A few years ago everyone was saying “You gotta read Sarah.” This was a 2000 novel by one J.T. LeRoy. I looked into it. J.T. LeRoy was a formerly homeless, waifish cross-dresser who hauled around a fax machine and exuded the introverted weirdness/hipness of Warhol. Sarah was about his own experiences as the son of a Southern truck-stop hooker who regularly pimped out her son (sometimes dressed as a girl).
J.T. LeRoy seemed just a little too offbeat (and his knack for self promotion too well-developed); he just didn’t come across as anything like the horribly mixed-up and exploited kid of his stories. I didn’t buy it. I figured either J.T. LeRoy invented his story and his kooky image, or someone invented J.T. LeRoy.
This has happened before. Several years ago, the memoirs of a super-intelligent 14-year-old boy named Anthony Godby Johnson broke people’s hearts. Anthony had been horrifically neglected and abused by his dad, a New York City cop, before being adopted by the social worker who rescued him. But by that time he had contracted AIDS from one of the many people who had sexually assaulted him. The amazing thing was, his spirit and humour and intelligence had survived intact. His book, A Rock and a Hard Place, was truly inspiring. Mr. Rogers even wrote a promotional blurb for it.
Like J.T. LeRoy, Anthony cultivated special friendships with older, established writers by writing fan letters. He spent hours talking on the phone with Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City. It was Maupin’s boyfriend who first raised the red flag. “What do you actually know about this kid?” he asked Maupin. “Has anyone ever seen him?” Maupin asked around and discovered that, no, no one really had seen Anthony. His adoptive mom, Vicki, was very protective of him and didn’t allow visitors. When Maupin arranged a trip to the Midwest to meet his protege, Vicki canceled at the last moment because Anthony had to be readmitted to hospital. After a painful period of investigation and reflection, Maupin had to admit that Anthony and Vicki were probably one and the same. The preteen voice he heard on the phone was undeniably that of a woman. Ms. Johnson denies it – but to this day, no one has met her adopted son. Maupin’s novel The Night Listener (2000) is a thinly fictionalized version of this experience. (see my post “Anthony Godby Johnson: The Invisible Boy Behind The Night Listener“)
Before Anthony Johnson, there was Kaycee Nicole Swenson. Kaycee was a 14-year-old cancer patient whose resilience and strength inspired everyone who visited her website. She and her mother kept fans up-to-date on her progress via chatrooms and forums for over a year before some suspicious readers uncovered the fact that “Kaycee” was really a 30-something mother who had never had cancer. Kaycee was an invention of her own teenage daughter, but for some off-the-wall reason, the woman decided to take over the persona and pretend she was dying.
Now, an article in New York Times Magazine contends that J.T. LeRoy is probably a woman named Laura Albert. His early paychecks were sent to relatives of Ms. Albert, and J.T. (according to his website, http://www.jtleroy.com/) is the lyricist for Thistle, the San Francisco punk band that Laura Albert and her boyfriend started many years ago. When J.T. makes his rare public appearances, he wears a variety of blonde wigs and shades. The hoax possibility has been raised numerous times, even by one of LeRoy’s friends and mentors, Mary Gaitskill: “It’s occurred to me that the whole thing with Jeremy [J.T.] is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it’s a very enjoyable one. And a hoax that exposes things about people, the confusion between love and art and publicity. A hoax that would be delightful and if people are made fools of, it would be OK—in fact, it would be useful.” (“The Cult of J.T. LeRoy” by Joy Press, The Village Voice June 13 – 19, 2001)
I’m not certain that these kinds of hoaxes are instructional, much less “delightful”. I feel genuine sympathy for poor Armistead Maupin, who thought he was mentoring a dying boy and even let that “boy” call him Dad sometimes. But I have to admit I wouldn’t feel too sorry for Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper, Gus van Sant, Dave Eggars, Courtney Love, or any other J.T. groupies if he turns out to be a crazy chick. To them, he’s just a cool weirdo du jour.
Update: “J.T.” Could Be Laura Albert and/or Savannah Knoop
According to a recent New York Times article by Warren St. John, the question of J.T. LeRoy’s identity has been solved.
Sometime in the late ’90s, Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was rescued from the streets of San Francisco by Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop, founders of the punk band Thistle. The West Virginian teenager was homeless and HIV positive, having been raised by a truck stop hooker who pimped him out dressed as a girl. J.T. entered therapy, moved in with Albert and Knoop, and embarked on a writing career that is scarcely 5 years old but has already drawn fans like Bono, Liv Tyler, Courtney Love, and Dennis Cooper. His 2000 novel Sarah was semi-autobiographical; the son of a truck stop hooker named Sarah dresses as a woman and becomes his mother’s stiffest competition (no pun). The two Sarahs and an array of Runyonesque “lot lizards” distinguish themselves by wearing necklaces made of raccoon-penis bones.
Sarah was followed by a collection of short stories, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (adapted into a 2004 movie starring Asia Argento), and the novella Harold’s End. The phrase “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” comes from Jeremiah 17:9.
Soon an entourage of Terminators (“Termies”) was following J.T. around, wearing raccoon-penis necklaces. Shirley Manson of Garbage wrote a song about him, “Cherry Lips”.
J.T. penned magazine articles and lyrics for Thistle, but paralyzing shyness kept him from appearing in public often. When he did, he wore long blonde wigs, hats, red lipstick, and black shades, looking like a cross between Roy Orbison and Ivana Trump. He talked of getting a sex change.
Rumours persisted that Laura Albert invented J.T. But she’s middle-aged, and J.T. looks much younger. Then, the same month Oprah announced A Million Little Pieces as her most recent book selection, someone found a photograph of Geoffrey Knoop’s younger sister, Savannah. Savannah is a singer and fashion designer whose duct-tape purses were briefly the rage. She’s slighlty built, feminine, in her mid-20s… and looks unmistakably like J.T. Leroy, if you put a blonde wig and lipstick on her.
Photos of Savannah Knoop were shown to the handful of people who know J.T. best: His literary agent, Ira Silverberg; Lilly Bright, producer of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things; and his business manager. Each said, “That’s J.T.” Silverberg told the New York Times, “To present yourself as a person who is dying of AIDS in a culture which has lost so many writers and voices of great meaning, to take advantage of that sympathy and empathy, is the most unfortunate part of all of this. A lot of people believed they were supporting not only a good and innovative and adventurous voice, but that we were supporting a person.”
It has not yet been proven that Laura Albert is the true author of J.T.’s three books and numerous articles, but the fact that all of J.T.’s paychecks have been sent to relatives of Ms. Albert speaks for itself. Surely stage fright wouldn’t prevent J.T. from getting his own bank account?
Laura Albert and the Knoops have not publicly commented on the disclosures, but a statement issued by J.T. “himself” states that he is now a female and uses “stand-ins” to protect his identity. Whatever that means. This may fool a few diehard Termies, but for the rest of the world the Savannah Knoop revelation confirms a long-held suspicion that J.T. LeRoy, transgendered survivor of child prostitution and HIV, was just too beautiful to be true.
Update: “The jig is up.”
Geoffrey Knoop has admitted that cult cross-dressing writer J.T. LeRoy isn’t real; he/she was played in public by his half-sister, Savannah. The books were apparently written by Laura Albert, Knoop’s ex-common-law wife and co-founder of the San Francisco punk band Thistle. “The jig is up… I do want to apologize to people who were hurt. It got to a level I didn’t expect.” Knoop says that he doubts Laura Albert will ever admit to being J.T.: “For her, it’s very personal. It’s not a hoax. It’s a part of her.”
Update: New interpretations of “J.T.’s” work, and more revelations
Susie Bright, who once published some of “J.T.’s” work and put up with “his” telephone tantrums, makes an interesting observation – that Laura Albert’s writing is basically “slash” fiction (gay erotica written by straight women, God only knows why), though Albert’s descriptions of gay sex were sometimes violent, and much darker than your average slash.
To date (August 4, ’06), Laura Albert has not publicly commented on the hoax. Geoffrey Knoop, meanwhile, divulged more details of how the hoax was perpetrated for an online Vanity Fair piece, “The Boy Who Cried Author“.
Update: “I wish I could’ve had my own voice.” Laura Albert comes clean.
For the Fall 2006 issue of the Paris Review, Laura Albert finally spoke about the hoax. Is she sorry for making thousands of people believe she had rescued an HIV-positive, drug-addicted teen prostitute from a life of squalor and heartache? Not really. As her former mate, Geoffrey Knoop, revealed to Vanity Fair, J.T. was Laura’s alter ego long before she began publishing under that name. “I’m proud of the work. J.T. saved my life and J.T. saved many other lives,” she said.