As certain as I am, my prose, fiction and poetry, will not change the world. I am just as certain that, I have touched another’s life.
My hurt is my hurt…alone. My struggles have been my struggles. I am somewhat of a recluse and…that satisfies me. My writing has always been a source of vindication for the psyche. A cathartic look at all that is ‘good’ in my soul…and, all that is bad.
Not sure what space I had been in when J.T LeRoy hit the big time. But his/her story-line makes for a few difficult questions:
Why do I write?
What am I looking for?
Does fame and fortune…really set me free?
In the late 90s, JT LeRoy’s autobiographical tales of abuse as a young man became cult hits, beloved of celebrities from Lou Reed to Winona Ryder. Then the baffling story of the author’s true identity emerged. A new film reveals the makings of the myth.
It was one of the strangest post-screening Q&As I’ve ever attended. It was the 2005 London Lesbian and Gay film festival. Among those on stage were Asia Argento, director and star of a movie called The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and JT LeRoy, author of the cult novel from which it was adapted. Plus someone called Emily Frasier. No one was quite sure who she was. The movie itself was a sleazy slice of southern gothic, ostensibly based on JT LeRoy’s own shockingly traumatic boyhood. Dragged away from his foster parents by his truck-stop prostitute mother (played by Argento), he is put through a gruelling gamut of rape, assault, exploitation, religious indoctrination and general abuse, at one point seducing his mother’s boyfriend (played by Marilyn Manson) while dressed as her.
Nothing in the film was as memorable as JT LeRoy himself: a slight, effeminate figure in a red fedora, big sunglasses and a blond wig. He looked like a skinny, white Michael Jackson impersonator. Everybody on stage seemed to be in awe of LeRoy. He was chronically shy, it was explained, hence the disguise. When a question was addressed to him, he answered in a nervous mumble, barely audible or decipherable. He would then whisper into the ear of Argento or Emily Frasier, and they would speak for him: “JT says …”
Variations on this bizarre ritual had been going on for several years, since LeRoy first appeared on the literary scene. LeRoy seemed to hit a cultural nerve with his lyrical, autobiographical prose, which revealed a West Virginian ecosystem of drugs, tricks, crime, abuse, damaged characters and fluid sexualities. The literary establishment embraced him, and he was hailed as an authentic voice in American literature, a new William Burroughsor Flannery O’Connor – albeit with a backstory that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Oprah.
LeRoy was shrouded in mystery. Was he HIV positive? Or transgender? Nobody knew his real name (the JT stood for “Jeremiah Terminator”), or even what he looked like, since he initially refused to appear in person. In his absence, fans began staging events reading out from LeRoy’s books themselves. Famous people began to gushingly declare their admiration. Soon he had amassed an impressive following: Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Nancy Sinatra, Matthew Modine, Gus Van Sant, Rufus Wainwright, Shirley Manson, Jeremy Renner, Rosario Dawson, John Waters, Michael Stipe, Carrie Fisher, Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Tom Waits. LeRoy achieved what many artists dream of: cult status combined with mainstream celebrity.
Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario, was what you might call a LeRoy superfan. When I interviewed her just after that bizarre Q&A in 2005, Argento told me she saw her movie as a form of therapy for JT. “We had to get as much as we could right,” she explained, “and a lot of it was to do with the fact that I love JT truly as a friend. He’s somebody who will be in my life for ever. It wouldn’t have been the same film if we didn’t trust each other.”
The trust turned out to be misplaced. Before Argento’s movie was released, it emerged that JT LeRoy did not actually exist. Exposés by New York magazineand the New York Times asserted that the figure in the Michael Jackson get-up was actually a woman named Savannah Knoop. The real author of JT LeRoy’s novels was Knoop’s brother’s partner: a 32-year-old Jewish New Yorker named Laura Albert, sometimes known as “Speedie”, though she also called herself “Emily Frasier”. Yes, that was her on stage with Argento and “JT”. As Speedie/Emily Frasier, Albert had accompanied her fictional avatar everywhere “he” went. She had been hiding in plain sight.
“It was a fiction that went way off the page,” says Jeff Feuerzeig, director of new documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. “It raises the question of where does fiction come from? What is fiction? I found that to be interesting.” Having turned down previous approaches, Albert agreed to tell her story to Feuerzeig, partly on the strength of his 2005 music documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but also, she told him, “Because you’re a Jew and you came out of punk rock.”
Albert had childhood issues of her own, it turns out. She suffered sexual and physical abuse as a child. She was put in a care home by her mother. She had weight, food and body issues – which led to gastric-band surgery and dramatic change in appearance. Past photographs depict Albert as plump and round-faced, almost homely; in the film, talking in the present day, she looks like an ex-rock star, with defined cheekbones, and bohemian dress code.
Rather than the pen, it seems the telephone was Albert’s primary tool. She was a natural mimic. She developed an “addiction” to phoning child-protection hotlines pretending to be a boy, and would spend long hours improvising stories to elicit sympathy and attention, adopting a number of accents and personas. “I didn’t know who was going to bubble up,” Albert claims in the film. That’s how JT LeRoy emerged, almost by accident. A therapist (who had never met her face to face) encouraged JT to write down his experiences. By that time – the late 1990s – Albert was in San Francisco, following her dream of becoming a musician, but making most of her income working on phone-sex lines, which is where she got much of the material she later put into JT’s fiction.
Events began to spiral out of control when Albert took the step of recruiting Savannah Knoop, her boyfriend’s half-sister, to be JT in real life. They strapped down her breasts and put on the Michael Jackson disguise. In turn, Albert became “Speedie”, adopting a parody cockney accent. In retrospect, it sounds ridiculous, but nobody seemed to bat an eyelid.
Question is…fiction or fact? Abuse of power and need for fame? Belittling those who do struggle with their sexual identities? Stringing lies to the truth of abuse?
Albert deals with accusations of manipulating people tangentially: “It’s been a process. It’s healing to connect to people who had a first-hand involvement with JT and were upset by the reveal, to talk and find connection. The media told people it was a joke – that’s what a hoax is. And that caused a lot of pain in those who loved him. The loss of JT, the pain is valid, but to understand my motives allows a more complex reaction to be possible. And time has allowed people to come back to the work and let it be of itself.”
Sincere fiction or just another manner in which some deceive to have fame or fortune?