight almost as a given. The movie’s central conflict is not the tension between truth and falsehood, but between eager, jealous Laura Albert and quiet, self-possessed Savannah Knoop, a girl—now identifying, in real life, as nonbinary—who could pass as a boy.

Like Albert, I’ve long had dreams of inhabiting a soft, complicated boyhood, and like her, I’m not an obvious candidate for the part. I was obsessed with the LeRoy affair at the time, but it never occurred to me to trust either Albert or myself to know what we wanted. Yet when I decided earlier this year to take some experimental steps boyward, it felt less like uncovering a secret desire and more like recognizing the seriousness of a long-running gag—or like admitting my own sense of imposture might be real. Everyone’s an impostor, naturally; or so we say until we meet one in the flesh. This, of course, we learned from J. T. LeRoy.

Ari M. Brostoff is the culture editor at Jewish Currents.