So, last night I watched the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. I’ve been digesting it ever since, and still am not really quite sure how I feel about it.
If you aren’t aware of the background story, essentially in the late 1990’s stories began to be published written by someone who wrote under the name “Terminator”, and they were quite good, actually. Eventually, a novel was published called Sarah; “Terminator” was now writing as “JT LeRoy.” By the time Sarah was released, I was working as editor of Lambda Book Report. We’d gotten a review copy of it along with a press release about the author’s background, and basically claiming that the novel was loosely autobiographical. JT’s mother, Sarah, had been a truckstop prostitute; and that was the world JT was raised in; JT was also very young and unsure of his gender/sexuality, and had also worked as a truckstop prostitute. It was a fascinating story, really; but at the same time it seemed kind of, well, off to me. People were raving about the book, and I didn’t actually have to assign it out to anyone: a reviewer emailed me, having just read it, and begged me to let her review it, so I did.
Hey, when someone volunteered to review, it made my life easier and I rarely said no. But I was able to keep the review copy that had been sent to us, and I read it in my spare time–when I wasn’t having to read something to review or determine whether it should be reviewed–and I was impressed. It was a very dark story, but very well written. So, I emailed JT to let him know how much I enjoyed the book, and to congratulate him as well as to let him know we were running a review of it, and since it was going to be a full page review, rather than one of the shorter ones we usually did, I needed an author photo. He emailed me back…and then another bell went off. The email was barely literate, for one thing: and while I knew editors sometimes work really hard with authors…it just didn’t seem to click for me. Something wasn’t right. And a few days later I got a letter thanking me for my interest in the book–again, a handwritten letter rife with grammatical and spelling errors.
And I recognized the author photo. It was an image that had run on the cover of a Dennis Cooper novel that had been published ten years earlier.
And since JT was supposedly only twenty or twenty one at the time…it didn’t compute. Had he been the model for the book cover image? But he would have only been ten or eleven at the time. Again, it didn’t make sense–but it was neither my place nor my job to question this, so I just let it go; and we didn’t run the author photo with the featured review.
As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. I did get a copy of his next book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but it never came out of my TBR pile, and I was no longer running the magazine, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I did occasionally see notices about readings being held of JT’s work–with big name celebrities, like Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, actually reading the work because JT wouldn’t do public appearances and was reclusive. Which, you know, was fine–but it was also interesting. But then he started showing up in magazines and so forth–always in sunglasses, and I also wondered if he was actually bald; because he was clearly wearing bad blond wigs. Again, I arched my eyebrows, but hey, whatever works. It was revealed that he was HIV positive, one of the books was being made into a movie…and then the scandal broke: JT LeRoy didn’t exist; he was a myth, a creation, and the person who was actually writing the books was a straight lady with a longtime male partner and a child, and the partner’s sister was ‘playing’ JT for public appearances and for photographs. I didn’t really see this as a huge scandal at the time; authors always use pseudonyms, and while there was some deception there–the woman pretending to be JT, the backstory, etc.–the bottom line for me was the writing was good, and the fact that it wasn’t autobiographical after all made the achievement even more extraordinary.
But the claiming to be HIV positive…that didn’t sit well with me. It was an insult to everyone infected and living with HIV; it was an insult to everyone we’ve lost to the disease. How very dare you claim HIV positive status to lend authenticity to your fabrication. You deserve to go to hell for that.
But I wanted to watch the documentary. I knew from seeing a review of it in the New York Times that it was primarily focused on Karen Albert, why she became first “Terminator” and then “JT LeRoy”. It’s an interesting story, and while I felt like the documentary was too busy apologizing and making excuses for Ms. Albert–the way she talked about all these different personas she took on–JT, his friend Speedy (which is who she appeared as in public with JT, so she could be there at the readings and everything else public that was going on for JT’s work)–it sounded almost like there was an element of dissociative identity disorder going on there; she certainly had the kind of childhood which tends to result in that particular psychiatric disorder. But she insists that isn’t the case; but she seems to fall back on a particular writerly trope that has always rather put me off as pompous and annoying: the notion that writers have no role in their actual writing and that the characters TAKE OVER.
Um, no. I don’t know where or why that trope about the experience of writing started or even how it got started, but I’ve always felt it’s a steaming pile of bullshit and whenever I hear any writer say something along those lines my eyes roll so hard they almost unscrew out of their sockets.
Don’t get me wrong; when I am writing, especially in the first person, I have to get completely inside the character I am writing about and channel them–but they don’t take me over. I don’t BECOME Chanse or Scotty when I am writing about them. They are a part of me but they aren’t me.
The documentary, though, is fascinating, and Karen Albert is an interesting person. Do I think she set out to pull a long con? No, I don’t. I do believe that it got out of control and she didn’t know how to contain it–and there were also money issues involved; why kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs? But I also think she doesn’t own her part in any of it; she’s so busy (in the documentary) giving explanations and justifying the masquerade that she doesn’t really feel any remorse about the lying and the fraud. She only regrets being caught.
Interestingly enough, the publisher of the JT LeRoy books have published new editions to coincide with the release of the documentary–which makes the documentary and her role in it even more suspect. Hey, here’s another chance for me to sell some books!
And she never apologizes for, or even tries to justify, the HIV lie. She makes the point that the books are fiction and they exist, so calling the whole escapade a fraud isn’t honest; she seems to think the more grandiose word “myth” is more apt to describe what she did with the creation of JT LeRoy.
JT LeRoy, though, was a fraud. The books are real, of course, and nothing can take away from the fact that she wrote two really extraordinary books. Would the books have become so successful had she not created the fraud?
We’ll never know.
And here’s a hunk to slide you into the first weekend of Carnival parades: