The other night, I went to the JT Leroy interview/event at Hugo House, hosted by Christopher Frizzelle. I've never been knocked out by Leroy's writing the way other people have, but left with a new appreciation for the writer (or writer-within-a-writer, as JT Leroy only exists as an "avatar" in the mind of his loopy creator, Laura Albert). Albert's stories about growing up as a serially abused, multiple-personality punk rocker in a New England group home, and becoming a fugitive celebrity, were revelations.
Among them: her and JT's relationships with punk rock itself (she thought it would be a haven for freaks and a land of equality, but ultimately found it misogynistic), other writers (with whom she had phone sex as her little-boy-lost persona), and the culture industry (which was, at times, also an abusive relationship).
The saddest detail, which was almost a throwaway from Albert: She worked for awhile as a writer for Deadwood and creator David Milch gave her serious and earnest encouragement.
That sounds like a small thing, but she said that growing up as a deeply abused child and young adult, she had a sixth sense for people who want to abuse—and that, pretty much up to that point, she traded being abused for some comfort and encouragement. She said she has a "superpower" that none of us "civilians" who haven't been horribly abused will never share: She can smell the abuse impulse wafting off of people like a stench.
Albert said that Milch didn't have this smell. He simply liked her work. Albert said he was unusual, even unique, in this way. And then she started talking about other stuff.
But that simple, small detail damns almost everyone else Leroy/Albert came across in his/her career—the writers who wanted to have sexualize little-boy-lost, the celebrities who wanted to suck some gutter glamor and street cred out of taking her Leroy under their moneyed wings, those who looked at his/her hideous stories with dollar signs in their eyes.
The most important thing about the Leroy/Albert scandal (though it's years old now) isn't whether Albert "hoaxed" anybody. It's how the big reveal about his/her identity actually revealed the ugliness in the rest of us.
Sometimes it takes a lie to reveal a bigger truth.
But that's not the only thing I took away from that night—I got another oblique signature to add to my collection of books signed by other writers.
The relationships in my collection between the signer and the actual author are always meaningful, even if only to me. It started with my asking Allen Ginsberg to sign a copy of Leaves of Grass. Then Dan Savage signed a copy of Allen Ginsberg's collected poems ("For Brendan, who never sucked my dick"). I have a Nathaniel Hawthorne book signed by Rebecca Brown (she drew a heart on the cover with the initials "HM" for Hawthorne's crush on Melville).
And at the Leroy event, I met a long-lost high school friend, whose name is also Laura. I thought she was a writer living in New York, but that's not who she is anymore. So I asked her to sign a copy of Leroy's Sarah. She wrote: "To Brendan. It's not fucking there. JT Leroy."
I couldn't ask for a better remembrance from that evening.
Christopher sent me his introduction and questions from that night, which I've posted below. In response to a question about Milch, Leroy forwarded me an email she'd sent to him (with permission to quote it), which is also below. And Brian McGuigan of Hugo House said they'd video-recorded the event and were currently in discussion with Albert about whether she'll allow them to post it on YouTube.
I hope they do. Even if you're not a dedicated Leroy/Albert fan, and even if you hadn't followed this whole story, they had a great conversation in a nested-Russian-dolls-on-hallucinogenics kind of way.
Christopher's introduction to the evening:
Twelve years ago, Bloomsbury published a novel called Sarah, narrated by a boy who longs to be a girl. He successfully pretends to be a girl for a long time, but he lives in constant terror of being caught. Like his mother, who has abandoned him, the boy is a sex worker, and it turns out he has somewhat magical powers over people. The novel combined transgressive themes about gender and prostitution and religious ecstasy with an undeniable sweetness/good-heartedness and just a touch of Southern magical realism.
Now, at the time of its publication, everyone thought that Sarah was written by a 20-year-old former male prostitute named JT Leroy who was writing about his own experiences. Partly by virtue of JT’s life story, but also because the novel is so successful rhetorically, sentence for sentence, Sarah was a hit, and it brought a lot of acclaim to its author, who was not, as we all now know, a 20-year-old or a former male prostitute. Unlike the narrator of Sarah, who was a male pretending to be a female, and terrified of being caught, the author of Sarah was a female pretending to be a male, possibly also terrified of being caught.
Also: “pretending” might not be the word she would use. Her name is Laura Albert. As she has told me before, and as I still don’t quite understand and hope to get closer to understanding tonight, JT is one of several people who inhabit Laura’s body and her consciousness, and he is very real to her—a human being with his own truth separate from Laura’s truth.
From what I’ve come to understand, JT did not come out simply when Laura was writing, as a mask to allow her imagination to flourish—he also had an active life as a conversationalist, corresponding with other artists, namely writers and musicians. JT wrote magazine articles and screenplays and guest edited an anthology of the year’s best music writing, in addition to all those phone calls he would make. Once in 2004 or 2005, I stood in the New York apartment of a writer who had just published an acclaimed short story collection and he asked me what I thought of JT Leroy, asked me to just free associate about JT Leroy, and I said, “Wrote the novel Sarah, wrote the short story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, is transgender or at least of indeterminate gender, is controversial, some people say he’s not real.” And then this writer hit the speaker button on his answering machine—this was 2004, right before answering machines went the way of horse-drawn carriages—and I heard this voice, this young voice, a boy’s voice, JT Leroy’s voice, talking about writing. And I went: “Huh, okay, so I guess JT’s real…”
A year later, the New York media started pursuing the story that JT Leroy was not real. By 2007, Laura Albert was in federal court, being sued for fraud by a film producer who’d bough the rights to adapt the novel Sarah. It seemed a little funny to me at the time that there would be a fraud trial over the contents of Sarah, since Sarah is fiction. Fiction means “made up.” And it’s obvious fiction. The assumption that Sarah was a work of barely concealed memoir was a wrong assumption, but that assumption about first novels is rampant—readers who want things to be very simple and who don’t understand perhaps how imaginative writing works try to oversimplify the fiction/memoir boundary all the time. Nevertheless, because the contract had been signed by JT Leroy, and not by Laura Albert, Laura was convicted of fraud and sentenced to pay something like $350,000 in damages and legal fees.
The suit was later settled for a smaller, undisclosed amount.
While the fraud trial was still grinding through the courts in 2007, I wrote a blog post on Slog, The Stranger’s blog, pointing out that the film company had bought the rights to a novel called Sarah, not the rights to the life of someone named JT Leroy. And I guess because Laura has a google alert for her name, she saw that post and she called me out of the blue—called the front desk at The Stranger. We have had a few phone conversations since then, an email exchange here or there, and she’s written a short thing or two for The Stranger about music since then, under the name Laura Albert, but tonight is the first time we’ve ever met. But here’s some local trivia for you: JT wrote for The Stranger back in the 90s, under the name “The Terminator,” long before I ever worked there.
Tonight we’re going to talk about JT’s writing career and Laura’s writing career. We’re going to talk about the labels “hoax” and “fraud.” We’re going to talk about the term “gender variant” and what it means to Laura—blurring the gender divide is a theme that’s prominent in her work and also in her life. We’re going to talk about why she never apologized and whether she thinks she should have. We’re going to talk about whether JT still exists for Larua—after all, if JT was an authentic part of Laura with his own truth, he might—and if so, whether he’s still writing. And yes, we are going to talk about Courtney Love and Mary Gaitskill and Dennis Cooper and Billy Gorgan and Madonna. At the end, there will be time for you to ask questions. I bet you have a few.
And Christopher's questions, some of which were answered and some of which became springboards for circuitous, grim, and funny stories:
Where did you grow up? What kinds of things were you reading as a child?
How old were you when you started impersonating boys?
You lived in a group home when you were a teenager. You were a ward of the state. Did the stories you picked up there when you were a teenager become material for JT?
Where did JT Leroy come from?
Before you wrote as JT, you wrote as the Terminator. Who was the Terminator?
Tell me about the creation of the novel "Sarah."
Tell me what happened when Vanity Fair called wanting a photo of JT Leroy, to go along with a profile of him.
In addition to writing fiction, JT had telephone-based relationships with other writers. Which writers did you seek out as JT and why did you seek them out?
Some people could say maybe were seeking out the friendship of more established writers because they might advance your career. Was that part of your motivation?
You have said you contain multiple people — not just JT but also people named Speedie and Emily. Can you talk about that?
In some interactions where you actually met the well-known person — Mary Gaitskill, Madonna — your boyfriend's sister Savannah Coop was there playing JT. So youd have this interaction with Mary Gaitskill, for example, and you got to ask her what she thought of JT's writing, and she thought she was talking to a friend of JT, they didn't realize they were actually talking to the person who wrote the novel — is that right?
Some of those writers have said they felt deceived by you. Did you think at the time: I'm deceiving this person?
What was your reaction to being convicted of fraud?
After the reveal, as you call it, or the revelation that you were a hoax, as the New York Times called it, the literary agent Ira Silverberg said that the detail that got around about JT having AIDS felt particularly manipulative. What's your response to that?
There's a history of novelists writing under assumed identities, novelists who've gone some length to conceal who their real genders — usually women writing with male pseudonyms. Why this long history of women pretending to be men?
Why did you need a mask to tell the stories JT told? Why couldn't you write them as Laura Albert?
A writer from Seattle who lives in Mexico now, who saw we were doing this tonight, wrote to me on Facebook: "Tell her demonizing men while pretending to be one is playing false, and damaging, and kind of unforgivable." Can you comment?
Tell me why you hate hearing that you are “fascinating”?
And Leroy's email to David Milch:
At Deadwood I was in pure crisis mode: a birthing of a new being. And you stood guard, allowing me safety through my labor, stepping in when I needed protection, to push, to hold back — to breathe.
At the start of Deadwood season 3, you asked me, "How would you like your name to appear in the credits?" I answered without a beat, "JT LeRoy." You gave your accepting, doleful, so-it-will-be nod. But months later you posed the question to me again — and by this time, the media had permanently severed the umbilical cord between my pseudonym, my avatar and myself. "How would you like your name to appear in the credits?" I remember I lowered my head, I could not look at you as I mumbled, "Laura Albert." I did not know even how to
pronounce my name, the very phonetics of it felt steeped in shame. You stood there and you put your hand on my shoulder. I was able to look up at your face and eyes, full of all the compassion of knowing what it is to move into oneself, no matter how tentatively. "That's what I had hoped."
You taught me: The secret subject of any story worth telling is time but you can never say it's name.
I'll post the YouTube link later, if it ever goes live.