A Novelist's Novelist
Thursday, October 13, 2005
There's never been a literary enterprise quite like JT LeRoy. It's not just his career, which includes an acclaimed novel, "Sarah," a movie based on a short-story collection and credit for collaborating on early drafts of the Gus Van Sant movie "Elephant." It's not just his relative youth -- he's 24 -- nor the long list of celebrities and authors that have hailed him as a wunderkind, among them Bono, Tom Waits, Winona Ryder, Melissa Etheridge, Michael Chabon and Mary Gaitskill.
It's his life story. Raised by a drug-addicted mother, LeRoy got hooked on heroin in his early teens and worked as a "lot lizard," a cross-dressing male prostitute at a truck stop in West Virginia. He survived that ordeal and wound up on the streets of San Francisco, where a social worker found him in a psychotic haze. She took him to a shrink, who suggested that writing would be excellent therapy. He started faxing his handwritten pieces to well-known writers and literary agents. Before long, he had a book deal. Afflicted with a crippling shyness, he rarely met any of his admirers, and on the few occasions he appeared in public, he wore sunglasses and a wig.
Amazing? No question. True? Mmmm, probably not.
This week, New York magazine ran a lengthy piece that strongly suggests there is no JT LeRoy. There is, however, a woman named Laura Albert, a Brooklyn-raised, 39-year-old mother and one-time rock singer, who seems to have been writing or co-writing the work attributed to LeRoy -- and possibly playing him on the phone. The whole long affair appears to be one of the great literary hoaxes of our day, and it fooled a whole lot of people as well as media.
Including the New York Times, which last year ran a lengthy profile of LeRoy. In it, the reporter meets a 5-foot-5 person with a "girlish voice, his conversation punctuated with childlike yelps when something pleases him." LeRoy is described as a sweet, traumatized and streetwise victim, grateful to be alive and avidly networking with a welter of famous fans. Madonna, he said, had recently sent him a book on Kabbalah.
"I was feeling hopeless and she was really good at pointing out that if someone is in a rip current the instinct is to pull the opposite way, but you need to just go along," LeRoy tells reporter Warren St. John.
Who exactly showed up for that interview is an open question. In 2001, after rumors began to surface that there was no JT LeRoy, a diminutive character with a furtive smile and a black hat started to appear, every once in a while, at assorted events held in the author's honor. But the writer of the New York magazine story, Stephen Beachy, isn't buying it.
"My theory is that it's an actor playing the part," he said on the phone yesterday. "I've heard it's a relative of Laura Albert's."
Beachy, a San Francisco novelist, has been sleuthing this matter for months. His research found not a trace of evidence that someone named Jeremy LeRoy -- the T is for "Terminator," allegedly an ironic nickname he earned as a hustler -- lived in West Virginia, the son of a famous theological writer, raised by a mom who stripped for a living, as LeRoy has long claimed. In his piece, Beachy presents an impressive sum of circumstantial evidence -- no, there's no proof -- that LeRoy was invented by Laura Albert.
She's an obvious suspect here. LeRoy supposedly lives with Albert, and her husband, Geoffrey Knoop, and the couple's son, in an apartment in San Francisco. It was Albert who discovered LeRoy in traffic back in 1993, though according to the New York story, she did so under an assumed name and identity that she still uses -- as an outreach worker named Emily Frasier.
Beachy's research found that Albert was most likely behind all the faxing LeRoy did in the mid-'90s, when faxing was LeRoy's preferred method of communication. Beachy traced one number on a LeRoy fax to a guy named Paul Falotico, who reports that he was a friend of Albert's. Falotico at the time read some of Albert's own writing, and it touched upon the very subjects that would make LeRoy famous -- harrowing tales about neglect, broken families and pornography. She frequently faxed her hand-scrawled creative writing assignments to Falotico and asked him to type them up. That's exactly what JT would do with writers and agents when he began producing stories.
There's much more in the New York story and by the end, Beachy is on the phone with JT LeRoy/Laura Albert. "I reserve the right to grow and change my identity," he/she says. It's not exactly a confession, but it's not a total profession of innocence, either.